Why did Arsenal manager Knighton turn down Man City but not buy players? Summer of 1921.

by Tony Attwood

June 1921 was not exactly a time of fun and laughter in the UK.  In politics the Parliament of Northern Ireland assembled for the first time as the Irish war continued.  In a Westminster by-election and “Anti-Waste” candidate (meaning against any government involvement in industrial redevelopment, supporting the poor etc) won the seat.

Unemployment was recorded as 2,200,000 on 10 June, while a further 2 million were involved in pay disputes, and in a sign of the times Sunday postal deliveries and collections were suspended on 12 June.  And there was a 100 day drought which did nothing for food production, and not much for the football pitches.

On 19 June the annual census of the UK was taken asking for the first time what materials those in work worked with, where they worked and their employer’s name. For those over the age of 15 information about marital status, including if divorced was required.

For those 15 and under the census recorded whether both parents were alive or if either or both parents had died. It also had detailed questions on education including whether the individual was in full-time or part-time education.  And for the first time individuals in a household could also make separate confidential returns.

On 22 June the King opened the new Parliament of N Ireland, and three days later the drought ended with heavy rain.  Two days after that the coal strike ended.  Maybe there was some light at the end of the tunnel.

On 9 July the two sides in the Irish War of Independence signed a truce to come into effect on 11 July, but before it could be signed, such was the hatred generated by the conflict, that on 10 July there were the Bloody Sunday clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast.  23 died in Belfast and the surrounding area and around 200 Catholic homes were destroyed.  The following day Sinn Féin arrived in London for talks.  Six days later the Ulster Unionists walked out of the talks.

And what of Sir Henry Norris during this time? He was now 56, and there is some suggestion that he might now have been quite ill – although Sally Davis reports that none of the Norris family have any note of this.

I certainly think (and I have to admit I am simply reading the runes and taking a guess) something was happening to Sir Henry Norris as a political animal at this time – and maybe something was happening to Sir Henry himself.  As we have seen in the war years he was a political man, a committee man, and a man willing to serve his country as much as he could.  This had culminated in his dedicated work at the War Office, and then his election as an MP.

But by 1921 things had changed.  In Fulham his local political party was in dire financial straits (it was not the only one such, many other local parties that had worked hard to get their man elected were now in deep financial trouble, and the traditional approach of asking the MP to help out, was increasingly falling on deaf ears.

And Sir Henry was becoming noticeably less inclined to be involved in debates or question times in the House of Commons.  In fact from 27 June 1921 onwards he is not once mentioned in Hansard – the record of the House’s debates although he was a regular attender in Parliament through the summer (the House continuing to sit through August) and he was active in voting on issues in the Safeguarding Industries Bill.  So he was attending, but not speaking – which seems very unlike Sir Henry.

He was also still involved in charity work and fundraising, and in commemorating the sacrifices of those who died in the Great War.  And yet when on 10 July 1921 Fulham’s war memorial was unveiled although he and his wife attended the ceremony he played no part in the ceremony.  And this was a man who, through services to his country rose from having no rank to being a Lt Col during the war years and who had gone to great lengths to stress the need for pensions for disabled soldiers and proper recompense for the families of those who had died.

But meanwhile, the world moved on, and in August unemployment did at last start to fall which would have pleased not just the men back in work but also the football clubs who were totally reliant on working men to populate the terraces.

The new season was to start on 27 August, and so as was normal, on the preceding Saturday 20 August the traditional Blues v Reds game was played at Arsenal, and the new roof on the grandstand was unveiled.  10,000 were recorded as present, including Henry Norris, Charles Crisp and William Hall.

On the following saturday, the team that Leslie Knighton put out for the first league match of the 1921-2 season was

Williamson (33)

Shaw (28)  Hutchins (39)

Baker (37) Graham (30) McKinnon (37)

Rutherford (32) Blyth (40) White (26) North, Voysey

The number in brackets is the number of league games played, for Arsenal’s first team, by each player, the previous season.  As we can see all except two were stalwarts.   Of the two players who did not play last season North had played four times the season before that and Voysey is once more the mystery man.  He had played one single match last season (in the FA Cup) and this year made this one single appearance.

After the first match Baker, Graham, Blyth and Voysey dropped out and were replaced by Whittaker (5), Butler (6), Burgess (4) and Hopkins (8) – thus in all cases being replaced by men with far less experience.  In the third game Shaw, who was becoming more and more injury prone, dropped out and Cownley (1) came in.  In the fourth game Burgess dropped out and McKenzie (5) came in.

Now I go through this rather odd opening to a season to make a point which will become clearer when I say that Arsenal lost their opening three games, scoring four conceding nine.  The defence which had conceded 63 goals in 42 (1.5 goals a game) had now conceded nine in three (three goals a game – double the rate.)  And this was largely because the experience had gone.

No experienced, ready-for-action player had been signed in the summer, and so Knighton was using at first the solid, dependable members of the squad and those he had tried occasionally the previous season.

Of course in one way the lack of transfers did not really matter.  There was no limited transfer window as now – indeed the first restriction (no transfers in the last six weeks of the season) still hadn’t been implemented.  True the League had changed the rules in 1920 so that players were no longer permitted to receive a share of their transfer fee (something that had been seen to be escalating the number of transfer requests) but otherwise it was a year long free for all in terms of buying and selling.

So players could be bought at any time, if a club was willing to sell.  But why had Knighton bought no one in the summer? His story was that he had been asked to return to Manchester City (he implied that this was to be as manager, but it seems incredibly unlikely as I explained in the article dealing with this), but (Knighton further claimed) Sir Henry Norris begged him to stay, offering Knighton the use of his flat in Westminster, a further three year contract and the Arsenal Tottenham game after three more years, as a benefit match.  A phenomenally generous offer for a man with just two years experience as a manager.

