Arsenal in September 1923: recovery after a terrible start; a new insight into Henry Norris

By Tony Attwood

After a home defeat to Newcastle by 1-4 and a 0-1 away defeat to West Ham in August 1923, Arsenal and their supporters were desperate for the team not to fall into the early downward spiral that had beset them across recent seasons in the opening games, leaving them with a relegation fight on their hands.

But as was the tradition at the time (although it turned out, this was the last season in which it applied) clubs played each other home and away in close proximity through the season.    Thus match number three was Newcastle away on 1 September.

In contrast to Arsenal, Newcastle had won both their opening matches and if so anything the 1-0 victory against a clearly struggling Arsenal side was something of a disappointment to the locals.

For the third game in a row Knighton kept the same back six as had served the club so extremely well in the last part of the previous season, and made just one more change bringing in Ernest Wallington who had joined the club from Watford.  He replaced Young and it was his one and only game for Arsenal, which suggests it was not a success.

But Arsenal now had another problem, Boreham, who had played 27 times last season, having played in the West Ham game was now dropped from the side – I think he was very seriously injured.  Indeed he came back only for one more game, and then he too never played for Arsenal again.

The game against Newcastle was commented on by the press as being a “bad-tempered” game with the referee repeatedly lecturing players on their behaviour.  The result meant that Arsenal were now at the foot of the table going into their fourth game of the season, away to West Bromwich who were unbeaten and in fourth.

Before that game news reached the country of a major earthquake in Japan in which 30,000 people died.  This was of particular relevance to Sir Henry Norris as his sister Lilian Gillbard and her family lived in Japan.  Communications were cut for several days and it could have been a week or more before Sir Henry would have known quite what was going on.  They did survive, although it appears that they lost their business in a subsequent earthquake four years later.

Back with football, in the last episode I dealt with the strange affair of Jock Rutherford and the contradictory stories that emerged about his moving from Arsenal to Stoke as their manager.  Whatever the ins and outs of the affair, Jock had now clearly left Stoke and during the course of the week leading up to the West Brom game on 8 September, he returned to London and got himself match fit (not that that had a very clear definition in the 1920s) so he could play in his favoured number 7 position, by having a warm up match with the reserve team on 6 September against Brighton and Hove Albion reserves.

Arsenal, the Football Combination champions of the previous season lost to Brighton, a club that had not even had a side in the Combination last season.  It was not a good omen.

Worse was to come on Saturday.   Arsenal lost 0-4, and thus had played four, lost four, scored one and conceded 10.  Eight players (the six defenders, Woods and Turnbull), had played in all four games.  Eight other players had been used in the remaining four positions.

Finally a change was made in the defence for match number five, at home to West Ham with Butler dropping out being replaced by Graham who had played 17 games the previous season, mostly at centre half.  Voysey who had been playing at inside right dropped out and was replaced by Earle, who had had one game in that position at the end of the previous season.

West Ham had made a decent start to their first season in the top division with one win, two draws and one defeat thus far.   But the goal tally (scored one, conceded one) told a story of a club defending like mad, anxious to concede nothing at all.  Their one goal had been in the victory over Arsenal, and Arsenal had learned the lesson: attack strongly from the off and get an early goal, as it was unlikely that West Ham would be able to change shape and start attacking.

As a ploy it worked.  1-0 up in ten minutes and 2-0 up at half time Arsenal went on to win 4-1 with two from Stan Earle, and one each from Woods and Graham.  However it looks to me as if Earle was injured in this game, for surely even Knighton with his odd ways would not have dropped the player who made such an impact, but after this match he only had one more game for Arsenal – against Huddersfield in December.   After that he went to West Ham in August 1924.   He was however an amateur throughout so maybe he simply did not make himself available more often.  Or maybe he couldn’t stand Knighton and his strange team selections. 

On 15 September, with Arsenal having moved one place up the table after their win over WHU, there was another home game – this time the return against West Brom, and a second victory was clocked up, by 1-0 with Clem Voysey scoring.

It is at this point that Sally Davis reveals an point about the organisation of the directors of which I was not aware before: that each year one of the directors took on the responsibility of being the director for the Reserve team – the team that we may recall won the London Combination for the first time in 1922/3.   She suggests that Henry Norris had taken on this task one season while chair of Fulham, and now was doing it again for Arsenal.

