The Arsenal collapse of autumn 1921: Knighton’s curious positional strategy

By Tony Attwood

One of the points I have tried to bring across in this history of Henry Norris’ time at Arsenal is the amount of turmoil there was in UK during the post-war era we’re now looking at.  Mass strikes, demonstrations, revolt in Ireland, unemployment on huge scales…  And on 1 September one more action was taken which shook the country, as the Borough Council of Poplar in London refused to collect part of its rates in protest against the way rates were calculated: an unprecedented form of rebellion by those representing a poor working class area.  30 councillors were sent to prison over the affair and an Act was rushed through Parliament to try and help resolve matters.  Post-war Britain was indeed in turmoil.

And so it seems was Arsenal – at least it was in the third post-war season: 1921/2, for it was a disastrous start to the season.

In her account of Arsenal in the era, Sally Davis states that the team was by the start of September “already decimated by illness and injury”.  The injuries we know about but I can find no record of an illness ripping through the squad – but of course it could have been an infectious disease, insanitary conditions in the changing rooms, or something of that nature that swept through the club.

But whatever the cause by the third match on 3 September Arsenal had five players in the lineup who had not played in the first game just one week before.  The match was a return of the opening day’s game, away to Sheffield United.  They had won 2-1 at Highbury, and now the Blades won 4-1 on their own ground.

Not surprisingly the fourth game of the season, late on Monday afternoon, 5 September, attracted only half the crowd of the game on the opening day, and those who failed to turn up must have been most frustrated, for after three straight defeats, Arsenal won, beating Preston 1-0.  What made it all the more extraordinary was that Preston were unbeaten in their three games up to that point.

White scored, meaning he had scored in all four matches, and thanks to two against Preston in the earlier game, had five goals to his name.  McKenzie came in as the third choice inside right of the season.  He was another player who had had a few games at the end of last season; once more, not a new signing.

Meanwhile the turmoil in the country at large continued.  Ireland was the prime issue of course as the government met to discuss the finer points as to post-separation Ireland’s relationship with the Empire.  And there were diversions too.  Charlie Chaplain returned to London on 9 September and was greeted by huge cheering crowds.

But the disasters for Arsenal were relentless, as with the next game on 10 September which was away to Manchester City.  Arsenal was, for the first time in the season able to field the same XI as had appeared in the previous match.  It didn’t help matters much however as Arsenal lost 0-2 to the club that Knighton claimed had offered him the job as manager prior to the start of the season.

Looking at the way Arsenal were proceeding,  Manchester City (if they actually did offer Knighton a job – which I very much doubt) would have been pleased that he had turned them down.  For even though City themselves were not living up to their performance of the previous season when they were runners’ up, they were nowhere near as bad as Arsenal.

As Sally Davis in her review of Henry Norris’ life points out, the Islington newspapers at the time were not particularly enamoured with the notion of publishing readers’ letters criticising the local football club.  Such a situation pertained throughout the country: criticising the club was thought to be the preserve of the “expert” commentator on the newspaper’s payroll.  If one allowed a mere supporter to give a view, then the expert would be undermined since he really didn’t have a basis for his claim of “expertise”.  It would be like allowing the hospital porter to diagnose what was wrong with the patient.

Except of course it wouldn’t because doctors were trained in medicine, while newspaper reporters who covered football were, well newspaper reporters who had for the most part joined the paper as 14 year olds and shown an aptitude for writing.  Allowing the hoi polloi  in would make it clear that the football reporter really didn’t have any specialist knowledge – a situation that has continued until the current day.

However so dramatic was Arsenal’s fall from grace at the start of the 1921/2 season that the Islington Daily Gazette did indeed set this standard policy aside and printed a highly critical letter from a fan who called himself “Well Wisher”.  The letter appeared on 23 September.

As a prelude to considering the letter we might note that if we combine the last three matches at the end of the last season with the start of the 1921/2 season Arsenal had played nine games of which they had won one and lost eight – a catastrophic run.  And as far as I can tell, the club had not signed any new players.

Only one player of note had been transferred out – Fred Pagnam – and as his results subsequent to his departure showed – he was coming to the end of his time as a reliable goalscorer.

But Arsenal were missing one other hugely significant player and one up and coming performer.  The proven player was Dr Patterson, the man who Knighton notoriously dismissed as the brother-in-law of the club’s physio.  Having played 20 games last season he only managed two in the whole of 1921/2, although I am not sure if this was through injury or the call of his medical duties.  Indeed it is ironic that the player that Knighton so decried in his autobiography was the one whose absence appears to have cost the club dear.

The up and coming man was Joe Toner, whose career at Arsenal was typical of so many.

Joseph Samuel Toner was born on 30 March 1894 in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland, and played for Belfast United before joining Arsenal in August 1919.  He also played for the Ireland national team.

