Man U take over from Arsenal at the bottom of the League

By Tony Attwood

This is part of our continuing investigation into Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  Links to the series appear at the end of the article.  We take up the story with Arsenal having won two and lost one of their three games in November 1921 – a significant improvement, but not enough to take them off the foot of the table.

Sir Henry Norris entered December 1921 having now completely split from his local Conservative Party, and it is noticeable that he attended none of their cultural and fund raising activities, which he had been fully part of in the past.  He did however continue to attend meetings of the freemasons United Grand Lodge of England, as he had done for many years.

Sally Davis also reports that around this time Sir Henry became very ill – it may well have been the flu, or it may have been some other issue which itself had caused him to start retreating from the extraordinarily busy public and business life had had lived for the past 11 years.  Eventually he (and Ms Davis presumes, his family) went to Italy for him to recuperate.  Thus he was certainly not playing any part in Arsenal issues at this time.

Meanwhile Arsenal entered December 1921 with four problems that we have identified in earlier chapters in this series, and facing eight league games in the month.

The problems were first that the previous season’s new players were not working out at all well, second that Arsenal was getting a fair number of injuries, third that players at the club were coming down with the second severe bout of flu that was hitting north and west London and fourth (as a result of the previous three) results were not going well.

Here are the results from the last two months in the league…

Date Game Res Score
01 Oct 1921 Arsenal v Everton W 1-0
08 Oct 1921 Sunderland v Arsenal L 1-0
15 Oct 1921 Arsenal v Sunderland L 1-2
22 Oct 1921 Huddersfield Town v Arsenal L 2-0
29 Oct 1921 Arsenal v Huddersfield Town L 1-3
05 Nov 1921 Birmingham City v Arsenal W 0-1
12 Nov 1921 Arsenal v Birmingham City W 5-2
19 Nov 1921 Bolton Wanderers v Arsenal L 1-0

Three wins and five defeats through those two months in the league had taken a severe toll on Arsenal’s league position.  Here is the bottom ten…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAvg Pts
13 Chelsea 16 5 5 6 14 21 0.667 15
14 Tottenham Hotspur 16 5 4 7 23 19 1.211 14
15 Blackburn Rovers 17 4 6 7 21 24 0.875 14
16 Everton 16 3 7 6 21 21 1.000 13
17 Birmingham City 16 5 3 8 21 25 0.840 13
18 Cardiff City 16 5 3 8 17 24 0.708 13
19 Manchester United 16 4 5 7 20 31 0.645 13
20 Bradford City 16 4 4 8 19 34 0.559 12
21 West Bromwich Albion 16 4 3 9 14 25 0.560 11
22 Arsenal 15 4 1 10 15 24 0.625 9

Three points from safety (with just two points awarded for a win and two being relegated at the end of the season) and the only solaces to that were a single game in hand and a better goal average than the two clubs above.

On 3 December Arsenal started the long run of games through the month, away to Blackburn, who as can be seen in the table were four points ahead of Arsenal but having played two games more.

Arsenal retained the same team as had lost away to Bolton on 19 November (the subsequent game being abandoned on 38 minutes due to fog and now scheduled to be played on 12 December) and there must have been a really positive feeling in the club as Arsenal secured their third win in four games, winning 1-0, Baker (the right half) scoring his first goal of the season.

As a result of other matches Arsenal were still two points behind the nearest club, but matters had improved slightly in that we were actually two points behind three clubs.  Winning the game in hand would put a totally new look on things.

Pos Club P W D L F A GAv Pts
17 Blackburn Rovers 18 4 6 8 21 25 0.840 14
18 Bradford City 17 5 4 8 21 35 0.600 14
19 Everton 17 3 7 7 22 23 0.957 13
20 Manchester United 17 4 5 8 21 33 0.636 13
21 West Bromwich Albion 17 5 3 9 16 26 0.615 13
22 Arsenal 16 5 1 10 16 24 0.667 11

Away from Arsenal, the following Monday, 5 December, was a very black day in the history of football for on this day the FA cited opinions (ie fantasies) about football’s unsuitability for females and instructed clubs belonging to the associations “to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches”. The League took up the appeal and instructed clubs not to let women use their grounds, and as a result the ban destroyed women’s football and was not lifted until 1971.  Even to this day, the FA has (perhaps typically) never apologised.

The cause of this appalling diktat was not just the rampant sexism which has always been part of the FA, but also a fear by some clubs that women’s football was becoming more popular than the men’s game.

However what was really needed were innovations to make the game more attractive to spectators – such as covered areas for standing spectators and more goals – and these eventually did come in (the change in the offside law in 1925 did make a significant difference to goalscoring).  But the FA has never been forward looking and its automatically reactionary approach took the day. The women’s game was destroyed.

Meanwhile on Tuesday 6 December British and Irish negotiators signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London giving independence to the Irish Free State (a Dominion of the Commonwealth) comprising 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland.   But members of the legislature (Dáil) were required to swear an oath to the king and as republicans would not do this, they never took their seats. The system lasted until 1931 when all the dominions became sovereign nations.

