When Arsenal’s 15 year plan to become the biggest club in the league, came to fruition.

By Tony Attwood

In our last episode we saw Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton either resign or be sacked from Arsenal immediately the 1924/5 season was over, and then rather peculiarly seemingly work out two week’s notice.   During that time an advertisement appeared in Athletic News advertising the post of manager at Arsenal.

We also considered the remarkable things Herbert Chapman had done following the overturning of his lifetime ban from football, changing the struggling newcomers to the first division, Huddersfield Town, with their very modest support (and thus modest income) and making them champions twice in a row, and now taking them off, on a European tour.

Quite when Chapman applied for the job at Arsenal, or when Sir Henry Norris held a preliminary informal discussion with him (if that is what he did) we don’t know, but my guess, reading the way the whole process happened is that there had been discussions of some sort between the two men from very early on in this process, not to do anything improper but to ensure that the two men understood each other’s position.

The alternative explanation is that there was no contact between the two, Knighton resigned or was sacked, the advertisement appeared, and Chapman saw it and got in touch with Sir Henry.  It is of course possible – but all I have learned about Sir Henry in investigating him for this series would make me suspect he would not leave something as important as this to chance.

Either way, on 4 June Herbert Chapman returned to England from the overseas tour with Huddersfield (leaving his players with a couple of overseas games still to play) ready for talks with Arsenal about becoming the club’s new manager.  No announcement followed this meeting, and it may well have been that either Sir Henry now felt he had to contact Huddersfield to discuss the matter of compensation, or Herbert Chapman had to go back to his club and say that he had been offered the job and was minded to take it.

While matters concerning who would be Arsenal’s manager were happening behind closed doors, the normal life of football in the summer continued and finally on 8 June the Football League voted to change the offside law to two defenders behind the ball, rather than three.

Sir Henry Norris then opened discussions with Sunderland about the transfer of Charlie Buchan.  This is interesting because this move was initiated before Herbert Chapman had signed for Arsenal as their manager.  There is nothing wrong with that except that a player of Buchan’s stature would hardly be likely to come to Arsenal, who had only just avoided relegation for the last two seasons, without knowing who the manager was going to be.

Indeed Buchan claimed later that he was told about the transfer possibility by Chapman, which suggests the discussions between the two men, had not only included the offer or a job, but also the option of buying Buchan.  Maybe Chapman made signing Buchan one of his demands for taking the job.  Or maybe Sir Henry offered it as part of the package, showing Chapman that Arsenal were intent on becoming not just the best supported club, but also the top club in the league.

Either way it seems very unlikely indeed that Sir Henry would try and convince Buchan to come to Arsenal if he was unable to tell Buchan who the next manager of Arsenal was going to be.

On 10 June, six days after Herbert Chapman had returned to England to meet Sir Henry and discuss the managerial vacancy, the directors of Huddersfield Town met with Chapman to discuss releasing him from his contract, and on this day (or at the latest 11th June) it appears that Chapman called Sir Henry to accept a job offer.  Arsenal then very rapidly bought a house in Hendon for Chapman and his family which was undoubtedly part of the deal offered to Chapman.

One of the factors that may have impressed Chapman about Arsenal, (apart from the fact that despite their poor form from 1923 to 1925 Arsenal had become the best supported club in the country) was that as I have mentioned before, Sir Henry had clearly had a plan from 1910 onwards, and it had come to fruition brilliantly.  Indeed I can’t think of another occasion – and certainly not another occasion before 1925, when a club owner had so successfully managed a rescue and recovery plan so completely.

One detail within this move from bankruptcy to best-supported club, which I think we have not noted before is the fact that Sir Henry was a superb publicist.  The creation of the first Footballers’ Battalion was, as we noted at the time, undertaken in the face of strong antipathy towards football from some in the governing classes.  Sir Henry’s administrative talents had also made Fulham one of the few places that was able to carry out the census of men who might join the military demanded by the government before conscription was introduced – and it was this that led to his work in the War Office.

And we should now note, Arsenal was at the forefront of advertising football matches.  Previously clubs did nothing more than put a notice in the local paper about forthcoming games so that supporters would know what match was on what day.  The view (and it is something that can still be heard today in all walks of business and industry, in my experience as one who has worked for many years in advertising) is that people will come to matches if they want to, and won’t if they don’t.  You can’t do much about it.

