By Tony Attwood
This is the story of Arsenal in December 1924. One of the strangest of all the strange fantasy tales of Leslie Knighton, the Arsenal manager from 1919 to 1925.
After a far better than normal start to the 1924/5 season Arsenal had, as the months had worn on, shown, in a series of erratic performances, that it might be safer to hope for mid-table security rather than to harbour any wild fantasies about winning the league. This was Arsenal’s sixth year under Knighton and they were now seemingly as far from being even a challenger for a trophy as ever.
True, at the start of December 1924 Arsenal were only four points off the top of the league. But on the other hand they were 11th in the league. So even if Notts County did slip up a couple of times and if Arsenal did indeed win on those occasions, the most likely outcome would be a move up the league to around 7th. For other challengers were most certainly going to win games as well.
The problem was Arsenal’s attack – they had only scored 17 in 17 games, which was worse than all but six teams in the league. True Arsenal scored one more than Notts County, who were top of the table, but County had only conceded seven. Arsenal had let in 19.
|4||West Bromwich Albion||17||9||3||5||21||13||1.615||21|
|17||West Ham United||17||4||6||7||14||25||0.560||14|
|22||Preston North End||17||2||2||13||12||37||0.324||6|
However the first match of the month was against Preston, who just as last season, had had a dismal start to the campaign. And as yet there was no sign that they were going to have another dramatic escape. Indeed if anything, the opposite was true, for during the whole of October and November 1924, they had won one, drawn one and lost eight.
Their away record was even worse: before coming to Highbury for the first match of December they had played eight away, won nil, drawn two and lost six. Away from home they had scored four and conceded 21 goals.
Of course Arsenal had hardly been on great form themselves winning two of their last seven games, drawing three, losing two. Also notable (and worrying if the results themselves were not enough to worry about) is the fact that both Arsenal wins were by a margin of just one goal (1-0 against Tottenham and 2-3 away to Everton).
Before the game on 4 December 1924, Alex Graham was sold to Brentford. Alex had gained a trial with Woolwich Arsenal in December 1911, when he was 21, having moved south from Scotland presumably looking for work in the armaments factories. He had previously played for Larkhill Utd in Lanarkshire.
He had signed for the club in January 1912 and played most of that year in the reserves before getting a game on Christmas Day with the first team against, curiously, Notts County. He played left half or centre half most of the matches, being a back up for other players who were out injured.
He returned to Arsenal in 1919 when football resumed and was the regular centre half for three seasons, and also won a cap for Scotland, in 1920, in a 2-0 win against Ireland.
He was transferred to Brentford having played 179 games for Arsenal, scoring 20 goals – a number enhanced from the usual total for a half back as he took penalties during his regular seasons with the club.
For this match, Knighton reverted to a large degree to his original opening XI with two exceptions. Brain was now considered to be the first choice inside right and so as he was fit he played instead of Neil, while Dan Lewis continued in goal.
And it worked, as Woods got a hat-trick as it ended Arsenal 4 Preston North End 0, Toner got the other.
The result took Arsenal up to 10th on the same number of points as Bolton in 6th. Maybe the season wasn’t going to slip away from Arsenal after all!
However the next game knocked Arsenal back on 13 December – a 1-0 defeat to Burnley. This was a serious disappointment as Burnley were 18th in the league before this match. What’s more they had a truly awful home record prior to this game having only won one out of nine games at Turf Moor before this match, a fact that explains the dreadful crowd of just 6000, the lowest crowd Arsenal’s first team played in front of all season.
The Times said that Arsenal showed “A lack of finish”. Despite this however Knighton stayed with the same line up for the third game in a row for the next match on 20 December, at home to Leeds United.
Leeds were 17th in the League and had only won one away game so far in the season scoring just six goals in eight away games. Indeed Leeds had gone six without a win and had not once in those games scored more than one goal in a match.
It was thus not surprising that Arsenal won, but that they won 6-1 was unexpected, and of course a delight to the fans. It was the first time Arsenal had scored six or more in the post-war era. Indeed the last match in which they had achieved such a feat was the very last match before professional football was abandoned for the duration (although it did of course take place during the war years) when Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest 7-0 in division 2 on 24 April 1915.
And indeed one of the scorers on that day was playing again on this occasion – Jock Rutherford, although he didn’t score this time. That feat was dominated by one Jimmy Brain who having scored on his debut now got four. The other goals came from Woods who had got a hatrick against Preston and Ramsay.
