By Tony Attwood
As you will have gathered from this series, (although I suspect you already knew), Leslie Knighton was at this moment approaching the end of his time at Arsenal, and the club most certainly had a “this can’t go on” feeling about it as they moved into the last full month of the season in April 1925.
Here is the table as the last full month of the season opened…
|1||West Bromwich Albion||35||20||7||8||53||31||1.710||47|
|10||West Ham United||34||13||9||12||49||48||1.021||35|
|21||Preston North End||34||9||3||22||32||65||0.492||21|
Arsenal had eight league games left to play (and they did also fit in an extra friendly as we shall see) and were seven points clear of Preston. That left 16 points available and there were many that remembered the extraordinary escape the previous season by Preston from just such a dire position.
Just to make matters even more spicy, one of the fixtures was actually against Preston – a real “four pointer”. Even more daunting was the fact that Arsenal had to play the league leaders West Bromwich Albion twice. WBA had won the league in 1920, and Huddersfield who were now just one point behind had won it the previous season. Newcastle were still in the race but had played two games more than WBA and were thought of as less likely to win.
Arsenal’s first game of this final furlong was against Aston Villa who as can be seen above were actually below Arsenal in the league. Although Villa had a modest home record, Arsenal’s away form (only two wins and two draws all season) was so poor (just 13 goals scored) the feeling was that Villa were the likely winners and the best Arsenal could go for would be a draw.
In the end the result was Aston Villa 4 Arsenal 0. Arthur Bourke in the Gazette stated quite clearly that Arsenal’s first team was “not good enough to earn laurels in the First Division”. It was Arsenal’s third straight defeat meaning Arsenal had won two and lost ten in the last 12. In these latest three defeats they had scored one and conceded eight.
The team was identical to that used in the defeat to Sunderland and indeed in the last four games the only change of personnel there had been was the use of Tom Whittaker in place of the injured Baker for one match.
For the next game against Cardiff, Mackie dropped out, and Milne came back, meaning that the entire defence (keeper, full backs and half backs) was the same as used in the opening eight games of the season in which Arsenal won five, drew two and lost one. Indeed with Woods at centre forward that made seven of the original starting XI in the lineup. And with this lineup Arsenal did earn a 1-1 draw with Brain scoring. According to the newspaper reports Arsenal could have won, but for the fact that at one point they thought the ball had gone behind the goal line and so stopped defending. The referee however thought otherwise, let play continue and Cardiff scored.
Most of the reports of the day don’t tell us who was in the directors’ box for each game, but we know that Sir Henry Norris was in England as he is recorded as being at the quarterly meeting of the Feltmakers’ Company – the charitable fund raising liveried company to which Sir Henry had belonged for a number of years now. And indeed given the events of this time in Arsenal’s history, of course Sir Henry must have been in London. He was, after all, buying the Highbury ground for the club, and looking to sort out the managerial situation.
11 April was Easter Saturday, and Arsenal were to play Preston. The foot of the table now looked like this…
|21||Preston North End||37||9||4||24||34||69||0.493||22|
Preston had gained just one point from their last three matches, and thus there was no last minute dash for safety to be seen as had been witnessed last season. There were five games to play for the bottom four clubs, and thus technically Preston could reach 32 points but on this form it seemed very unlikely. Arsenal once more put out the same team – and lost 0-2. It was Preston’s first win in five and only their second time in 1925 that they had scored more than one goal in a match.
Arsenal had now lost four and drawn one of the last five, scoring two conceding 11. And although relegation still seemed extremely unlikely the situation was not improved by the fact that the next game was the first of two consecutive matches against West Brom.
At the top of the table the positions now read…
|2||West Bromwich Albion||37||21||8||8||54||31||1.742||50|
With up to ten points to play for the top three, it was still possible that any of the top five could win the league, but realistically all attention was on the top three as favourites. Huddersfield had won last season on goal average, and if it came to equal points it looked as if they would do so again. The feeling was that they were the favourites and would thus win the league twice in a row.