Back with the football, on 10 December Arsenal played the return game with Blackburn at Highbury with the same team for the third game running (only the second time this had happened so far this season) and in front of 35,000.  The result was a 1-1 draw, Hopkins now getting his first goal of the season.  Arsenal were still bottom, two points behind three teams above them.

Two days later, on 12 December Arsenal had another go at playing the Bolton match that had been abandoned on 26 November.  This being a Monday afternoon game the crowd was modest with just 10,000 present, but Arsenal eeked out another 1-1 draw, and for the third match running there was a different scorer – this time Butler who had played at centre half in each match of this season, save the first league game.  In another positive sign North was back at centre forward.

This was also Reg Boreham’s first game for the club; he replaced Hopkins at inside right.  He went on to play 51 league games before his contract was cancelled upon the departure of Leslie Knighton.

“His sparkling displays nearly gave him an England professional cap as well as amateur ones,”  said Bernard Joy of Reg Boreham in his (not always reliable) history of Arsenal, and that might lead one immediately to conclude that there would be a fair amount of material available about Reg and his career in football.  But this is not the case.

Wiki has (or had) a little note on the player in an article which repeats the myth of the £1000 limit on transfers during Knighton’s time and says, “To get round Norris’s rules, Knighton used his guile to sign some unusual transfers, such as the amateurs Reg Boreham and Jimmy Paterson – the latter was the Arsenal club doctor’s brother-in-law, and went on to play nearly 80 games for Arsenal.”

Given what we know of Dr Jimmy Paterson and the amounts that Knighton paid for players during his tenure. we might take this passing reference to Reg Boreham with a pinch of salt.

As for the league table, Arsenal had now used up their game in hand and were still bottom, but just one point behind three clubs and with a better goal average than two of them.  There were glimmers of hope.

As indeed there was in Ireland as Parliament ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 16 December.

The following day, 17 December, Arsenal were away at Oldham, and unusually the Islington Daily Gazette sent their man to watch the reserves play at Highbury.  It is fair to say the reporter was not impressed by the 1-1 draw with West Ham in the London Combination – and that is probably not surprising.  For the four reasons noted at the start of this piece, Arsenal were calling up everyone who was showing any form, or even prospect of form, into the first team.

Sadly on this occasion the first team did worse than the reserves and lost to Oldham 1-2, but with one ray of light.  Reg Boreham, the new man now playing his second game scored the Arsenal goal.

The result meant that in the five games since the 5-2 win over Birmingham, Arsenal had scored a single goal in four of the games, each from a different player.  Sadly, in the other game, Arsenal had not scored.  So this was by no means a successful forward line, but at least the club had moved on from the pattern of the first six matches in which North was the only scorer.

However Everton and Manchester United were now struggling as well, and both were still just one point ahead of Arsenal.

On 23 December news of the split between Sir Henry Norris and his local Conservative Party was made public by reports in the Fulham Chronicle which said that part of the local party wanted to de-select Sir Henry formally (he was as we have noticed already separated from the party by having refused their demand for increased funding of the party by him and would clearly not be supported by the local part in the next general election, if he stood).  But it seems another part of the party wanted to try a reconciliation with Fulham’s most famous citizen.

But Sir Henry was still in Italy, and so not on hand to discuss any of these points – nor indeed was he taking any involvement in what Arsenal were up to.

Arsenal now had three games in four days – Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, and 27 December and went into this period with the table looking like this:

Pos Club P W D L F A G.Av Pts
12 Tottenham Hotspur 19 6 5 8 25 21 1.190 17
13 Sheffield United 19 6 5 8 23 22 1.045 17
14 Oldham Athletic 19 6 5 8 16 23 0.696 17
15 Bradford City 19 6 5 8 23 36 0.639 17
16 Chelsea 19 5 7 7 14 23 0.609 17
17 Cardiff City 19 6 4 9 20 28 0.714 16
18 West Bromwich Albion 19 6 4 9 19 28 0.679 16
19 Blackburn Rovers 20 4 7 9 23 28 0.821 15
20 Everton 19 3 8 8 24 26 0.923 14
21 Manchester United 19 4 6 9 23 36 0.639 14
22 Arsenal 19 5 3 11 19 28 0.679 13

Clearly the club had closed the gap a little but still needed a solid run of good results – as well as wanting further slippage by the clubs above them.

But unfortunately Christmas did not bring such gifts as with the first game of the period Arsenal lost 0-1 to Oldham with 20,000 in the ground and Arsenal fielding the same team as they had used in the previous away defeat.

The Boxing Day game was also at home, and this time Arsenal played out a goalless draw with Cardiff, who as can be seen from the table above had pulled themselves out of the relegation zone, although were not totally out of trouble.

For the return match with Cardiff the following day Knighton shuffled the pack bringing in no less than three players for their first games of  the season: Turnball at left back, Pattison at centre half, and Milne at left half.