The result – and the improvement to their goal average – took Arsenal back up to 10th, and it was just the boost Arsenal needed for they now had home and away games against Birmingham to look forward to on Christmas and Boxing Day.
Although Birmingham had hit the top of the league for a period in this season, they had slipped of late and were now back in fifth, just two points ahead of Arsenal. But Arsenal had scored more and conceded fewer than Birmingham – a rare achievement. But it was also why the results of these two games was such a severe disappointment – a 1-2 defeat at St Andrews, and a 0-1 defeat at Highbury. The lower reaches of the table now looked like this:
|16||West Ham United||22||7||6||9||25||31||0.806||20|
|22||Preston North End||22||5||2||15||19||46||0.413||12|
The final game – the third in three days – was against lowly Nottingham Forest, and against such dispirited opposition Arsenal did end the year with a win at Highbury, by 2-1 with goals from Butler and Ramsay. During these three games Arsenal played the same team each time, except that for the Boxing Day game Young replaced Bob John.
Now.it will be noted that no mention has been made above of Sir Henry Norris here nor indeed has he featured much of late at all.
As I have said many times before, Sir Henry left no diary or similar papers, and thus we only note his activity when he undertakes some public, political or footballing duty, writes a newspaper article, or is involved in house building for which permission is needed, or has one of his occasional court cases. There has been no mention of him because we can find no such issue at all during this period.
Now we know he had been seriously ill, and had an operation in hospital, and in order to recuperate had first spent time in Italy and the south of France, and subsequently had a house built in France where he stayed with his family, particularly during the winter.
During December Kinnaird Park Estate Company did put in one planning application – but it was a very minor affair – the building of a garage next to a house in Plaistow. But otherwise we have nothing. He does not even seem to be attending meetings of the Feltmakers liveried company which had been a favourite occupation of him in earlier times. I have no access to the minutes of board meetings so I can’t tell if he attended them, but everything points to him being away.
Now we must ask if this caused a problem for Arsenal and Leslie Knighton, because the Sir Henry was not just the chairman of the club, but also its main creditor. Although the club had gone a long way to paying off its debts, incurred with keeping the club going in Plumstead and then in building Highbury, it was not yet completely debt free. So any attempt to buy new players would increase the debt, and even if that debt was simply added to the bank overdraft, as seems likely, it would still be guaranteed by Sir Henry. Thus he had to be consulted on financial matters of significance.
This became an issue at the end of 1924, as Knighton clearly thought he needed a new player or two. (Others might have thought the club could do with a new manager, but that would have been a matter of opinion). And although we have clearly shown that the Knighton tale that he was restricted to £1000 maximum for any transfer was utter nonsense, nevertheless the board had to approve transfers – and if that meant extending the bank debt, then that would have to be done with the permission of the man who guaranteed that debt.
Also we know that at this time Sir Henry was negotiating with Arsenal’s landlord – the religious foundation – for the outright purchase of the lease and some ancillary land. So there were already some remaining debts, an overdraft and this proposal to buy the lease which would require a considerable amount of money.
Sally Davis in her account of Sir Henry Norris’ life quite rightly mentions this fact in relation to the rumour that spread at this time that Charles Buchan might be for sale. And although she does not mention it, we can note that the first event of this month was the sale of Alex Graham. Surely Sir Henry would have needed to approve that also.
I suspect he did, for the telegram service between England and France had been established in the 1850s and was by now very reliable and so the directors would have been able to get Sir Henry’s permission for any deal if that was needed.
As we shall see in a moment, Knighton claims in his autobiography that he called a board meeting and then went to negotiate the transfer of the player to Arsenal – without it seems, Sir Henry knowing.
We know, by way of background, that Buchan had not only been a Woolwich Arsenal player in his youth, but also a had had a dispute with Sunderland over his attempt to sign up during the war. Indeed as you may recall, if you have been following this story through the years, on 30 March 1915 Henry Norris went to a joint meeting of the FA and the Football League, after the colonel of the Footballers’ Battalion complained that some football clubs were actively working to stop their players joining up. Charlie Buchan reported Sunderland told him they would sue for breach of contract if he left the club. Henry Norris obviously had no power in this matter but assured the meeting that Arsenal and Fulham were going out of their way to encourage players, and were still paying the wages of the players who had signed up. Norris in fact went further and paid the salaries of the battalion he raised until they formally joined the Middlesex.
So we do have some background information to go on which allows us to make an informed guess as to what happened at this time and how much of Knighton’s report from his autobiography published many years later, was actually true.
