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Managerial fantasies about West Ham, as a deep rot sets in. Arsenal in January 1925.

By Tony Attwood

Updated 4 August to correct fact that WHU were a second division team when they reached the cup final, and note that the strangeness of the lack of contemporary leaks about the drugs tale.

1925 – a monumental year in the history of Arsenal, (and indeed in terms of rule changes, football worldwide) began with WBA clear at the top of the league.  As for Arsenal there was real hope that the club had weathered a recent lack of form, and now with a strong looking squad could make progress and build on the good results from the earlier part of the season, which had kept Arsenal in the top half of the table.

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 West Bromwich Albion 23 14 4 5 36 17 2.118 32
2 Huddersfield Town 23 11 8 4 36 15 2.400 30
3 Bolton Wanderers 22 10 8 4 40 24 1.667 28
4 Birmingham City 23 11 6 6 26 26 1.000 28
5 Newcastle United 24 7 12 5 33 24 1.375 26
6 Liverpool 22 10 6 6 36 29 1.241 26
7 Sunderland 23 11 4 8 35 31 1.129 26
8 Arsenal 23 10 4 9 30 25 1.200 24
9 Notts County 23 9 6 8 19 16 1.188 24
10 Aston Villa 22 7 10 5 36 33 1.091 24
11 Manchester City 23 8 7 8 47 41 1.146 23
12 Bury 21 7 9 5 26 30 0.867 23
13 Blackburn Rovers 24 7 8 9 31 35 0.886 22
14 Tottenham Hotspur 23 6 9 8 28 25 1.120 21
15 Cardiff City 22 7 6 9 32 33 0.970 20
16 West Ham United 23 7 6 10 27 34 0.794 20
17 Sheffield United 23 6 8 9 27 36 0.750 20
18 Leeds United 23 6 7 10 28 33 0.848 19
19 Everton 23 5 8 10 21 32 0.656 18
20 Burnley 21 4 8 9 20 31 0.645 16
21 Nottingham Forest 23 5 6 12 19 37 0.514 16
22 Preston North End 23 6 2 15 22 48 0.458 14

Also encouraging for Arsenal was the fact that the club was clearly the leading force in London football at the moment.  It was above Tottenham and West Ham in the first division and Chelsea and Fulham were in the second.   What’s more, Arsenal were getting the top crowds in the League – and even Chelsea, who had beaten Arsenal to that honour in the past, were now languishing behind Arsenal.

So there was real hope, and yet this turned out to be one of the weirdest months in the history of Arsenal, although just how weird most fans would not have fully appreciated at the time.

With the preliminary rounds of the FA Cup concluded the draw had been made for the 1st round proper, and Arsenal had been drawn away to West Ham.

Meanwhile the directors of the club adopted a new policy of buying up any occasional shares in the company that came on the market.   Although I have no evidence, I suspect that they would have let shareholders know that they were willing to buy – although this would not have been done formally, since that would have meant the directors would have had to make a formal offer to buy up all the shares.

Instead they adopted the perfectly legitimate ploy of waiting for anyone who had one or two shares to sell to approach them, and they would buy.  For example on 1 January 1925 William Hall bought a single share from a private share owner.  Sir Henry did the same, buying up a single share from Sir John Belles who he may well have known, in February.

Since there was no question of a bid for shares or an offer of the company for sale, this was normal everyday trading, and it appears a modest amount of it went on in the early part of the year.

And we can say that the purchasing was not being done because the directors knew there would be a sudden upturn in the club’s fortunes; indeed the opposite happened.  But Arsenal were planning to buy Highbury, and it made sense to reduce any complaints at the use of money for the ground, which some might argue would be better spent on the team.

Meanwhile, ass for the manager, either the story that he subsequently told about this month was a fantasy invented to beef up his series of newspaper articles or else he had truly lost his sense of reality – something that was not inclined to raise the price of the shares either.

For what happened in this month was that as well as its normal League commitments Arsenal played in the FA Cup against West Ham.

