Arsenal’s worst home defeat, but a quick recovery pulls things around. March 1921

By Tony Attwood

This article continues our series of Henry Norris at the Arsenal.

5 March 1921 was a designated FA Cup day and with Arsenal out of the cup but their scheduled opponents for the day still involved, they had no game to play.  And so in keeping with the tradition of the time,  they played a friendly: this time against 2nd division Nottingham Forest.

Forest had been relegated from the first division in 1911, but had already in their history gained three trophies – the FA Cup, plus the Football League and the 2nd Division titles.  However in recent years they had been lurking near the foot of the 2nd division and indeed in the last three pre-war years and the first post-war season had never once finished above 17th.  And this form was continuing for this season they were destined to end up 18th once more.

So this was not the most exciting team to find to play a friendly, and yet curiously the following season Forest turned their form upside down and were promoted by coming top of the 2nd division.  As it was, on this occasion Arsenal beat Forest 2-1 with Arsenal’s full first team on display save for Whittaker coming in at left half.  10,000 came along to witness the match.

Meanwhile away from football the Irish war of Independence continued is bloody course with the notorious Clonbanin Ambush in which the IRA killed Brigadier General Cumming.  There seemed to be no possible resolution to the conflict.

In footballing terms the next notable event occurred the following Monday as on 7 March the Football League held a meeting of its 1st and 2nd division members to confirm that there had been enough interest from clubs for a 3rd Division (north) to be formed (the 3rd Division (South) having been formed the year before), and thus they now had to decide which of the applicant clubs would be allowed in.

31 clubs had applied  and each was allowed to make a speech before the vote was taken.  It is interesting that this allowance of speeches is clearly mentioned for this meeting in the press and minutes of the meeting.   There were no such speeches mentioned in the special meeting that granted Arsenal a place in the 1st Division in 1919, despite various writers many years later claiming that such a speech was made by Sir Henry Norris.  When speeches were made they were reported.

And indeed Sir Henry did use this meeting as a way of trying to push one of his own passions: the re-introduction of railway excursion fares which had been abandoned at the same time as the league was put on hold in 1915.

His campaign, which was part of a wider desire on his part to see rail fares reduced to their pre-war levels in order to help commuters (a particular issue for residents of his constituency in Fulham travelling to work in the City of London) and to help those seeking work in this time of high unemployment, had had some success, with railway companies in Lancashire and Yorkshire reintroducing the schemes.

And it was appropriate that the Arsenal chairman should be at the forefront of the campaign, since it was Woolwich Arsenal that had made the “match special” a focus of their season.  Indeed it was George Lawrence, the first benefactor of the club, who set up and financially supported the first excursions for Arsenal supporters in the 19th century – very much something of a pioneering activity.  Before Arsenal started it up, away support was virtually unknown.

At the meeting it was agreed that the team that finished bottom of the second division would be relegated to the new division, and it was accepted that Grimsby Town who had been relegated to the Third Division (effectively the Third Division South) for the current season could move to the Third Division (North) for the coming season.

The full set of teams elected to the new league were Darlington, Hartlepools, Accrington Stanley (who had been one of the founders of the original League but had failed financially and removed themselves from the League, reforming as a new club twice in the interim) , Crewe Alexandra, Stalybridge Celtic, Walsall, Southport, Ashington, Durham City,  Wrexham, Chesterfield, Lincoln City, Barrow, Nelson, Wigan Borough, Tranmere Rovers, Halifax Town and Rochdale – along with Grimsby as noted above, and Stockport County who were eventually relegated from the Second Division. It was also agreed that one team from each of the two regional third divisions would be promoted each year, with two clubs dropping from the second.   The provision was included that any regional imbalance that arose from the relegations (for example if both teams relegated were in the south), clubs in the Midlands could be moved from the Third Division South to the North section (or of course vice versa).

Meanwhile back with Arsenal,  on 7 March Fred Pagnam was sold to Cardiff.  For details of this, and other stories which involve allegations against Sir Henry Norris please see the list of articles at the foot of this piece.