First, we may add the context of the actual transfer record, and where this £7000 would have stood in terms of the world record (which at this time were simply British record) transfer fees. Here is its progress…
|December 1920||David Mercer||Hull City||Sheffield United||£4,500|
|February 1922||Syd Puddefoot||West Ham United||Falkirk||£5,000|
|March 1922||Warney Cresswell||South Shields||Sunderland||£5,500|
|December 1925||Bob Kelly||Burnley||Sunderland||£6,500|
|October 1928||David Jack||Bolton Wanderers||Arsenal||£10,890|
What most reports tell us is that in terms of the eventual Buchan transfer to Arsenal in 1925, the Sunderland manager Bob Kyle initially demanded a £4,000 fee, but when it came to the negotiations between Herbert Chapman as Arsenal manager and Kyle in the summer of 1925, Chapman rejected this as being outrageous for a player of Buchan’s age – the player was 33 and would be 34 in September 1925. So Chapman offered £2,000 plus £100 per goal scored by Buchan during his first season.
Incidentally one of the very many anti-Norris stories that beset the period relates to this offer – that Norris was made a fool of because he ended up paying more through this £100 a goal story than if he had just paid the original fee. This is utterly untrue, and was a newspaper invention, as we have already explored in detail in The Buchan goals story
So let us consider Knighton’s claim of a £7000 for Buchan. Such an offer would have made the transfer of Buchan not just a world record (beating Warney Cresswell’s fee of 1922) but bigger even than the actual next record deal, which was £6500 in December 1925). What’s more, even Knighton’s autobiography claims that the £7000 he offered was rejected – a world record for a player in the last few years of his playing career!
But let us also ask, how good was Buchan as a player? This list of Sunderland’s seasons from 1912/13 onward gives a pretty clear indication…
In 1924/5 the top scorer in the league was Frank Roberts of Manchester City with 31. I’ve searched high and low for a record of all Sunderland scorers for 1924/5 but can’t find it anywhere, but we can see from the above that Buchan scored at most 17 – at the very least a decline of 35% on the previous year and a 40% decline on the season before.
So here was a player in obvious decline. Was he going to be worth a world record fee the following season when his goal tally might have trailed off to 15 or even fewer? It seems unlikely. In fact, did Knighton actually go through this process of calling a board meeting while Sir Henry was in France, holding meetings, offering a world record fee for a player who seemed to be in decline without Sir Henry knowing and then getting turned down?
It all seems unlikely, and there is a further reason to feel this is all just a fantasy. For once Knighton had got a couple of players who could score goals for Arsenal: Brain and Woods. And while it is true that Brain only scored 14 goals this season and Woods 15, it was clear that Brain was on the up. Brain was only 23, and although Harry Woods was 30, it might have been thought he had some more goals in him. So more goals would be welcome but did Arsenal need to break the world record to get a player at the end of his career?
At this point we need to turn to Knighton’s autobiography. Chapter XII is the relevant section. I quote…
“As the years went by at Highbury I began to feel that I was justifying my position. The huge debt under which the club had staggered when I joined them was being reduced by thousands of pounds ever year, and we were approaching not only solvency but a time when we could justifiably be much more ambitious in obtaining new players. This is never just a matter of an adequate credit at the bank. A really solid foundation has to be constructed for the team, of reliable and consistent players before the wise manager brings in those football geniuses who so swiftly capture the imagination of the crowd. Great stars are the spearhead of a team of footballers, as a team of actors, but the solid shaft must consist of loyal and trustworthy people content to go steadily along from week to week without the encouragement of the spotlight.
“I felt that our efforts had got Arsenal to the pitch where expenditure on star players would be a first-rate investment. I put my views to Sir Henry Norris and saw his heavy brows contract. He did not like spending money on player, and that was a fact. We were going along nicely, getting plenty of support, winning a good proportion of games – why this spending mania?
“Patiently and carefully I explained that the reputation of a football team, like that of a business, cannot stand still. It must either advance or retrogress. Without fuss or bother, through five or six years Arsenal had quietly advance through the ruck of teams to the edge of the limelight. Our progress had not been unnoticed. I was well aware that the recognized leaders of the League and the famous Cup-fighters put an extra bit of determination , and saved up their very best men, for our matches. Fame always brings that penalty. We were challenging the finest teams in the game, and they naturally wanted to hold their proud reputations. We had got to that state where we must accept their challenge and go all out to seize the leadership ourselves. To do it, we needed stars. Especially one star. I knew his name. Charlie Buchan.”