Leslie Knighton, Arsenal’s manager wrote at some length in his autobiography about this game although we should note that neither he nor any of the players involved ever mentioned this affair in the 20 years between the events and their publication in the book.

Chapter X of the autobiography pulls no punches for it is titled, “I dope Arsenal for a Cup tie” and he says (page 74) that Arsenal had been having a bad run and he was approached by a famous Harley Street doctor with his pills while in his office contemplating the tactics to employ to overcome West Ham in the 1st round of the FA Cup

By way of background we may note that from December on to the date of the WHU game (and he is specific it is WHU away in the cup, so we know exactly when the events are purported to have taken place) Arsenal had won three and lost four games.  Not perfect by a long chalk, but in comparison to some of the club’s worst spells under Knighton, not exceptional.

But Knighton expresses in his book, that at this moment he had considerable concerns not about Arsenal’s declining league position, but about the forthcoming West Ham cup game, and it is reasonable surely to ask why he should be so worried about this match.  After all, Arsenal’s record in the FA Cup since Knighton took over was hardly exciting.  Here is the complete list of matches.

Round Date Against Result Crowd
1 (home) 10/1/1920 Rochdale W: 4-2 26,596
2 (away) 31/1/1920 Bristol City L: 0-1 25,900
1 (away) 8/1/1921 QPR L: 0-2 18,000
1 (home) 7/1/1922 QPR D:0-0 31,000
1 (away) 11/1/1922 QPR W:2-1 15,000
2 (away) 28/1/1922 Bradford W:3-2 10,400
3 (home) 18/2/1922 Leicester City W:3-0 39,421
4: (home) 4/3/1922 Preston NE D:1-1 37,517
4: (away) 8/3/1922 Preston NE L: 1-2 (aet) 30,000
1: (away) 13/1/1923 Liverpool D: 0-0 37,000
1: (home) 17/1/1923 Liverpool L: 1-4 39,000
1: (home) 12/1/1924 Luton Town W: 4-1 37,500
2: (away) 2/2/1924 Cardiff City L: 0-1 35,000

To be clear on this numbering of rounds, up to the cup final of 1925, the non-league teams entered in the preliminary rounds as now, and the league teams entered in Round 1.  1925 in fact was the last year this happened, as from 1925/6 onward the current system of teams from the top two divisions entering in the 3rd round and teams from Division 3 (north and south) entered in Round 1, the non-league sides playing each other in the preliminary rounds, as now.

So under Knighton Arsenal had once got to the quarter finals but otherwise had gone out at the first or second time of asking.  They had won just five cup matches in five years, and not a single one of these was against a first division side.

And just to be clear, Knighton’s quarter final appearance with Arsenal was certainly not a record for the club.  Arsenal had twice made the semi-finals while playing at Plumstead.  So Knighton’s record with the knock out trophy was fairly modest.

But Knighton notes none of this in his autobiography.  Instead he makes the point that he was very specifically concerned about this match in the 1st round of the FA Cup, because, most specifically, Arsenal were playing against West Ham.  So could it be because West Ham United were Arsenal’s bogey team?

In fact Arsenal had only played West Ham five times in their history, once in the cup with a replay in the Plumstead days, and three times in the league, winning once and losing twice by the odd goal.

Date Match Res Score Competition
13 Jan 1906 Woolwich Arsenal v West Ham Utd D 1-1 FA Cup
18 Jan 1906 West Ham Utd v Woolwich Arsenal W 2-3 FA Cup
27 Aug 1923 West Ham Utd v Arsenal L 1-0 Division One
10 Sep 1923 Arsenal v West Ham Utd W 4-1 Division One
27 Sep 1924 West Ham Utd Arsenal L 1-0 Division One

So why did Knighton write in his notorious “Chapter X” about hours at his desk plotting and planning how to overcome West Ham?  Were they perhaps a particular force now, in 1924/5?

Here is a list of their 1st Division games for the period Knighton was writing about.

