Arsenal in the summer of 1925: Knighton out and the club advertises for a manager

By Tony Attwood

As we have seen, on 2 May 1925 Arsenal played its last match of  the season – away to Bury.  Arsenal lost 2-0 and finished one place above the two relegation spots.   It was Arsenal’s worst performance since the resumption of football in 1919 although only marginally worse than the season before.   Arsenal were getting worse year on year, and a further decline would surely mean relegation.

Indeed not only did Arsenal lose on that last day of the season, so did the other north London teams: Tottenham and Clapton Orient both of whom finished mid-table in their respective leagues.  Fulham were one place below the Orient and Chelsea missed promotion back to division one by ten points.  The Times called it an “undistinguished football season”.  Leicester City and Manchester United were promoted.

On 4 May there was the funeral of Sir George Elliott, a long-time friend of Sir Henry who had also been a London Mayor and MP.  Interestingly, given that he was an old friend, Sir Henry and Lady Edith did not attend – Sir Henry’s brother representing the family.   We know that at this time Sir Henry was negotiating the purchase of Highbury for the club, and there was the issue of what to do about Arsenal’s manager.  I suspect one of these two issues occupied Sir Henry and in fact the timetable makes it look very likely as if this was the day that Knighton was told to go.

We know that Knighton’s last day in the office was Saturday 16 May.  I am not sure that there was any law at the time about how much notice anyone had to be given but if it was two complete weeks then it could well have been Monday 4 May in the morning that Knighton was given his notice.  I suspect it was rather a short meeting – but even so that was why Sir Henry did not go to the funeral.

The following Monday we have another single planning application by the Kinnaird property company approved by the local council – so the property development was continuing to tick over although still at only a fraction of the rate of the way Sir Henry and his partner used to build houses.

Athletic News appeared each Monday and it covered the departure of Knighton in its 11 May edition – which fits in with the idea that the meeting between Sir Henry and Knighton was on 4 May.   However the paper reports the matter as a resignation following a difference between himself and the board and not a sacking.  That presumably was what Sir Henry or one of his staff, wrote in the press release.   Knighton’s autobiography, not the most reliable of journals, is very clear in that he was sacked.

However the notion that Knighton resigned is a most interesting one.  Maybe the board said they were cutting his salary in half because results were so bad… Today that would be “constructive dismissal” but this concept was not introduced in law until 1968, so that may have been what happened.  Maybe he demanded more money for transfers but was told that his transfer record was 50/50 at best and the board didn’t want to give him more money.  Maybe he was told if he didn’t resign he would be sacked and that would look less good on his cv for the future.  Knighton did indeed stay in football although two divisions down, and quickly got a job with Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic FC.

“Boscombe” as they were known to their supporters had moved from the Southern League to Division III (South) in the summer of 1923, and come 21st, and then 20th in the League in their initial two seasons.  Knighton effected an improvement in his first two years taking them up to 8th and then 7th but in his third and final year they slipped back to 14th at which point he left.  However it should be noted that the club did not get to finish above 7th in the league for another nine years, before finishing sixth in 1936/7.

It may have been a coincidence of course, but putting the Arsenal and Bournemouth records together it could be that as a breath of fresh air, Knighton was able to lift a stagnating club.  But as a buyer of new players to take the club forward, he was not the man to have in the club.

Returning however to reporting of the summer of 1925, Knighton wrote a chapter in his autobiography titled, “Sacked from Highbury” which sounds hopeful in terms of providing more information on the events of May that year, but in fact from page 90 where the chapter begins on to page 94 the manager talks about the players he brought into Arsenal and how excellent they were.  Then, half way down page 94, he suddenly changes tack and writes:

“Thank goodness, none of the boys I brought to Highbury failed to do themselves justice.  I did my best to help them to improve themselves on and off the field and I got my reward in many lifelong friendships.