I find that a very interesting thought, for it shows a different side of the man.  The image of the autocratic wealthy businessman with his chauffeur driven car, with his knighthood and his rank of Colonel in the army, balanced here against the man who would take on the role of going not to the first team games but to the reserve matches.  Indeed we have already found him at one of the youth team games this season. Quite an insight I feel; and I wonder how many Arsenal directors of the present day take on such duties.

Ms Davis reports that on 20 September Sir Henry was at Highbury for the London Combination game which ended  Arsenal Reserves 2 Reading Reserves 2; a game in which Midge Moffat played.   And within the report of the match there’s another little pointer as Ms Davis adds, “When it came on to rain, Norris gave instructions to the ground staff to let people standing in the wet go under the cover in the grandstand; even though they hadn’t paid to.”

I know it is a tiny point, but in the normal accounts of Sir Henry we don’t get that many tiny points, but rather have the big moments.  I think these are worth noting too.

Arsenal’s first team recovery continued on 22 September with a third successive win, this time 1-2 away to Birmingham City.  Mackie at right back missed the game through injury and so Tom Whittaker got a rare chance to play and Billy Blythe, a regular since the last season before the war, came in for his first game of this campaign at inside left.   He was the 20th player to be used in seven league games.

The return match against Birmingham, the following Saturday on 29th, was a goalless draw; a game which the Times called “poor and aimless”.

 At the same time as the Birmingham game was being played, at Highbury a match between the Irish Football League (which actually meant the N Ireland League) and the English league was played.  It ended 2-6 to England.  As far as I can ascertain no Arsenal players were called up for the match.

However the match is important since the Football League Management Committee attended the game in force, and Sally Davis considers the possibility that this was the moment that William Hall representing Arsenal was told that there would be a Football League investigation into the transfer of Harry White from Brentford to Arsenal FC in July 1919 which I examined in the March 1923 chapter.

It appears that upon his return William Hall contacted Sir Henry and told him what was forthcoming.  Sir Henry, we learned later, replied that he had done nothing amiss with White and therefore there was nothing to worry about.

These last four results meant that the League table now looked slightly more encouraging:

Pos Team P W D L GF GA GAv Pts
1 Cardiff City 8 5 3 0 13 6 2.167 13
2 Bolton Wanderers 10 3 5 2 15 10 1.500 11
3 Aston Villa 10 3 5 2 12 10 1.200 11
4 Huddersfield Town 8 4 2 2 11 5 2.200 10
5 Blackburn Rovers 8 4 2 2 15 8 1.875 10
6 Notts County 7 4 2 1 9 6 1.500 10
7 Newcastle United 9 4 2 3 13 10 1.300 10
8 Tottenham Hotspur 8 4 2 2 9 7 1.286 10
9 Liverpool 8 4 1 3 12 9 1.333 9
10 Sheffield United 8 3 3 2 12 10 1.200 9
11 West Bromwich Albion 8 3 3 2 13 11 1.182 9
12 Everton 10 2 5 3 11 13 0.846 9
13 Nottingham Forest 8 3 2 3 11 10 1.100 8
14 Sunderland 8 3 2 3 11 12 0.917 8
15 Arsenal 8 3 1 4 8 11 0.727 7
16 Chelsea 8 2 3 3 4 6 0.667 7
17 West Ham United 8 2 3 3 4 7 0.571 7
18 Birmingham City 9 2 3 4 8 15 0.533 7
19 Burnley 8 1 4 3 11 13 0.846 6
20 Manchester City 8 2 2 4 10 15 0.667 6
21 Middlesbrough 7 1 1 5 6 9 0.667 3
22 Preston North End 8 0 2 6 7 22 0.318 2

Here are the results for August and September 1923…

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
25/08/1923 Newcastle United H L 1-4 45,000
27/08/1923 West Ham United A L 0-1 22,000
01/09/1923 Newcastle United A L 0-1 40,000
08/09/1923 West Bromwich Albion A L 0-4 35,233
10/09/1923 West Ham United H W 4-1 36,000
15/09/1923 West Bromwich Albion H W 1-0 36,004
22/09/1923 Birmingham City A W 2-0 20,000
29/09/1923 Birmingham City H D 0-0 35,000

We are currently evolving a series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.   The full index to all the articles is here.   This index is updated as each new article is published.

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 set out below in these articles.

After that there is a complete index of all the articles in the series in chronological order.

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?

The Fifth Story:

The Sixth Allegation

The Seventh Allegation


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