Date Games Res Score
01 Nov 1924 Leeds United v West Ham United L 2-1
08 Nov 1924 West Ham United v Birmingham City L 0-1
15 Nov 1924 West Bromwich Albion v West Ham United L 4-1
22 Nov 1924 West Ham United v Tottenham Hotspur D 1-1
29 Nov 1924 Bolton Wanderers v West Ham United L 5-0
06 Dec 1924 West Ham United v Notts County W 3-0
13 Dec 1924 Everton v West Ham United L 1-0
20 Dec 1924 West Ham United v Sunderland W 4-1
25 Dec 1924 West Ham United v Cardiff City W 3-2
26 Dec 1924 Cardiff City v West Ham United L 2-1
27 Dec 1924 Preston North End v West Ham United L 3-2
03 Jan 1925 West Ham United v Blackburn Rovers W 2-0

What we have are four wins, seven defeats, 1 draw, and as a result of what we might call this “modest” record hey were currently sitting 16th in the league.

So still we must ask, why all the fuss?  Knighton writes (page 74) “then during the cup rounds, we were drawn against the Hammers.  Rightly has West Ham gained this menacing nickname.  They have a mighty reputation as tough fighters who can beat the most polished and skilful opposition into a frazzle.  A year or two before our match with them they had thudded their way to the Final.

“I was sitting in my office in Highbury with my head in my hand, wondering how on earth we could make sure of putting West Ham out of the cup, when a card was handed to me.  It bore the name of a distinguished West End doctor.”

Now the story of how Knighton confesses to drugging him team in order to get them to win this match is widely known; but its only source is his autobiography.  The doctor in the case has never been identified.

But as we can see, West Ham are set up as something very special indeed.  And yet this was only their second year ever in the first division.  Prior to that they had spent three years in the second division, finally gaining promotion by coming runners up.  Before that they were 16 years in the first division of the Southern League, highest position 4th, which they achieved twice.

Yes it is true WHU had reached the cup final – more than Arsenal ever had – but that final was more famous for the white horse and the chaotic scenes of the crowds on the pitch rather than anything West Ham did.  And we might remember, as most people were fully aware at the time, that in getting to the final West Ham United had only played clubs from the Second Division or lower: Hull City, Plymouth Argyle, Brighton and Hove Albion, Southampton (beaten at the third attempt) and Derby County. They had had the easiest journey to the final it was possible even for a second division club to have; the shock would have been if they had not made it through.

As for the league, in their two seasons in the first division (1923/4 and 1924/5) West Ham came 13th; making this team out to be a team of giants or thugs was absolute bunkum.   Which only leave the question, why did Knighton do it?

Of course I can’t tell you exactly, since he never confessed (and newspaper “spill the beans” contracts usual contain fairly specific non-disclosure clauses) but here’s a possibility.  The story of Knighton’s final year at Arsenal is pretty dire – they had got to mid-table as we have seen, but in the months we have not yet covered, slipped badly, and having ended up once place above the relegation spots.  After such a disaster Knighton was sacked to make way for Chapman.  So to give himself credibility and to make his book and newspaper serialisation more exciting he’s looking around for tales to tell.  He’s already written about his (I think very unlikely) trip to the North East to sign Buchan for nearly twice as much as Arsenal paid for him a few months later.  Now he is telling us that West Ham were a team of super devils with a menacing nickname.  (Is Hammers more menacing than Gunners?  I am not sure about that; besides which their actual nickname is the Irons.)

So now we have the infamous meeting with the Harley Street specialist who gives him pills for the players to take, which don’t actually work as they should.  It’s all a fiasco, the players protest, Arsenal are knocked out.  But as a story it works because it has an extra ingredient, as we shall see in a moment.  And it worked, since I suspect that for most people who know anything about this season it is the drugs scandal that they remember, not how near Arsenal came to being relegated.

Personally I don’t believe a word of the drugs story, but I can no more prove my doubt than anyone can prove that it happened.