His first Arsenal match was on 11 October 1919 against Everton which Arsenal won 3-2 where he appeared at number 11, replacing FW Groves who moved to inside right.

Toner got a run of 10 games at outside left before losing his place to CH Lewis, and then made four more appearances in the second half of the season.  (Wiki claims that Joe lost his place to Paterson, but that isn’t really true.  In 1920/21 it was WN Blyth who took over the number 11 shirt, Dr Paterson came in later.  Blyth also did some duty at number 11 in 1921/2 before Joe got the shirt back.  In all, the Arsenal side was in constant flux – a feature of the Knighton years in general, and a problem for many clubs in this first post-war season as they sought to build new teams).

In his second season he didn’t play until December and it was not until the very end of the season that he got a run of six consecutive games as Arsenal came a respectable ninth in the league.

For his third season he again did not feature at the start, but this time only had to wait until November before playing, in the end getting 24 games and scoring one goal.  The warning signs for the side were on the horizon as Arsenal finished 17th  He did however play in all six Arsenal cup matches as the club reached the quarter finals.

Joe Toner won his first Ireland cap on 4 April 1922 against Wales but the in and out progress (which was in fact what happened to almost everyone in the side under Knighton, continued and he was never a regular in the side.

In fact, Arsenal had a fair number of players on the books, some of whom had given good service to the club and would do so again in the future but Knighton was simply not using them.  If they were amateurs such as Dr Patterson, when they played was a matter for them, but the other players were on Arsenal contracts.  Were they really all injured or ill at once or was this just a continuation of a very bizarre selection procedure by  the manager.

I can’t say exactly because I don’t have copies of the reserve team sheets for their games in the London Combination, but we do have a record of the team used for a friendly game against Gillingham (who had joined the League for the 1920/1 season) on 21 September, a game which Arsenal lost 2-3.  In fact all of the players except one – Bradshaw – were the same team who had played in the previous league match – although several played in different positions from the ones they had inhabited in the previous game.

Now let us turn to what “Well Wisher” said in his letter published on 23 September.

The central criticism was the team selection, and the letter asked why the club hadn’t worked harder to replace several players who were (in the writer’s view) obviously reaching the end of their careers.  The letter also mentioned that the club had to pay good fees to bring in good players.   Certainly Arsenal were alert to this given the amount of money Cardiff had paid them for Fred Pagnam.  But they would also be alert to how Pagnam had failed to live up to his goalscoring record once he had moved.  Pagnam was certainly one of the players who was coming to the end of his career when Arsenal sold him for a record fee for the club.

But it wasn’t so much the goalscoring that was Arsenal’s problem because in the lead up to the next round of matches on 24 September Arsenal had scored 10 goals and were in 10th position in terms of goals scored in the league.  The problem was in the defence where only one club (Stoke) had let in more than Arsenal.

A subsequent article on 24 September criticised Well Wisher’s commentary but attacked in a different direction, saying that Arsenal did not bring through enough of their own young talent. On that day Arsenal played Everton away, and got a 1-1 draw, and at last someone other than White got a goal: it was Bradshaw.

The team was now the established XI except, the manager on this day did something utterly bizarre.

White who had so far scored every single goal Arsenal had got, and who as might be expected had played at number 9 in each game, moved to inside right – a much more deep lying position.  Baker who had thus far played two games this season in a defensive role at right half moved to centre forward.  Last season he had played 37 games at right half and scored two goals – but here he was playing at number 9 – a position he had never played in before.

Meanwhile Bradshaw, first introduced in the Gillingham game, and who had played 15 games the previous season at right back now played inside left.  From right to left from defence to supporting the attacking three.  Blyth who was normally an inside right played outside left.   In essence seven players were playing in what might be called their normal position, while White, Baker, Bradshaw and Blyth were playing in very odd positions.

If you have just lost track of that collection of changes I am not surprised because it has taken me 15 minutes to check the team sheets and make sure I am not making mistakes.

Interestingly in this latest public criticism the writer was especially scathing of Arsenal’s policy of playing men out of position and the letter ended with a warning that much more of the kind of displays they’d been forced to watch recently and supporters would go elsewhere.

The Islington Daily Gazette called the line up for this last match of the month a “reconstructed forward line” and at least Arsenal got a draw: Everton 1 Arsenal 1.

So let’s try and see what had happened to the Arsenal team under Knighton.  Every club had to rebuild its team after the first world war, and here are the details of the players who came to the club for the first time in the 1919/20 season.

