August 1919: Arsenal return to the First Division for the next 99 years

By Tony Attwood

All focus in football was now on starting the new season at the end of the month, while on the political front the focus was on housing.  The government had offered to subsidise house building while the London Housing Board was discussing how to turn those houses already built but not fully occupied into flats for the working-classes.

Meanwhile the Third (and final) Anglo-Afghan war ended on 8 August and Britain prepared to grant independence.

On 15 August the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act became law and allowed returning servicemen to get their old jobs back, if they wanted them, and if the jobs existed.  It gave employers the problem of dismissing the workers they had used during the war, and bringing back their old employees, who were now full of resentment at not having the job to walk into upon demobilisation.

Four days later Afghanistan gained its independence.

And then the football arrived.  On 23 August the pre-season match between the first team and the reserves (generally called the Reds against the Blues) was played.  Fans were allowed in, but there is no record I can find of the attendance numbers.  The Reds won, as they were supposed to, 5-0.

On 27 August 1919: Joseph Toner joined from Belfast United for £200.  He was an occasional player in each of the years under Knighton’s management, and was soon moved on after Chapman arrived.

And then, at long last, four years and four months after the last matches were played, the Football League came back into operation as on 30 August 1919 Arsenal started the longest run in the top division in the history of English football by coincidence playing the same team that they played in their first ever league game: Newcastle United.  Now they were playing back in the First Division after two seasons in the Second and four years in the London Combination.

It was also the first league match as manager for Leslie Knighton plus the first appearance of Alfred Baker, Henry White and Ernie Williamson.

Some reports suggest the gates were closed before the match kicked off and that there were 60,000 in Highbury, although the normally highly accurate Fred Ollier goes for 40,000 so I suspect that is closer to the mark.  Sally Davis states that “some gates had subsequently been forced open allowing a lot of those outside to push their way in without paying.”

Ms Davis also points out that Jack Humble – the first ever chairman of Woolwich Arsenal FC in 1893, and an active member of the club from its foundation on, attended the match as a director of the club.  This was his first match since the start of the war, as he had continued to work in the Woolwich Arsenal factories during the hostilities.

The Arsenal’s team for the day was


Shaw Bradshaw

Graham Voysey McKinnon

Rutherford Groves White Blyth Baker

Of this starting XI all the players made 25+ games during the season except Voysey (five) and Baker (17).  Voysey was mostly replaced by Buckley, and Baker by Toner although Baker later returned as a right half.

Here are the results from this monumental day: the return of league football on 30 August 1919.  Arsenal is listed near the end of the list of fixtures in alphabetical order as the club was still officially called The Arsenal, and remained that way until November 1919.  (The story that Chapman changed the name as we have explained elsewhere, is completely untrue).

Home Team Score Away team
Derby County 1 – 1 Manchester United
Blackburn Rovers 4 – 0 Preston North End
Bolton Wanderers 1 – 2 Bradford Park Avenue
Bradford City 1 – 3 Liverpool
Everton 2 – 3 Chelsea
Manchester City 3 – 3 Sheffield United
Notts County 2 – 0 Burnley
Sheffield Wednesday 0 – 1 Hillsborough
Sunderland 2 – 1 Aston Villa
The Arsenal 0 – 1 Newcastle United
West Bromwich Albion 3 – 1 Oldham Athletic

There were 11 games, and only four were home wins!

Arsenal thus began their record breaking spell in the first division which up to 2017/18 had lasted 92 seasons (the “missing” seasons being due to the 2nd world war.  Thus in 2019 we ought to be able to celebrate the glorious 100 years – and with the knowledge that the whole story about corruption concerning Arsenal getting into the first division is a myth with no evidence.

Indeed so widespread is the myth that the MyFootballFacts site which is very good at collecting helpful data even succumbs to the tale saying of Arsenal, “They remain the only club since the formation of the Football League  in 1888-89 who never earnt (sic) their place on merit.”

Somehow this seems to omit the fact that the original 12 in 1888/9, and all the subsequent clubs who joined the league until the 1960s were elected using the same system as was used for the expansion of the league and the replacement of clubs that performed particularly poorly or went bust.  Indeed some of the stories are much more bizarre than Arsenal’s – and perhaps I might just give one of many such examples, as it comes from around the same time.

Part way through 1919/20 (the season we are about to cover) Leeds City were expelled from the League after eight matches of the season due to what were considered “financial irregularities”.  Then in an unprecedented move, Port Vale were “appointed” to their place in the league, and took over not only the remaining fixtures, but also the points that Leeds City had actually accumulated thus far from four wins and two draws.

Unprecedented is important here, because it shows how the League clubs tended to work – they solved the problems, often with novel approaches.  Although rarely anything as novel as this.

During the remainder of the season Leeds City FC reformed using the same ground and with pretty much the same people involved, as at Leeds United and were given a place as Leeds United straight into Division Two.

And “straight into” is important here too, because in 1920/21 a third division existed, and if Leeds United as a new club were being given a place back in the league we made expect that league.

Meanwhile as Leeds Utd were given a place in the second division so Lincoln City and Grimsby Town were ejected from the league, with Lincoln leaving the league totally, and Grimsby Town joining the newly formed Division Three.

Certainly, in terms of Arsenal’s return to the first division, if you have been following the story thus far you will know that we have covered the election of Arsenal to the first division on the expansion of the league in enormous detail, quoting not from imagination or modern volumes but commentaries written at the time.

If you want the full story the preliminaries about the match fixing which caused there to be a debate are here

As for the actual voting and the comments before and after the election these are covered in the following series of articles

The complete index of articles is provided in our full index Henry Norris at the Arsenal



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