However we are in danger of getting ahead of ourselves here for the aim is to cover all Arsenal’s games during this era, and we must now return to the opening game of 1925, which was against Liverpool away.  Arsenal had won the reverse match, at Highbury, 2-0 in September, during their fine opening to the season, but since then Liverpool had improved and now sat two points above Arsenal.  Liverpool had a fine home record – won 7, drawn 3 lost 2, while Arsenal’s away record was modest: two wins, two draws and six defeats.  The only change in the line up was that Baker, the regular right back was injured and Mackie came in for his fourth match of the season.  Hoar scored for Arsenal but it was not enough as we lost 2-1.

The FA Cup 1st round was scheduled for 10 January but much of London was beset by dense heavy fog and so the match at West Ham was postponed.  However Knighton states that shortly before kick off the players each took the pill.  Yet it was clear from the off that there was a chance that the game could be called off.  Indeed if one looks at the weather reports for the day, the website London Weather which has records all the weather in the UK across the years, says “between the 10th and 12th there was persistent dense fog, some of it freezing.”

Knighton portrays events as the players getting ready, taking their pills and then the fog comes down.  The weather report clearly says there was fog all day.  So why take the pills?

The match was then scheduled for 12 January and was again called off due to the fog, but again it is suggested the pills were taken just before kick off.  The same logic applies – there was persistent fog all day.

But let us turn away from this nonsense for a moment because the following day, 13 January, Sir Henry was in the High Court for the second part of the re-valuation of Kinnaird Park Estate Company shares which we have noted before. This was just a formality and would have involved nothing beyond swearing the oath, the signing of documents, and declaring who he was.  It is of interest, for it does attest to the fact that Sir Henry was indeed in London at this time.

On 14 January the WHU game was finally played   When it was played, and ended 0-0.   The only big shock of the round came in South Wales, where Darlington of the Third Division (North) held Cardiff of the first division to a goalless draw.

Next Arsenal were home to Newcastle on 17 January.  Newcastle were known as the away draw specialists having drawn seven of their 12 games thus far.  The regular Arsenal team played, but to no avail; Arsenal lost 0-2.  It was their fourth home defeat of the season, and fortress Highbury was clearly crumbling.

The following Wednesday Arsenal played West Ham in the replay at Highbury, with 34,160 in the crowd, and this time it was 2-2, Brain getting both goals for Arsenal.  Again it is said that Arsenal players were offered the pills before the game, but this time the players refused to take them.

The third and final league match of January took place on 24th – away to Sheffield United.  The Yorkshire club had been staging a significant recovery in their form of late for having lost four league matches in a row in the early autumn they had just gone eight without defeat prior to the game against Arsenal.   And they duly made it nine without loss with a 2-1 victory, Ramsay getting Arsenal’s goal.

Two days later the FA Cup tie against West Ham was finally settled, without recourse to pills, on 26 January at Stamford Bridge, the result being West Ham 1 Arsenal 0, the goal coming at 87 minutes, just in time to avoid extra time.

So we are left with a question in relation to the drugs.  If (as obviously in the tale, Knighton must have believed) the drugs would work why did he not use them to improve Arsenal’s awful league form?  Why take them when the game was likely to be postponed because of fog?

And one might add one more thing.  How come not a word of this leaked out to the press at the time?  Players were paid pitiful wages in those days and the chance of a couple of pounds extra in return for the story of the century would surely have been too much to resist.  But we never heard a word of it until Knighton wrote his autobiography.  That just seems too unlikely for words.

To me everything about the story is something made up with a record book of the fixtures in hand, to suit the needs of either the newspaper or the book publisher.  It is easier to tell as a tale totally related to West Ham and the Cup.  And 20 years on, would anyone remember whether West Ham were a force to be reckoned with at this time or whether the fog suddenly came down, or was there all day?  What it does do, in the biography at least, is take the focus away from what was happening to Arsenal’s form.