“Financially, however, I shall always feel that I did not get a fair return; for I never got that Benefit match after all.  When I had been with the club six years, quite suddenly I got the sack; and I believe it was simply a way round that big Benefit that Sir Henry had promised me.  When I tackled him about it finally, he made it clear that I had nothing but a verbal promise which was no use to me at all, and offered me £500 “without prejudice” instead of probably £5000 or at least £3500 which I should have received from the match proceeds.  Well, there it was…”

I will continue with the autobiography verbatim in a moment but I think it is worth pondering the situation here.

We only have Knighton’s word for the fact there was an agreement lasting six years or that Sir Henry offered him £500.  I can’t quite see what the benefit of such a contract would be – it was hardly likely that others would come poaching such an unknown and inexperienced manager.  And six years is a rather odd arrangement especially for a manager.  For while players had retain and transfer contracts with a maximum wage clause in them there was absolutely no restriction on what might be paid to a manager and what sort of contract he might have.  Given the eccentric nature of Knighton’s book it is possible that he had been given a three year contract that was renewed once (after two mid-table finishes, and just one slip) but not this time.   Without seeing the contract it is impossible to say.

But it does seem that the six year pay off agreement was not in the contract, which again seems odd if there ever was such a deal.   However since Knighton had spent a part of his final season giving the players drugs (according to his own admission) one might suspect Sir Henry had a good reason not to give him a new contract.

All in all the benefit match clause would thus seem incredibly generous.   In today’s money it is getting on for a third of a million pounds.  That’s quite a bonus, especially for three years out of six just missing relegation.

Indeed what is particularly noteworthy in the memoirs is that nowhere is there any reflection on Knighton’s success or otherwise as a manager of the team.  He writes a lot about the wonderful players he brought in, but forgets to look at his league record.  So perhaps we should do that here.  The final column below shows how many goals were scored by the top scorer in the 1st division that season

Season P
L F A Pts Pos FAC AFC Top scorer Goals Top scorer in League
1919/0 42 15 12 15 56 58 42 10th R2 White 15 37
1920/1 42 15 14 13 59 63 44 9th R1 Pagnam 18 38
1921/2 42 15 7 20 47 56 37 7th QF White 22 31
1922/3 42 16 10 16 61 62 42 11th R1 Turnbull 21 30
1923/4 42 12 9 21 40 63 33 19th R2 Woods 12 28
1924/5 42 14 5 23 46 58 33 20th R1 Brain 15 31

What we don’t see here is a team progressing, but rather we see a team in decline.  What’s more his top scorers were far and away below the best in the league.  Which is not to say that Arsenal should have had the top scorer in the league, but rather it shows just how far behind the best Arsenal were.  In four of the six seasons Arsenal’s top scorer scored under 50% of the goals scored by the best man in the league, which is quite a gap.

Further, most of the team that Knighton used in the first two seasons were players that had not been recruited by himself.  Matters declined significantly in the last two years when the team was made up almost totally of the players he had brought in.

Indeed Knighton saying, “quite suddenly I got the sack” hardly seems an adequate way to express the fact that in his final two seasons Arsenal were in a relegation struggle and came 19th and 20th (the 21st and 22nd clubs going down).  His cup exploits don’t help much either: three exits in the first round, two in the second, and one run to the quarter finals.  We can only conclude that the reason Arsenal were making sufficient profit throughout this period for the club to be willing to commit to buying the ground was because of the marketing effort surrounding the club, which I very much suspect was all down to Sir Henry.

But we must let Knighton continue…

“So I found myself suddenly out of work – as much out of work as any bricklayer or clerk on the dole, except that I could get no dole!”

This is interesting.  The National Insurance Act 1911 introduced the “dole” for certain categories of workers only so under Act it would have been most likely that Knighton would have got no unemployment pay from the state.  But the The Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 expanded this to almost all workers giving 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to all employees except those in domestic service, farm workers and civil servants.  It seems difficult to understand why Knighton didn’t get any dole.  I suspect here, as in some other places, his memory, 21 years later, might have been faulty.