For this game Arsenal introduced Joe Hughes who had come from Guildford United for his one and only league game. He later sustained a serious injury and never played football again, moving on to be a teacher in later life.
On 13 April Arsenal lost 0-2 away to West Bromwich Albion and that made it one draw and five defeats in six games for the Reds, and WBA, challenging as they were for the title, must have thought the return game the following day (14 April) would be a walkover. Young who had last played at centre forward back in December, returned to the Arsenal team while Baker, who was also injured in the WBA game, was declared unable to play, and indeed did not play for the rest of the season, returning only in mid-September.
By chance this was also Alf Baker’s benefit match. He had signed from Huddersfield in May 1919 and after that first season had always managed 20+ league games. It is said that he played in every position – I think that is an exaggeration, and he was up to this time predominantly a right half, but he certainly was a player who was willing and able to fit in anywhere that he was needed which was clearly a bonus for a manager like Knighton.
And to everyone’s surprise, probably including the Arsenal players, Arsenal won 2-0, Brain and John getting the goals. It was the first win in seven, meaning that the last 16 games had yielded just three wins, one draw and 12 defeats.
This most unexpected result had implications at the top and bottom of the table….
|2||West Bromwich Albion||39||22||8||9||56||33||1.697||52|
|12||West Ham United||40||14||11||15||57||58||0.983||39|
|21||Preston North End||39||10||5||24||36||69||0.522||25|
At the top it was Huddersfield who were clearly the favourites, one point ahead and with a game in hand – WBA must have been expecting to have taken the top spot themselves with a win at Arsenal, thus putting pressure on Chapman’s team. At the bottom Preston could equal Arsenal’s points total but they would need to knock in a few goals while winning those games, and Arsenal would have to return to losing each match by a fairly hefty score. The latter could happen, and the goal average was not impossible to overcome – but it would take both a resurgence by Preston and an utter collapse by Arsenal at the same time for Arsenal to go down. One draw in the last three for Arsenal would survive.
And indeed Arsenal did do it, and in style in their next game against Burnley who themselves were only just out of trouble. Indeed Burnley had been on their own slide down the table of late, with just one win and two draws in the last eight games.
But in truth nothing really prepared anyone for the result of Arsenal 5 Burnley 0. With the only way of finding the result for those who were not there being in the Late Final editions of the evening papers, the story circulated that the score contained in the Stop Press was a misprint, but no it was true. Just as on 20 December Arsenal had suddenly scored six against Leeds so they had woken up and knocked in five. True Woods and Ramsey were back in the team but the other nine were the stalwarts of the last month.
So Arsenal were safe – with another escape near the close of the season. Preston had gone down.
Then on 20 April Arsenal played another friendly experimenting with the new offside law. This followed the friendly with Chelsea on 31 January and the league match against Huddersfield on 14 February. Sally Davies says the Joe Hughes played in this game, and it may have been the occasion in which he sustained the injury that ended his career. He certainly did not play for the first team again – so if it was not now, it must have been in a reserve match – or nothing to do with football at all.
As for the game it would really be wonderful to know how these experimental matches were arranged. For example, was every team playing such games to get ready for the potential change – which as yet had not been fully approved by IFAB, or was Arsenal simply ahead of the game? Was Sir Henry already in talks with Chapman who was advising him on the need for such matches? I really don’t seem to have way of finding any of this out, but if you can find a reliable source, even for just one other club that would be interesting to know.
Arsenal now had two matches to go in the league, but before then, on 22 April, Sir Henry Norris and his family sold Lichfield House and moved out. Where they moved to, or why they moved, is not known.
Arsenal now had two away games left to play – against Leeds on 25 April (lost 0-1) and against Bury on 2 May (lost 0-2). And that was it, the season which had started with such high hopes, ended with the proverbial whimper and most certainly not with a bang.