Name Transfer from Games Moved to
Tim Williamson Croydon Common 105 Norwich C
Clem Voysey Royal naval air service 35
Bert White Brentford 101 Blackpool
Alfred Baker Eastwood Rangers 310
Dick Burgess Port Vale 13 West Ham
Arthur Hutchins Croydon Common 104 Charlton A
Stephen Dunn Army 43
Joseph Toner Belfast United 89 St Johnstone
Fred Pagnam Liverpool 50 Cardiff C
Jack Butler Dartford 267 Torquay Utd
Francis Cownley Scunthorpe & Lindsey 15
George Coopland Birley Carr 1 Exeter City
Joe North Tank Corps 23 Reading
Tom Whittaker Newcastle Swifts 64
George Pattison Wallsend 9 West Ham
James Smith Fulham 10

If we consider this list, all of these players had some registration with a club before Arsenal – none were youngsters who were just emerging.  But three were military registrations, which we would expect since all young able bodied men were in military service during the war.  These one could call the equivalent to promotions from the youth team.

Two other men came from the disbanded Croydon Common, and only two from Football League clubs.   In fact, Arsenal were doing what all clubs were doing – trying to find players with experience, who had survived the war, and who were still young and fit enough to play.  And it was tough since everyone was scrambling for players.

Five of these players played over 100 games, and three more played 50 plus games for Arsenal.  Whether that was below or above what we might expect, we’ll consider in a moment.

But first the players who joined in the second post war season of 1920/1

Name Transfer From  Games Moved to
James Smith Fulham 10
Dr Jimmy Patterson QPR 70
Harold Walden Bradford City 2 Bradford PA
Alex McKenzie Arniston Rangers 15 Blackpool
James Hopkins Belfast Utd 21 Brighton & HA
William Henderson Carlisle Utd 7 Luton Town
Thomas Maxwell 1 St Mary’s Barn

QPR is what the record says for Patterson, but I don’t think he played for them.  Walden was an odd transfer as we have seen, Walden being an footballer at the end of his career who had gone into the music halls with considerable success, and so was advertising the name of the club as part of his act and in return had Arsenal advertising Walden’s work beyond football.  Of the rest only one came from the League – James Smith from Fulham.

And finally the players who first played in 1921/2

Name Transfer From Games Moved To
Robert Turnbull Royal Engineers 59 Charlton Ath
Walter Creegan 5
Billy Milne Tottenham Hotspur 114
Stanley Earle Clapton 4 West Ham
Andrew Young Aston Villa 68 Bournemouth

Billy Milne was on Tottenham’s books but never played for the club.  Andy Young was a £2000 transfer and he lasted through into the Chapman era.

So what can we make of all this?

It is true as the newspaper correspondent said that Arsenal were not bringing through their own players, but then I don’t think any other teams could do this in the immediate post-war era.

There were around 1 million deaths of UK citizens in the war and around 1.5 million military personnel wounded – including a hugely disproportionate number of young men.  Also the number of League (ie professional) football clubs increased from 40 in 1914/15, to 88 in 1921/2 (with the expansion for the top two divisions, and the introduction of the two regional third divisions).  In other words, all clubs found it hard to find new players.

But how did Knighton’s record compare to Arsenal’s record of recruitment in the two years before the war.  This table shows us

Season New players recruited  Played 50+ games Percentage who played 50+ games
1913/14 8 4 50%
1914/15 7 3 43%
1919/20 16 8 50%
1920/21 7 1 14%
1921/22 5 3 60%

This I think tells a tale.  As we compare the two pre-war seasons (remembering that 1914/15 was launched before the war broke out, and the teams were by and large in place before the war – plus the fact that there was no conscription during this season), with the three post war seasons, we can see that in four of the five cases around half of the new recruits were good enough to play consistently for Arsenal (defined here as playing 50+ games).

But the recruitment programme of 1920/21 was by any measure a disaster, with only one player (Jimmy Patterson) making a significant contribution to the team.

So again, ironically, it was Jimmy Patterson who Knighton proclaimed himself reduced to putting in the squad because he had no other players available due to the club’s ludicrous recruitment policy, who was his one success.

If we are looking for an obvious reason for Arsenal’s failure at the start of 1921/22 it was that some of the old faithful players were getting injured, and in particular Dr Paterson was not available.  But more to the point, six of the seven players Knighton recruited in 1920/1 were simply either injured prone or not up to scratch.   The evidence suggests that the buck has to stop with Knighton.

Here are the matches for the month… there were (sad to say) 22 teams in the league

Date Opponents H/A Res Score Crowd
03/09/1921 Sheffield United A L 1-4 25,000
05/09/1921 Preston North End H W 1-0 20,000
10/09/1921 Manchester City A L 0-2 25,000
17/09/1921 Manchester City H L 0-1 25,000
21/09/1921 Gillingham (friendly) A L 2-3 5,000
24/09/1921 Everton A D 1-1 30,000


I regret that at the moment I don’t have a source of the league tables for this month – as soon as I can get one I will add Arsenal’s league positions match by match and the end of the month league table.


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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