As a successful businessman Henry Norris did not agree.  What he had done from 1913 onward, was advertise how easy it was to get to Highbury; he was persuading people who were not committed Arsenal supporters to come along and see the new kids on the block – and then attempting to draw them into regular attendance.

It was a completely radical and different approach; previously the notion had been people would attend because they were supporters of the club – all the club had to do was announce a fixture.  From 1913 Henry Norris was undertaking what we can immediately understand as advertising (stressing benefits) rather than the announcing of the features (who the club was playing and what time kick off was).

What’s more, during these preliminary discussions, Sir Henry would have been able to tell Herbert Chapman something that was not made public until 15 June, which was the fact that Arsenal had bought the Highbury stadium, and some additional land around it, and that the lease of the site had ended.  Sir Henry Norris’ huge gamble in taking the ground on a full-repairing lease in 1913 had paid off.

And so, finally, on Monday 22 June 1925, exactly 32 years to the day after Jack Humble had taken the chair for the first ever AGM of the newly formed Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Club Ltd, and with Jack Humble present once again as a director of Arsenal FC, Herbert Chapman took up the job of Secretary Manager of Arsenal FC.  An iconic moment if ever there was one, and a crowning glory to all of Sir Henry’s achievements.

This was, indeed, a moment of supreme importance within the club, ranking alongside the move to professionalism in 1891, the application to join the League in 1893, the rescue of the club by Henry Norris in 1910, the move to Highbury in 1913, the election to the first division in 1919 and the contemporaneous purchase of the stadium by the club.  Indeed it was the summation of the whole plan that had begun in 1910; probably the longest and most successful planned development of a football club ever in the history of English football either before or since.

In fact I find this so overarching plan so important (and yet invariably ignored as a complete plan in almost every history of Arsenal) that at the risk of boring you, my long-suffering reader, I want to summarise it step by step, one more time…

Phase 1: Pay off all the debts of Woolwich Arsenal in 1910, including some debts that existed but were not recorded on the books of the club.  Then set up a new company to run the club, and sell it (via shares) to the local supporters so they could have their own club.

Phase 2: (If the share offer was not taken up) move the club to somewhere that would attract a much greater crowd for matches – somewhere with excellent public transport communications, and a big potential audience all around it, particularly of young men who worked in the city of London, rather than the traditional working class manual labourer support that most clubs relied on.

Phase 3: Attract the crowds, while paying off the bank debt and other loans that were taken on to pay for the building of the ground.

Phase 4: When the debts were more or less paid off, buy the ground rather than lease it to give the club total control over its future.

Phase 5: Bring in one the brightest and most successful manager in the league, while making an iconic transfer deal, and thus very publicly start the journey to making Arsenal a top club in terms of achievement as well as in terms of attendances.

In fact phases four and five had come virtually at the same time, but they were two separate elements of the same plan which had taken 15 years to execute.  I doubt he had expected it to take 15 years, but then Sir Henry was a businessman not a fortune teller, and he like everyone else wouldn’t have foreseen matters being interrupted by the first world war.  Indeed we must remember that in September 1914 the popular view was that “it would all be over by Christmas”.

So now let us catch up on another side of this extraordinary story: Chapman’s journey which brought him to Arsenal in the summer of 1925.

When the first world war broke out, Herbert Chapman had been manager of Leeds City.  He had left the club, rather than stay on as manager during the period of the war leagues, and instead taken on work that was supportive of the nation’s war effort.  (As with the players, managers were not paid for their work in keeping a team together during the war).

In 1918 when the war concluded Chapman returned to his job at Leeds City and resumed his work, but only a few months later (and with football at the time still just consisting of friendly games – the league not resuming until August 1919) he resigned, moved to Selby and apparently gave up football to become a superintendent at an oil and coke works.   Something caused him to leave so suddenly, and not just leave Leeds City, but also football.  Unfortunately we don’t know what, but we can hazard a guess.

For Leeds City were subsequently reported by some former players of paying “guest” players who had appeared for them in war time friendlies – something that was outlawed under the war time regulations.  But the evidence against the club was only based on the hearsay evidence of a few ex-players – who rather notably were not paid (the story being that they had demanded money, on hearing others were paid, and when they were turned down, decided to spill the beans).  There were no accountancy records presented to back up the claim – and nor were their likely to be since any players who had been paid would surely have been paid cash (as of course all daily transactions were at this time), with no records kept.