Sally Davies tells us that Sir Henry went to the annual festival of the United Grand Lodge of England (the Freemasons) on 29 April – the first major event of the Freemasons he had attended in over a year. As we have seen, he was a past grand sword bearer – a position of importance and esteem – and yet he was no longer taking part in their events. Indeed he didn’t turn up again until the same event in 1926.
This is interesting as what we have in Sir Henry’s life at this point are two major events happening – his drive to buy Highbury for Arsenal, rather than renting the ground, and his removal from public life. He was not writing articles, he was not showing his face in public that much, he had seemingly been content to let Arsenal drift dangerously close to the foot of the table these last two seasons and his company wasn’t building houses.
It all relates, I feel, to the illness and the operation, which had led to him to take up residence in the south of France. And to mention again the point I have raised before, such a move (while clearly the preserve of the very wealthy) should not be seen as that of a dilettante. Instead in the absence of cures for many ailments for which a prescription from the GP would serve us today, for those who could afford it, the warm weather in southern France was the best chance of survival that there was.
Here are the results for the end of the 1924/5 season.
|11/04/1925||Preston North End||A||L||0-2||12,000|
|13/04/1925||West Bromwich Albion||A||L||0-2||24,000|
|14/04/1925||West Bromwich Albion||H||W||2-0||21,000|
|20/04/1925||Luton Town (Friendly)||H||W||4-1|
And here is the table. As you will see, Huddersfield Town under the management of Herbert Chapman had won the league for the second season running. This time, not just on goal average but by two clear points. They were also top scorers and had the best defence.
|2||West Bromwich Albion||42||23||10||9||58||34||1.706||56|
|13||West Ham United||42||15||12||15||62||60||1.033||42|
|21||Preston North End||42||10||6||26||37||74||0.500||26|
Leicester and Man Utd were promoted from division two. And there is one final detail I would add here before we turn to what must be considered one of the most exciting and extraordinary summer’s in Arsenal’s history. The attendances for 1924/5.
Here are the top attendances for the season as shown by the website EFS Attendances
|4||Tottenham Hotspur FC||28,195||-0,8%||1|
|6||Aston Villa FC||27,965||-1,2%||1|
For the first time Arsenal were the best supported club in the land – and this in a terrible season when they were close to relegation.
But we must also note that three of the top four clubs in terms of attendance were London clubs. Thus far the only trophy ever won by a London team was the FA Cup by Tottenham while they were in the Southern League. Otherwise the dominance of the north and to a degree with Villa and WBA the Midlands, continued.
League position it seems had less to do with crowd size than we might assume – Huddersfield winning the League for the second season running were the 17th best supported club in the top division with an average gate of 17,670.
In an era when the overwhelming majority of fans paid on the gate for entry to each match Arsenal, just escaping relegation, Tottenham, very much a mid-table side, and Chelsea who came 5th in Division II, were the best supported clubs in the country.
And this summer world football was going to change the rules to make goals easier to score – which it was firmly believed would reverse the recent decline in attendances. For just to confirm that point, the average attendance in the first division for 1924/5 was 21,609, the lowest since football resumed after the war. Only the second division had seen a rise, and that was undoubtedly because it had two of the best supported clubs in the country in that league – Chelsea and Manchester United.
In 1921/2 the average crowd in the first division was 27,003. That was exceptional because it was the first post-war season, but the drop thereafter was worrying. 23,213 in 1922/3, 22,654 in 1923/4 and 21,609 in 1924/5.
Clearly London was doing its bit; it was just the rest of the country that was losing interest in football.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the story, as indeed I hope you have enjoyed the whole series from 1910 onwards. And please stay with us, because things are about to get very interesting in the next few months!
Henry Norris at the Arsenal
We are currently evolving a complete series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal. The full 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. Therefore we have separated that story out below. It raises in part the question of the validity of the chief critic of Henry Norris: the Arsenal manager from 1919 to 1925 who Norris sacked. Thus in the selection below we include articles which consider the question as to the validity of Knighton’s testimony.
For the complete index on Norris at the Arsenal please see the link above.
- 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 Strange Story