In his memoirs he then goes on to complain about the advert Arsenal placed for a new manager and cites the end of the piece: Anyone who considers the paying of exorbitant transfer fees need not apply.  That is not an exact quote so again we can confirm Knighton was working from memory, but he claims he was certain he knew that the advert  referred to his attempts to recruit Buchan – which seems odd because a) Sir Henry didn’t know about the venture (according to the manager) and b) Knighton failed to get Buchan.

He continues…

“Yet as I watched Arsenal’s progress into the sun in the ensuring period, I was able to have the last laugh.  Between March 1932 and March 1934, Arsenal spent £22,500 on centre forwards alone.  This was only a very little less than I had spent in six years on the whole side, starting from scratch after years of war.  Alex James and David Jack cost the club £20,000 for the two.”

In fact, of the starting XI for Arsenal in Knighton’s first game in 1911, seven of the team (Shaw, Bradshaw, Graham, McKinnon, Rutherford, Groves, and Blyth) had all played for Arsenal in the league in the season before the war.  So rather than starting from scratch Knighton was in the lucky position of having 63% of the team ready made.

What’s more Hardinge, Buckley and Lewis, who each played a part in the 1919/20 season but did not play in the first game, had also played for Arsenal in 1914/15,  Which means Knighton far from starting from scratch had 10 first team players with experience on his books in 1919, as well as a further group of players who returned to the club a little later – as happened to many men working in war industries who had been moved from their homes and were kept in their new jobs until sufficient numbers of the original employees had returned.

In this regard Knighton was not unusual.  Every club had these problems.  But now since Knighton raises the issue, let us consider Arsenal’s centre forwards bought between March 1932 and March 1934.  They were…

  • Ernie Coleman £7500
  • Reg Stockhill £500?  (came as a 17 year old from non-league football, no fee is recorded)
  • ER Bowden £4500 (was an inside forward who played 3 games out of 123 at centre forward)
  • Ted Drake £6500

I’ve put Bowden in just to prove I’m doing my homework, but in reality the purchases Knighton is considering are Coleman and Drake and their price totalled £14,000, not £22,500.

We should remember the record transfer fee by this time was £10,890, while Knighton by his own admission in his autobiography had offered way over the world record of the day (and far more than Arsenal actually paid) when bidding for Buchan (£7000 we are told).   If there was a person wanting to spend wildly it was Knighton, not Chapman, who followed on after him.

At which point let us once more go back to the autobiography…

“As for Charlie Buchan his transfer to Arsenal gave me the biggest laugh of all.  He was brought into the side for a substantial lump sum, plus a promise of £100 for every goal he scored.  I had been quite right when I aw an Arsenal goal-scorer in him, and he rattled the ball home so often that rumour had it that there were matches afterwards in which he had to be diplomatically rested to save money.  Whether that is true or not, the system certainly proved a lot more expensive in the long run than anything I should have negotiated….”

But here again Knighton is in error.   Buchan played 39 out of the 42 league games and all six of the FA Cup games, scoring 19 goals in the league and 1 in the FA Cup.  Thus he only missed three games all season when he clearly was injured.

Second, Buchan was bought for £2000 plus £100 a goal.  As we can see he scored 20 (not the 21 Wikipedia and other sources claim – see Ollier for a detailed match by match breakdown) making the total bill £4000, which coincidentally was the original asking price.  Yet Knighton in his own biography stated (and I quote) “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.”  (More on this in December 1924 chapter)

This little extract confirms, I believe, the view that Knighton was writing 21 years after the events with no notes, just his faulty memory, and (I guess) an instruction to “spice it up a bit”.  In doing this he has effectively undermined his story.  He claims he offered £3000 more than Arsenal actually paid, and that this “certainly proved a lot more expensive in the long run than anything I should have negotiated….”  Actually, no.  If his story is right and if he had bought Buchan for £7000, Arsenal would have paid £3000 more than they did pay just a couple of months later.

The autobiography continues…

“In the end the club had to pay the inevitable penalty of fame.  They could afford anything – except failure.  When they stet up a new record in transfer fees by paying more that £10,000 for Bryn Jones, the action was widely discussed and freely condemned.  Yet by that time, they just could not afford to do less.  They needed an average crowd of fifty thousand throughout the season….”