For the moment, things were still not too bad as the table now looked like this

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 West Bromwich Albion 26 16 4 6 40 20 2.000 36
2 Huddersfield Town 27 13 9 5 43 20 2.150 35
3 Bolton Wanderers 26 13 8 5 45 25 1.800 34
4 Newcastle United 28 10 13 5 41 25 1.640 33
5 Liverpool 26 13 6 7 46 36 1.278 32
6 Birmingham City 27 13 6 8 31 31 1.000 32
7 Sunderland 27 13 4 10 40 34 1.176 30
8 Bury 26 10 10 6 35 36 0.972 30
9 Manchester City 27 10 8 9 55 43 1.279 28
10 Notts County 26 9 8 9 20 18 1.111 26
11 West Ham United 26 10 6 10 33 35 0.943 26
12 Aston Villa 26 7 11 8 39 44 0.886 25
13 Sheffield United 27 7 11 9 31 39 0.795 25
14 Arsenal 26 10 4 12 32 31 1.032 24
15 Tottenham Hotspur 27 7 10 10 32 32 1.000 24
16 Cardiff City 26 8 7 11 33 35 0.943 23
17 Leeds United 27 7 8 12 32 38 0.842 22
18 Burnley 25 7 8 10 28 34 0.824 22
19 Blackburn Rovers 27 7 8 12 33 43 0.767 22
20 Everton 27 7 8 12 25 38 0.658 22
21 Nottingham Forest 26 5 7 14 19 43 0.442 17
22 Preston North End 26 6 2 18 23 56 0.411 14

 Arsenal, with just one defeat in the first six, and the continuing hope of a solid upper to mid table finish, were now down to 14th, just two points above a gaggle of clubs on the 22 to 24 point mark, although the awful form of Nottingham Forest and Preston North End looked to be the safety net all the other clubs could rely on, Arsenal’s hope of progression were being dashed week by week.

Here finally is the record for the month…  You will note an extra game has been added – a friendly with Chelsea on 31 January.  This date was that chosen for the 2nd round of the FA Cup, and with both Chelsea and Arsenal having been eliminated at the first hurdle, the friendly was clearly fixed up to fill a hole in the fixture list.

But also it had an extra function: it was a test match for the proposed change to the offside rule.  Now I am going to deal with this change to the rule in detail in the next chapter of this series, but in essence the proposal was this:

Crowds were declining and something needed to be done about it.  The major cause (it was suggested) was the way certain teams were playing the off-side game.  Such tactics did cause a fair amount of jeering from the crowd, although there was no proof it was this that was affecting crowd numbers.  But it was proposed to reduce the number of players who needed to be behind the attackers when the ball was kicked forward from three to two.  This may have been the first such game between professional sides to experiment with the rule – it certainly is the first example I’ve come across.

More details in Experimenting with the offside law as Arsenal lose 6 in a row, scoring just 2.

Anyway, for the Chelsea game the team was a mixture of first teamers and reserves

Lewis

Baker Collin

Young Blyth Irving

Rutherford Brain Woods Neil Haden

Here are the matches for the month

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
03/01/1925 Liverpool A L 1-2 24,000
14/01/1925 West Ham United (FAC) A D 0-0 26,000
17/01/1925 Newcastle United H L 0-2 30,000
21/01/1925 West Ham United (FAC) H D 2-2 34,160
24/01/1925 Sheffield United A L 1-2 12,000
26/01/1925 West Ham United (FAC) N L 0-1 36,955
31/01/1925 Chelsea (Friendly) H L 0-1

 


We are currently evolving a series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  The complete index to the articles that cover the period from 1910 to this point are given in 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.

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

2 comments to Managerial fantasies about West Ham, as a deep rot sets in. Arsenal in January 1925.

  • David Moore

    An interesting read, found by chance. One observation regarding the 1923 final, you mention that West Ham had an easy route to the final for a 1st division side, but they were in fact a 2nd division side then and were promoted to the 1st division that season. Interesting to see how FA cups have gone for the 2 sides since.

  • Quite right, I was getting carried away. What I meant to write was an easy route even for a second division side.

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