And yet what Knighton later complained of, was a lack of transfers.  So why didn’t he throw into the negotiations with Sir Henry, which resulted in him staying, a demand for money for transfers?  And if he was told no, why didn’t he go back to Manchester City to manage the club that had just come second in the League – as he suggested was the offer on the table.

In fact it is worth noting that the three items that Knighton secured, according to his unsupported (and in the light of the historical facts relating to Man City’s position at the time, very unlikely) view, were not to the benefit of the club, but to the benefit of him personally.  A three year contract, a huge pay-off at the end of it, and use of the chairman’s central London flat.

Why, even in his own testimony, did he not ask for money for the purchase of players?

The answer that suggests itself to me is that first, the story about Man City’s offer was untrue and was created 25 years later for the purpose of saying that he personally was cheated, and second, because his self-proclaimed network of scouts across the country all reporting back to him, were not bringing in the names of talent he could hope to sign.  If they existed at all.

Of course I can’t prove this, but if we take Knighton’s own account as being true, what we have here is a lot of personal benefit to this manager of just two years standing, but no mention anywhere of bolstering the squad, which as we can see, was vulnerable to multiple injuries.

And as noted above that was unfortunate in the extreme because in the opening games Baker, Graham, Blyth and Voysey were all injured.  As was Shaw in the second game.

The one immediate replacement who was available was Frank Bradshaw who had played inside left but now switched to right back – as Joe Shaw’s playing career came towards its end.  And of course it could be argued that no club could really cover four injuries in the first match of the season.  But even so, Arsenal it seems were not well prepared for injury problems, and as a result Arsenal lost five and won just one of the first six league games in 1921/2).

Ultimately a new player did emerge: Reg Boreham an inside left who first played on 12 December 1921, and quite possibly was an amateur, and thus came in without a transfer fee.  As he settled into the team matters improved and a fine run in the last 11 games of the season saved the club.

So, no summer transfers and the squad looking short of player as the injuries set in.  But before going further with this, let us return to the rest of the summer.

On 25 July Arsenal published its annual report, showing itself at last back in profit, to the tune of £5434 – about £250,000 today – without taking into account the particular inflation that has occurred in football above and beyond in the country at large.

The debt to Humphreys Limited (the company that had built the stand) had declined from £16,000 in 1919 to £3541.  Meanwhile the club had taken loans of £18031 from shareholders and friends of the club – something that was quite legal and normal for a club without a benefactor willing to put as much money into the club as was needed.

Although the club had no ready cash in the bank, it was preparing to pay a 5% dividend for the profit of the last two seasons: a reward to the shareholders for buying shares and holding on to them in the early days of the club in North London.  Of course Sir Henry was going to benefit from this, but that did not mean he actually took the money.  A common practice is to have the money rest within the club to help the club’s cash flow, but which was there for Sir Henry to take out as and when needed – or indeed when he pulled out of active engagement with the club.  And indeed we should remember it was Sir Henry who was very active in trying to sell more and more shares in the club to dilute his own shareholding, and repay the debts.

The opening game of the season saw 40,000 present including some guests such as the FA Secretary Fred Wall, E H King the mayor of Islington, and Mr F Korncrupps of the Swedish FA.  But the sign of what was to happen was there for all to see.  1-0 up at half time as the players started to get injured in the second half Arsenal lost 1-2.  White scored, and in fact in the first six games he was the only goalscorer for the club, getting all five Arsenal goals.

Here are the opening two league games of the season.

Date Opponents H/A Res Score Crowd
1 27/08/1921 Sheffield United H L 1-2 40,000
2 29/08/1921 Preston North End A L 2-3 25,000

In these days newspapers did not print league tables until the season was well under wall (usually not until the end of September) but had they done so the league table would have made rather grim reading…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Newcastle United 2 2 0 0 5 1 5.000 4
2 Sunderland 2 2 0 0 6 2 3.000 4
3 Sheffield United 2 1 1 0 3 2 1.500 3
4 West Bromwich Albion 2 1 1 0 3 2 1.500 3
5 Bolton Wanderers 2 1 1 0 4 3 1.333 3
6 Preston North End 2 1 1 0 5 4 1.250 3
7 Everton 2 1 0 1 5 3 1.667 2
8 Burnley 2 1 0 1 5 5 1.000 2
9 Birmingham City 2 1 0 1 4 4 1.000 2
10 Manchester City 2 1 0 1 4 4 1.000 2
11 Aston Villa 2 1 0 1 3 3 1.000 2
12 Blackburn Rovers 2 0 2 0 2 2 1.000 2
13 Tottenham Hotspur 2 1 0 1 2 2 1.000 2
14 Bradford City 2 0 2 0 1 1 1.000 2
15 Middlesbrough 2 0 2 0 1 1 1.000 2
16 Oldham Athletic 2 0 2 0 1 1 1.000 2
17 Liverpool 2 1 0 1 3 5 0.600 2
18 Chelsea 2 0 1 1 2 3 0.667 1
19 Huddersfield Town 2 0 1 1 2 3 0.667 1
20 Arsenal 2 0 0 2 3 5 0.600 0
21 Cardiff City 2 0 0 2 1 3 0.333 0
22 Manchester United 2 0 0 2 2 8 0.250 0

Arsenal, Liverpool and Man U all had the worst defences in the League!


Below are set out details of some of the key elements from the controversies that we have already covered in this series.  A full index of all the articles is published here.

The promotion of 1919, the libel and the subsequent allegations 

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

The Fourth Allegation


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