Arsenal, by the time Bryn Jones arrived in 1938, had the largest average crowd in the country, just as they had in Knighton’s last season, but it was certainly not 50,000.  In 1937/8 it was 44,045.  In 1938/9 it was 39,102.

But let us not torment the ghost of Knighton any further with his inaccuracies, (at least for the moment), and instead return to the events of May and June 1925.

With Knighton on the move and the club clearly looking to bring in a league winning manager, sometime between the end of season and 1 June 1925, assistant trainer Tom Ratcliff applied for the trainer’s job at Brentford and got the post.  He had been with Arsenal since they moved from Plumstead to Highbury in 1913; his departure was featured in Athletic News on 1 June.  (In fact he was one of the few to leave, for Chapman kept on virtually everyone he found at the club, with many of them – most notably Tom Whittaker – quickly being promoted.)

Meanwhile just as Knighton was clearing his desk at Highbury (16 May), the Huddersfield Town League winners, complete with their manager, were heading off for Scandinavia for a post-season tour, something that had become quite common for leading teams of the day (and as champions in successive years Huddersfield were certainly that).

By that time (on 11 May in fact) the advertisement for the new manager of Arsenal had already appeared.  It read…

Arsenal Football Club is open to receive applications for the position of TEAM MANAGER. He must be experienced and possess the highest qualifications for the post, both as to ability and personal character. Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exhorbitant [sic] transfer fees need not apply.

Did Chapman and Sir Henry talk before this date?  Quite possibly. Indeed I would not be surprised if Sir Henry had not also talked to Henry Catton, who had recently retired from editing the journal and was now living in London, asking him if he could sound out Chapman to see if he would leave.  For it was not certain Chapman would leave the club.  After all he had just won the League twice with Huddersfield and Arsenal had never got anywhere near a trophy.

Either way perhaps we might reflect here on what made Chapman and Arsenal suited for each other.

Chapman was obviously the manager of the moment having taken Huddersfield to two successive titles.  He had joined in February 1921 and become secretary manager in March.

In 1919/20 Huddersfield had come second in the second division and so were promoted for the first time, but as often happened they struggled in their first season in the top flight.  Early in 1921 (so about two thirds of the way through that first season in Division I) Huddersfield approached Chapman, who had just been laid off by the coke works where he was working, and offered him the job of assistant manager.  Huddersfield were 18th in the first division, and although not immediately threatened with relegation, were nevertheless uncomfortably close to the two relegation positions.

There was however the detail that Chapman had been banned from football for life at this time because of the allegations of Leeds City (where he was manager) paying players during wartime.  Huddersfield now appealed on Chapman’s behalf and seemingly without Chapman even appearing at the hearing he was allowed back into the game within a week.  (This approach of “banned for life” rulings being overturned at one simple appeal hearing without the claimant even appearing is worth bearing in mind when we come to Sir Henry Norris’ set-to with the officialdom of the FA and League, and his own ban.  I shall of course return to this later).

In March 1921 Chapman was appointed to the top position at Huddersfield Town – secretary-manager – and things picked up within a matter of weeks.  A run of five defeats in February as Chapman arrived, was followed by just two defeats in the final 11 games of the season with Chapman as manager, leaving the club 13 points clear of relegation.

Just over a year later, in the spring of 1922 Huddersfield won the FA Cup and then the Charity Shield for the club (in just their 8th season in the league, and just 10 years after they were formed).  Huddersfield came 3rd in the league in 1923, followed of course by these two consecutive league titles in 1924 and 1925.

But why then would he leave the club at which he had just won the FA Cup and two league titles and which had given him a position and arranged to get his ban withdrawn?

The answer can be seen with the crowds.  In 1925, winning their second consecutive title Huddersfield’s average crowd was still just 17,670, compared with relegation threatened Arsenal who got 29,485.   And crowd numbers, we must remember, were just about the only source of revenue when it came to buying players.   What crowds might Arsenal (already getting the highest crowds in the league) get if they were challenging for promotion rather than fighting relegation?