Now at this point we need to break off and see if Knighton’s assertion of progress was true. Here’s Arsenal’s position in the league since he took over in 1919
Progress is hard to see in this chart. Points gained had hovered around the 42 mark until the season before the Buchan bid when the club slipped back to 19th. Twice Knighton’s team had had a player scoring over 20 goals, and each time the player had quickly faded away. And 1924/25 – in progress when Knighton reports his audacious bid to break the world transfer record, actually turned out to be a disaster.
Thus his story does not stack up. But let us continue with the tale – and I am not cutting to suit my case – the paragraphs that follow continue directly from those above and nothing is being edited out…
“That was our need – an inside forward in the top class, to hold Arsenal’s attack together and constantly menace enemy goals. Buchan was with Sunderland at the time. I knew he would cost us a lot of money, and when Sir Henry and I had argued ourselves to a deadlock, I still felt that I ought to get Buchan to come to Highbury, no matter what he cost. But knowing a thing like that, and getting your man, are two quite different things. Football managers have to watch times and seasons, listen to whispers in the wind. So I watched and listened as hard as George Robey [the popular music hall artist] himself.
“Then, out of a rustle of drifting football rumours, suddenly emerged the opportunity I was waiting for – Charlie Buchan was having trouble with his club, and when I checked up my inside information, I was informed that he had sworn never to kick another ball for them. He had been out of the side for two weeks when I heard this.
“Here was my man, plainly open to an offer of a change – and Sir Henry Norris was away at his luxurious villa at Nice, where he refused to be disturbed with any business whatsoever!
“I called a Board Meeting at Highbury and talked and talked until I had persuaded the other directors to let me go up to Sunderland and negotiate for Buchan. It took me hours to get my own way, for we all knew what Norris would say – but I knew I was right and I made them see that the team needed the player. In the end they even agreed that I should go so far as to offer £6000 – absolutely a record transfer fee in football at that time.
“For, two years before that, Sir Henry had been working like a beaver to bring in a League rule that transfer fees should be restricted to a £1650 maximum. Once he had set his mind on a thing he never drew back his hand till the job was done, and never had pity on anyone who stood between him and hist object. If I brought off this record deal for his own club, his position would become impossible, for he could hardly go on advocating a limit of one-quarter what he had paid himself!
“I met Bob Dyle, then the Sunderland Manager, and talked for three hours. He wouldn’t budge. I raised my price still further above safety – to £7000, a little secret I have always kept to myself until now, as it did not concern anyone, since the deal never came off.
“They say the wages of sin is death. I didn’t not even spend £5000 for Buchan was definitely “not for sale” just then: but Sir Henry when he came back to Highbury and heard of my escapade, never forgave me; and I believe he marked me down to go from that very moment.
“But he never went directly at an object like that. He was much as usual, after the first outburst – only he began tidying up loose ends in a manner that spoke eloquently. My persistence in this matter of equipping Arsenal with some star scorers (the policy that carried the team into absolute pre-eminence after I left them) was one cause of my being sacked in the end. There was another. If I had stayed one more season I should certainly have had that benefit match which Sir Henry had promised me so long before. I knew the time was coming, and tackled him about it, but he was evasive, and made a long and roundabout explanation in favour of delay.
“This put the seal on my doom For a little while further, uncomfortable and uncertain, I stayed at Highbury feeling frustrated that the splendid and solid team I had helped to build could get no further without some shooting stars. What boys they were – among those I brought there were Baker, Whittaker, John, Hopkins, Milne, Turnbull, Brain, Kennedy, Mackie, Moffatt, Blythe, most of them without spending a penny on transfer fees.
“What a riot – of goals – came when I gave Bob Turnbull his chance as the Arsenal centre-forward! Bob had played for the Army as a fullback in a match at Chelsea when I first saw him and afterwards signed him. He was the toughest footballer I ever knew….”
And perhaps we should stop there, not just because at this point the autobiography meanders off into talking about various players but also because although it is true that Turnbull did score 20 goals in 1922/23, we might also say that he was the only player to reach 20 league goals in a season under Knighton. He omits to say that across 1923/4 and 1924/5, only Brain and Woods got into double figures, and they both scored 12.