Now, with all the administration done, Arsenal made ready to continue their first division career.  The league table before Arsenal played its first league game of the month (remembering that some clubs had completed matches on the first Saturday of March, looked thus:

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Burnley 30 19 8 3 66 23 2.870 46
2 Newcastle United 30 17 6 7 54 29 1.862 40
3 Liverpool 30 15 9 6 52 27 1.926 39
4 Everton 31 14 10 7 49 39 1.256 38
5 Bolton Wanderers 30 12 12 6 53 37 1.432 36
6 Manchester City 30 16 4 10 47 38 1.237 36
7 Middlesbrough 30 13 8 9 40 38 1.053 34
8 Tottenham Hotspur 30 14 5 11 60 41 1.463 33
9 Manchester United 30 12 7 11 50 50 1.000 31
10 Arsenal 29 10 10 9 43 43 1.000 30
11 Bradford City 30 9 11 10 42 41 1.024 29
12 Blackburn Rovers 30 8 12 10 40 41 0.976 28
13 Sunderland 30 10 8 12 43 48 0.896 28
14 West Bromwich Albion 29 9 10 10 36 43 0.837 28
15 Aston Villa 31 11 6 14 45 60 0.750 28
16 Chelsea 28 10 7 11 31 38 0.816 27
17 Preston North End 28 10 5 13 40 39 1.026 25
18 Huddersfield Town 31 8 7 16 25 41 0.610 23
19 Sheffield United 33 5 13 15 28 54 0.519 23
20 Oldham Athletic 30 5 12 13 35 68 0.515 22
21 Derby County 30 3 13 14 25 42 0.595 19
22 Bradford Park Avenue 30 5 7 18 32 56 0.571 17

Arsenal had slipped to 10th through having not played the previous weekend as we have seen and the gap to the clubs above was, although not insurmountable, liable to be difficult to climb.  More of the same probably meant staying in 9th or 10th.

On 11 March much was made of the fact that Queen Mary became the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.  However those educated to degree level in London noted that ten years previously over one third of degrees being awarded by the University of London were awarded to women.

The following day, 12 March saw Highbury being used for the annual Football League vs Scottish League match.  The Football League won 1-0, with Charlie Buchan scoring.   Arsenal were (obviously) away – on this occasion at Burnley, where they lost 1-0 with 30,000 in the crowd.  Given that Burnley were runaway leaders at this time, and top scorers in the League (having already scored 23 more goals than Arsenal) the result was not unexpected, and Arsenal might have been pleased to have held Burnley to just one goal.  Arsenal however slipped down to 12th.

The following Tuesday (15 March) saw Sir Henry resign as the LCC representative on one of the charities active in Fulham.  I do not mention this as a matter of significance in itself, but rather as a sign of what was starting to happen.  Very slowly, Sir Henry was divesting himself of roles (invariably unpaid) that over time he had agreed to take on.  There were so many of these that it is very hard to keep track of them all, and we noted that during the latter part of the war Sir Henry missed many LCC meetings – which I have assumed was due to their clashing with his ever increasing work in the War Office, for which he was notably rewarded by his rise in rank.   Now he was making the reverse journey – divesting himself of some of the tasks he had been given along the way.

Two days later there was another resignation – although completely unconnected.  Sir Henry’s party leader in Parliament, Andrew Bonar Law, resigned due to ill health.  Equally unrelated Dr Marie Stopes opened the UK’s first birth control clinic – it was in Holloway, close to Arsenal’s ground.

On 19 March as Arsenal prepared to take on Burnley in the re-match at Highbury there was yet more news from the Irish War of Independence as British troops failed properly to encircle an outnumbered group of IRA volunteers in County Cork, leading to deaths on each side but more for the British troops.

At the same time 45,000 packed into Highbury to see Arsenal hold the league leaders to a creditable 1-1 draw.  But despite the result Arsenal slipped further down the league and were now 13th, although being 10 points above the first relegation spot and with a game in hand, there was no concern about the slippage.   It was Burnley’s 28th consecutive game unbeaten in the league.

The following Monday saw Austen Chamberlain become the new Conservative leader, while in yet another ambush in Ireland (the Headford Ambush) the IRA killed at least nine British soldiers.

Back with the football, the clubs moved into their Easter matches, which like Christmas, involved playing two or three games in three or four days.  And at Highbury it was a disaster as Arsenal lost 2-6 to Sheffield United.  Up to this point Sheffield United were the only club in the league without an away win.  It was also the first time ever Arsenal conceded six in a home league match, overtaking the 0-5 home defeat to Liverpool in the club’s very first league season as arguably the worst home match for the club.

The newspaper report of the match suggests it was simply one of those days when everything that could go wrong, went wrong, and Arsenal could not find in their ranks a leader to pull the team together and fight back, rather than let matters fall further and further apart.  At half time Arsenal were 1-2 down, and Sheffield United buoyant, ready to pull everyone back into defence to hold on to that lead.   As Arsenal poured forward to equalise, United broke through and scored the third, and from there on Arsenal somewhat lost the plot.

Part of the explanation for this can be found in the introduction of three inexperienced players simultaneously into the team for the next match, Graham, McKinnon and Groves all dropping out, suggesting that all three (or at least some of the three) picked up injuries during the course of this match.  I can’t find another explanation but dropping three established professionals together if they had not been injured seems a little unlikely unless the manager was so whacky that he thought he could get away humiliating them together.