And so the attraction of coming to a club with massive potential who were underachieving rather than staying at a club that had got as far as it was likely to get, and were in fact overachieving, was plain to see.  As far as we can tell, the Huddersfield manager was interested in Arsenal from the very first mention of the idea.

Meanwhile the football world meandered on its merry way.  For example, 21 May 1925 was the day on which it was reported in the press that the new rules about corners were changed (these relating to the scoring of goals direct from a corner and whether a play could touch the ball twice.)   But it wasn’t, for the rule was actually changed on 15 November 1924! Curiously the press got it wrong!!  (What are the chances of that?) 

And then, at end of May the ludicrous and ultimately fruitless enquiry into the Voysey contract by the FA happened.  The details are set out below and in all this you might care to ask yourself – why was this enquiry happening just now, just as Arsenal were in the process of getting a new manager?  Had it really taken the FA six years to gather the information on such a minor case, or was it a case of someone in the FA (or perhaps in a rival club) wanting to cause Sir Henry Norris a maximum amount of bother?

During the week of 21-26 April 1919, that is prior to the recommencement of the League after the first world war, Clem Voysey was signed officially by Arsenal; although it is suggested that he appeared in some of the final war time games listed as “Newman” in the programme – a common occurrence at the time.   As such he would have been one of the first signings of Leslie Knighton.

It is likely that he played his first game for Arsenal against Tottenham on Saturday 29 March 1919.  and we do know he played under his own name in a charity match about this time.   Reviews of his performance in the Islington Daily Gazette and Athletic News were positive.

Now it is important to note that Clem Voysey was no uneducated kid from the streets.  He was training to be a teacher when war broke out, and joined the RAF (which had been formed in 1914) probably after compulsory conscription was introduced in 1916.

Once the League resumed in 1919 he suffered a series of injuries.  He played the first five games of the 1919/20 season but then no more.  He is reported to have had a spell of treatment at the Great Northern Hospital and after that never became a regular in the Arsenal team.

His next appearance was a one off in the FA Cup match against QPR (which we lost) in January 1921.  He played the first game of 1921/2 as outside left, but again that was his only appearance for the season.  But he did make 18 appearances as centre half and inside right in 1922/23 and ten the following season.

In October 1922 Clem Voysey went onto the transfer list after allegedly refusing to play in a match for the reserves, but he stayed at Arsenal, and suffered another injury at the end of 1922. He is next reported as signing a new contract at the start of each season – which is interesting in the light of the subsequent investigations into his original contract.

There were two such investigations – which was unusual in the extreme – the first at this point in 1925 was held by the FA Emergency Committee whose remit was to simply to investigate the contract.  The records do not show who asked for this investigation or what was alleged – which is highly suspicious in itself.  Normally investigations are held because there is clear evidence of something amiss which should be investigated.

Indeed why would the FA go back and look at a contract that had been running since 1919 and which was being re-signed every year by a player who was not playing (for whatever reason)?

In the end the Committee concluded that the contract was not acceptable in its current state, that its clauses 8 and 9 “were inconsistent with each other” and anyway did not provide for Clem to be paid.

We have no record of what happened as a result of this ruling – but it is possible that with the contract being contradictory, it could be considered invalid, in which case it could be that Clem could have left Arsenal – as indeed he could have done each year given that his contract was re-signed each year.

But he didn’t – he stayed on at Arsenal FC until the end of season 1925/26 when Herbert Chapman released him, and a lot of other players.  Clem’s last game in the first team was on 6 February 1926; his last Arsenal game was for the reserves, on 2 April 1926, and overall the whole investigation seems most curious.  Indeed it really does look like someone trying to cause mischief for Arsenal.  Who was it?  Being of a suspicious mind I wonder if it was Knighton but of course there is no evidence.

We shall continue with Chapman’s move from Huddersfield to Arsenal in the next chapter.


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.

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

The Eighth Strange Story

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