Sadly none of these players were to make an immediate impact on the club at this time as Turnball and Milne both played just four games in the season and Pattison only two.

Arsenal lost 3-4 in this return away game to Cardiff on 27 December with White getting one goal and Boreham two – a frustrating result as Arsenal had been 2-1 up at half time.  White’s goal was enough however to give Knighton a thought about his goalscoring potential and for the last game of the month White was moved back to centre forward (where he had started the season with five goals in the first four games).

This game also saw the debuts of Billy Milne (who got the most prestigious DCM in the first war and also – if we may jump forward for a moment, as an ARP warden in the second put out the fire when  Highbury was hit by an incendiary device) and Robert Turnbull (one of the new men mentioned above).

Billy Milne played before and after the first world war for Buckie Thistle, and during the war served his country with great honour with the Seaforth Highlanders in France.  How Arsenal found him I don’t know but he ultimately went on to make 114 league appearances for the club.

As for Bob Turnbull, he played just five games that season – including one at centre forward but, jumping ahead, in 1922/3 he was the man who was to save the club from relegation that season by scoring 20 goals. At that time it was a record for an Arsenal player.

It is also interesting to look further forward, as we consider Knighton’s work at Arsenal for as Turnbull’s goalscoring at Arsenal waned, he was put on the transfer list in 1924 and went to Charlton.  But then he went to Chelsea and scored 58 goals in 87 first team games!    It is of course possible that the ups and downs of his career were to do with injury, but it could also to be to do with the way the player was managed.  If only they’d had TV in those days!

Away from football on 30 December the Fulham Chronicle stated definitively that Sir Henry Norris would be standing in Fulham East as an Independent Unionist against any official Conservative Party candidate.  Now of course we have no idea where this story came from and it was surprising if the only issue between Sir Henry and the party he had represented in Fulham as its mayor for so many years was how much he was going to pay the party office to help it keep going.

Also it would be an odd thing to suggest at this moment, given that Sir Henry was out of the country recovering from an illness, and given that we have noted a significant decline in both his political activities and his involvement in football at this time.  Also we have virtually no evidence of his further engagement in house building – the source of his money over the years.

Maybe Sir Henry did write a vitriolic letter from Italy which caused his local party to believe he would stand against any official candidate, but if so it looks to be an empty threat, because as we have seen although he was attending the Commons regularly, he was not engaging in debates.  Why would he want to put himself through another election campaign?

But we finish the month with a return to the football, for on 31 December 1921, White and Boreham scored to give Arsenal an invaluable away win at Chelsea to make it two wins, three draws, three defeats in the month and a table at the end of the year reading…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
13 West Bromwich Albion 23 9 4 10 25 35 0.714 22
14 Birmingham City 23 9 3 11 29 31 0.935 21
15 Oldham Athletic 22 7 7 8 18 24 0.750 21
16 Chelsea 23 6 8 9 17 28 0.607 20
17 Sheffield United 23 7 5 11 35 33 1.061 19
18 Everton 22 5 9 8 29 29 1.000 19
19 Blackburn Rovers 24 5 9 10 29 32 0.906 19
20 Bradford City 23 6 6 11 24 43 0.558 18
21 Arsenal 23 6 4 13 24 33 0.727 16
22 Manchester United 23 4 7 12 25 44 0.568 15

Yes, as so often happens in relegation struggles, the teams at the bottom benefited not only on picking up a few points themselves, but by other clubs doing badly.  And in December Manchester United had obligingly lost three and drawn two of their games.  Arsenal could only hope that they themselves might have a modest improvement in form, and that one of the clubs  on 18 or 19 points would also have a bad run.  Bradford City’s results had not been as bad as Man U’s in the month, but they had lost three and drawn one of the four matches from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve.  A little more success from Arsenal, a little less from Bradford City, and Arsenal might escape after all.

Here is a summary of the results for December 1921…

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd Pos
03/12/1921 Blackburn Rovers A W 1-0 25,000 22
10/12/1921 Blackburn Rovers H D 1-1 35,000 22
12/12/1921 Bolton Wanderers H D 1-1 10,000 22
17/12/1921 Oldham Athletic A L 1-2 10,517 22
24/12/1921 Oldham Athletic H L 0-1 20,000 22
26/12/1921 Cardiff City H D 0-0 35,000 22
27/12/1921 Cardiff City A L 3-4 37,000 22
31/12/1921 Chelsea A W 2-0 40,000 21

The year was over, and the best that could be said was that Arsenal now had a couple of players in the team (White and Boreham) who looked capable of scoring regularly.  What might also be noticed was that both were inside forwards.  What Arsenal really needed was a number nine who could also do the business alongside those two, thus giving them three serious goal scoring forwards on the pitch at the same time.


Henry Norris at the Arsenal

A full index to the series which runs from 1910 onwards is given here

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, is to be found here in these sets of articles…

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation

The Fourth Allegation

Did Henry Norris really beg Leslie Knighton to stay and offer him the hugest bonus ever?  And if so, why were there no new players?


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