Untold Arsenal on Facebook here
By Tony Attwood
I should start by making a confession (well not much of a confession because what I am going to confess is undoubtedly patently obvious if you have been reading through my jottings over the past couple of years.
It is this: when I start any of these series, I don’t do so with the articles mapped out and planned. Rather it is a case of, “I wonder if there is anything extra to be discovered about this subject?” – and then it starts.
So it is will George Frederick Allison (24 October 1883 – 13 March 1957) one of our greatest managers (that view may be upgraded in the coming weeks), a journalist who had a mega impact on the club through his writings, the BBC’s first sports commentator, and….
Well the dots can be filled in, in the coming entries.
County Durham seems to be a favoured part of the country with us, since that is where Jack Humble came from, before trekking to Woolwich to found Dial Square FC, which of course morphed into Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal and Arsenal.
George Allison came from Hurworth on Tees, village south of Darlington. I don’t think they have anything up to commemorate their most famous son – if they do and you know it, please send me a photo. Otherwise we might just end up campaigning for a statue.
George is reputed to have played amateur football, and (so the story goes) starting writing about his team for the local paper. He had a trial with Shildon, a local non-league club who are still in existence playing in the Northern League.
Being rather a better writer than football he took up the former and dropped the latter and at some stage before 1906 was apparently assistant to the manager of Middlesbrough FC – but I can find very little about this.
So here’s the first question: what took George to London in 1906? My guess is a desire to break into the big world of journalism. He worked for Edward Hulton who ultimately started the Daily Sketch, a rival to the Daily Mirror, but with Conservative views. But that was not for a few years, and quite what he did for Hulton’s publishing group again I am not sure. Maybe it will all emerge in time.
But it appears that he initially got freelance work and quickly established himself as a football writer who was willing to go out to the wilderness of north Kent to report on Woolwich Arsenal. This was the era when the club was on the edge of becoming something special for both in 1906 and 1907 Woolwich Arsenal got to the semi-final of the FA Cup and indeed in 1907 they had their best league finish – 7th in the first division. Indeed it is said that Chapman wrote reports on the matches at Plumstead for several different papers using different journalistic “voices” and different writing nom-de-plumes.
By 1910 things had moved on. He became the greyhound racing correspondent of Sporting Life, and under Henry Norris’ ownership of Woolwich Arsenal started to write Gunners’ Mate – the leading article in the match day programme.
It is also reported that at the coronation of King George V (an event which failed to set the working classes of London alight with royal enthusiasm) he met Lord Kitchener, and wrote up the story for the New York Post which led to a regular weekly column in that paper. In 1912 he joined the staff of William Randolph Hearst, the American politician and newspaper magnate.
I think (as I start my journey into the life of George Allison) that this was significant. You will know, if you have been reading the story of Woolwich Arsenal, that in 1913 George Allison edited the first club handbook in which appeared the first official history of Arsenal FC. You’ll also know that we have shown on this site that part of that story (the part related to Arsenal’s move into professionalism and the resultant action of the London FA and Kent FA, was a complete invention.
Randolph Hearst is described in the book Unreliable Sources as a man who “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.” A similar charge is laid in the book “The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism” by Upton Sinclair.
We’ve not suggested that George Allison did this, but it is most interesting to find him working for a newspaper owner who was so widely believed to do this that his approach was given a name: Yellow Journalism – a name that derived from a character in Hearst’s Hogan’s Alley comic strip.
Sinclair said in the Brass Check, that the “Universal News Bureau” owned b y Hearst re-wrote the news of the London papers and then sent it out to American afternoon newspapers under the names of non-existent “Hearst correspondents” in Europe.
Knowing this much background we might guess at once at what George Allison’s job was in the first world war. He worked with the War Office and the Admiralty writing propaganda. After the war he joined both Arsenal and the BBC. For the BBC he was the first person to do commentaries on major sports events such as the Derby, the Grand National, the football international England v Scotland (then an annual match) and, most notably, the 1927 Cup final of Cardiff v Arsenal.
George Allison was the main football commentator of the BBC and it is said that by 1931 the BBC was broadcasting over 100 games per season. This was the era in which the Radio Times ran a picture of the pitch divided into squares with a background voice saying which square the ball was in as play moved around the field. It is also said that this was the origin of the phrase “Back to Square One”.
However the Football League was unhappy with the effect it believed the coverage was having on attendances and so banned the BBC from continuing the activity – and the ban stayed in place until 1945 (although the FA Cup Final continued to be broadcast).
For Arsenal he was first secretary and then managing director. When Herbert Chapman died in January 1934 the club appointed Joe Shaw (see separate article on this site) as temporary manager for the rest of the season before giving the job to George Allison. He won the league (1933-4) and the FA Cup 1935-6), followed by the League 1937-8).
If you know the face and look of George Allison it is probably because you have seen him in The Arsenal Stadium Mystery movie (1939) where unlike most of the rest of the club, he had a proper acting role as himself in the film, and says, part way through the game that is the heart of the story, “It’s one-nil to the Arsenal. That’s the way we like it.”
George Allison retained the services of Joe Shaw (who had led the club to the championship after Chapman’s death) and Tom Whittaker (who followed him as manager). Those two trained the players, while George Allison focussed on transfers and (understandably) the media.
Bernard Joy, who wrote “Forward Arsenal!” and who reprinted Allison’s story about the boycott of Woolwich Arsenal by clubs after Arsenal turned professional, said of George Allison that he was “tactful, friendly and good-hearted” but “lacked the professional’s deep knowledge of the game”.
Bob Wall (Herbert Chapman’s assistant said in his autobiography “Arsenal from the Heart”, “Allison was a complete contrast to Chapman… He never claimed to possess a deep theoretical knowledge of the game but he listened closely to what people like Tom Whittaker and Alex James had to say. Like Chapman before him, Allison always insisted that, no matter how good a prospective signing might be, he would secure him only if his character was beyond reproach.”
This did not stop him making big signings however. In 1938 he bought Bryn Jones from Wolverhampton W for £14,000 – which might not seem too big a deal, but it was a world record, and led to a debate in the House of Commons in which the club and its manager were roundly criticised.
Quite what happened to Allison in the second world war I am not sure – it is said he was instrumental in running the club during that time as we participated in the war time regional league, but George Allison returned for the 1946-7 season, in which we came a disappointing 13th, going out of the FA Cup in the third round to Chelsea.
After this single post-war season George Allison retired, and he died ten years later on 13 March 1957.
I do hope you might have more to add to this story. I’m going to have a look at the results during his time as manager – but all information is welcome.