One thing we do know what that it was in fact the last game for Arsenal for Groves.  That he didn’t move on until August 1921 suggests that he might have been injured, but either way he had played 53 games scoring six in the league and one in the cup – and indeed he played 133 wartime games for the club.

Fred was 30 at the time, and transferred to Brighton and Hove Albion for whom he played for three years and then Charlton in 1924/5, followed by Dartford, after which he vanishes completely from the radar.

In subsequent games covering for these players Alex McKenzie made his debut at inside right, Tom Whittaker made his first appearance of the season at left half (his one appearance in the previous campaign was at centre forward), and EJ North made his second appearance of the campaign at centre forward.

However the Islington Daily Gazette had a different view and suggested that the changes made for the next game were made by the directors, not by the manager – but there is no evidence for this and had it been the case I suspect that the manager, Knighton, would have mentioned it.   Could there have been a monumental collective failure by such experienced players suddenly in one match? Maybe – and of course I am merely looking back from almost 100 years in the future so I can’t be sure.  But I suspect there was more to it than that.

Whatever the situation, Arsenal had two games left in the month – both against West Bromwich Albion, one of the lower ranking teams in the league (despite being last season’s champions).  On 28th, Arsenal beat them 2-1 at Highbury and the following day repeated the feat 4-3 at the Hawthorns.  These two games in fact were the first of seven successive games undefeated for the club.   Whatever the cause of the problems against Sheffield United, and whatever the solution – the recovery happened.

As a result Arsenal ended the month back in 9th.

And that was it for the football, but not for the nation for with the night shift of 31 March / 1 April the nation’s miners went on strike.  Coal was quickly in short supply, and as we have seen with the last miners’ strike that could soon mean difficulties for clubs to get to away games.  However in such matters the League was always intransigent.  The games would go ahead, no matter what.

Here is how the league table stood on 31 March.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Burnley 35 22 9 4 72 27 2.667 53
2 Liverpool 35 16 12 7 55 30 1.833 44
3 Newcastle United 35 18 8 9 60 36 1.667 44
4 Bolton Wanderers 35 15 14 6 66 45 1.467 44
5 Manchester City 34 19 4 11 54 42 1.286 42
6 Tottenham Hotspur 34 17 6 11 65 42 1.548 40
7 Everton 35 15 10 10 58 50 1.160 40
8 Middlesbrough 35 14 9 12 45 46 0.978 37
9 Arsenal 34 12 11 11 52 55 0.945 35
10 Bradford City 35 10 14 11 51 50 1.020 34
11 Blackburn Rovers 35 10 14 11 52 52 1.000 34
12 Sunderland 35 13 8 14 49 52 0.942 34
13 Chelsea 34 12 9 13 41 46 0.891 33
14 Manchester United 35 12 9 14 54 61 0.885 33
15 Aston Villa 36 13 7 16 53 67 0.791 33
16 West Bromwich Albion 35 10 12 13 44 53 0.830 32
17 Preston North End 32 12 6 14 49 44 1.114 30
18 Huddersfield Town 35 11 8 16 32 43 0.744 30
19 Sheffield United 37 6 15 16 38 61 0.623 27
20 Oldham Athletic 35 6 14 15 39 77 0.506 26
21 Derby County 35 4 13 18 27 49 0.551 21
22 Bradford Park Avenue 35 6 8 21 38 66 0.576 20

And finally the list of games Arsenal played in the month

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd Pos
05/03/1921 Nottingham Forest (Friendly) H W 2-1 10,000 10
12/03/1921 Burnley A L 0-1 30,000 12
19/03/1921 Burnley H D 1-1 45,000 13
26/03/1921 Sheffield United H L 2-6 30,000 14
28/03/1921 West Bromwich Albion H W 2-1 20,000 11
29/03/1921 West Bromwich Albion A W 4-3 23,650 9

This article comes from the series “Henry Norris at the Arsenal”

Perhaps the most popular element in the Norris story is that of Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919.  The most complete review of this, which puts right the numerous misunderstandings of the events of that year appears, and most importantly cites contemporary articles and reports, such as the minutes of the FA meeting where the promotion was confirmed, and the reports in local papers thereafter, here in these two sets of articles…

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation


Here’s the year by year account.  I’m trying to add two articles a week.

The Henry Norris Files Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

Section 7: – 1916

Section 8: 1917

Section 9: 1918 and the end of the war

Section 10: 1919, the reform of football, the promotion of The Arsenal

Section 11: 1920 – the second half of the first post-war season and onwards.

Section 12: 1921

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