We could also perhaps jump forwards and not that in 1924/5 Arsenal ended up 20th – one place above relegation. And there are other errors too. Sir Henry’s argument about restricting transfer fees was combined with one of removing the maximum wage, but the AGM of the summer of 1924 was the last time he raised it, and he was told, quite reasonably, that a committee had, in response to his earlier request, explored the issue in depth in 1923, and rejected the idea. The 1924 salvo was merely a reminder that there was an alternative. I didn’t get to be debated.
And there are other issues, like the fact that Sir Henry refused to be disturbed in France. That simply does not sound right to me, any more than Knighton suggesting that he was a director with the ability to call a board meeting and get them to override the chairman and owner on this issue.
Further, he argues that he persuaded the board to let him negotiate for a £6000 transfer, and went up to £7000 of his own volition, even though he claims he knew he was acting without authority and that this would have compromised Sir Henry’s position with the League and the FA.
But what he doesn’t say was that seven months later Arsenal did buy the player for £2000 plus £100 a goal (£4000 all told at it turns out). He also doesn’t say that had he succeeded in his deal he would have got Buchan few months earlier for almost twice the cost to Arsenal the following summer. If true that makes him an awful negotiator.
I never ran a football club but I was chair of an advertising agency that employed 35 people, and if in one of my absences I had found my fellow directors had torn up our wages structure and employed someone without my knowledge I would have been more than a little miffed. If the story were true, it was an utterly outrageous thing to have tried and would have deserved a termination of the contract on the spot.
But is the tale true? I suspect probably not, simply because so much of the associated story is untrue or unbeliebable. The offer he claims was rejected was itself outrageous, he was not pushing the team forward as he suggests, and as for the notion that other clubs held back their best players for when they played Arsenal – a team that had only just avoided relegation the year before – that is ludicrous.
The only source for the story that there ever was an Arsenal bid before the Chapman bid in the winter of 1924/5 is Knighton’s autobiography. The world record offer (rejected), his calling a board meeting, acting without Sir Henry’s knowledge, the progress the club was making, teams holding back their best players until they played Arsenal – to me it has all the marks of Knighton’s latter day fantasies. We have caught him out before, and there are factual errors here too.
Thus I think the whole story was completely fabricated to help the sales of the book and the Sunday newspaper that serialised it. On the balance of probabilities I think it goes like this:
20 years later Knighton is writing his autobiography and it is clear that no sooner had he left than the club went from 20th in his final season to 2nd in Chapman’s first season. So to make himself less of a failure he needs to find an excuse. The excuse is that Sir Henry stopped him buying players, but he was willing to try. I also think that by this time, 20 years on, Knighton had forgotten how much Buchan actually cost and went from memory, trusting that no one else would remember either, and he wove his tale around that.
I can’t prove that of course, but it certainly fit what we know of Knighton.
Here is the table of matches for December.
|06/12/1924||Preston North End||H||W||4-0||30,000|
And the table for the end of the year…
|1||West Bromwich Albion||23||14||4||5||36||17||2.118||32|
|16||West Ham United||23||7||6||10||27||34||0.794||20|
|22||Preston North End||23||6||2||15||22||48||0.458||14|
The series continues with January 1925, very shortly.
We are currently evolving a complete series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.
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.
- April 1915: New revelations concerning perhaps the most important month in Arsenal’s history
- November / December 1915: the match fixing scandal comes to the fore: Norris is armed
The voting and the comments before and after the election
- The first suggestion that Arsenal could be elected to the 1st division.
- Arsenal in January 1919: rioting in the streets and the question of promotion
- What the media said about the election of Arsenal to the 1st division in 1919
- Arsenal prepare for the vote on who should be promoted to the First Division
- March 1919: The vote to extend the league and what the media said
- Why did the clubs vote for Arsenal rather than Tottenham in March 1919?
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?
- May/June 1921: Knighton the fantasist. The fourth allegation.
- Why did Arsenal manager Knighton turn down Man City but not buy players? Summer of 1921.
The Fifth Story:
The Sixth Allegation
- March 1922: Desperate times for Arsenal, Norris returns and the transfer limit allegation overturned
The Seventh Allegation
- Arsenal in the Summer 1923: another Knighton allegation but the evidence is again against him.
- Anticipation a plenty but another terrible start to the season: August 1923 – the non-signing of Moffatt.
The Eighth Tale
That Knighton could call a meeting of directors, get them to agree a £6000 transfer fee when Sir Henry had placed a much lower limit on deals, and then exceed even this limit, and that he left the club in fine shape when he departed. That is the story of this episode.
A full index of articles is found on the Henry Norris at the Arsenal page