However when charged, the League demanded that Leeds City should give the League their detailed financial records but Leeds refused.  In the light of this the Football League removed Leeds City from membership of the league, and suspended five officials who had been at the club at the time, including Herbert Chapman, for life.  This didn’t affect Chapman directly, because he had walked out of the club, and seemingly had no intention of returning to football.  As far as I can tell Chapman did not attend any of the hearings, since he was not with Leeds City during the war (he had, you will recall, taken on industrial work to help with the war effort).

The hearings relating to this odd affair took place during the early stages of the 1919/20 season and by the time the matter was concluded eight matches had been played in the 1919-20 season.  At this point Leeds City were expelled from the league, and their fixtures were taken over by Port Vale, who bizarrely were able to count the eight games Leeds City had played  (four wins two draws and two defeats) as their own!

Leeds City was wound up, and the players sold.   But then, the directors of Leeds City set up a new club, Leeds United, which used the same ground, and which then applied for membership of the Football League for the 1920/21 season.  Not only were they given a place but they were given a place in Division II rather than Division III, replacing Grimsby Town!  In short, at this point, the League colluded with Leeds to allow its re-entry into football on the best possible terms.

Everyone who had been expelled from the League was now reinstated, except for Herbert Chapman, who was no longer part of Leeds City or Leeds United.   However in late December 1920 with the country sliding into ever deeper recession he was laid off from his job as a manager at the coke works.  He was unemployed, and banned for life from football.

It was at this point that he was approached by Huddersfield Town to be assistant to Ambrose Langley, who had played with Herbert Chapman’s brother Harry at The Wednesday (where Harry had made over 200 appearances).

Working with the support of Huddersfield, Herbert Chapman then appealed against his life ban, using the most obvious of cases that since he had been helping the nation’s war effort during much of the war, and had not been involved with the club, and since the League had no idea when any illicit activity had taken place (since it hadn’t seen the records) they couldn’t possibly know that there was a case against him.  Besides which they seemed to have let everyone else come back and work in the newly formed (but in reality still the old club,) Leeds United.

Even a five year old child could see that the case against Herbert Chapman obviously had no basis, and after just a month’s unemployment he became an employee of Huddersfield Town on 1 February 1921, soon after that replacing the incumbent manager.  He remained manager of Huddersfield until 11 June 1925 when he was given permission to discuss matters with  Arsenal.

And just before we return to Chapman’s move to the Arsenal, we might note that the process of banning and then unbanning people from involvement in football.  It was, from the evidence I have, what the League did.  It had the power, there were no laws stopping this sort of arbitrary behaviour, and in essence these were committee decisions taken on the day.  I suspect most people who have worked on committees (be they school PTAs, community centre management groups or political meetings) will know how a strong voice can sway the committee this way or that on the day – only to find the arguments move the opposite direction later.

This is what it was like in football at this time, arbitrary justice generally without even having lawyers present.  The League was prosecution, jury and judge in each case.  When it comes to the various brushes Henry Norris had with the League we might remember that following a newspaper article in 1913 that suggested there was match fixing going on, Henry Norris was told, without a hearing, that if he made this accusation once more, he would be banned for life.  we might remember the Leeds City saga and the way that was handled.

We might also remember the Voysey case, coming before a tribunal to investigate a contract five years after it was signed.  Or perhaps Tottenham’s attempt to get the League to stop Arsenal moving to Highbury, rejected on the basis that there was nothing in the rule book to stop this.  Clearly Tottenham had thought that even without a rule, they could get the League to act.

And I mention all this now, because I think the way in which “justice” was handed out by the League was arbitrary and not subject to rigorous discussion and debate and the application of existing laws.

Chapman’s first pre-season

On 3 July 1925 Charlie Buchan, the man who subsequently helped remodel the WM defensive system, and who delivered Arsenal’s first challenge for a league title, signed for Arsenal for the second time in what became known as the £100-a-goal deal.  He played 102 games scoring 49 goals before finally retiring in 1928.  The deal was both a stunning publicity stunt, keeping up the public interest in Arsenal which had already reached fever pitch the previous month with Chapman’s arrival, and a brilliant move in terms of the club’s success.

There was indeed a palpable tingle in the air, supported by the endless coverage of football in the local daily press, which as we have seen, since 1913 had had three local clubs to talk about.   And with Arsenal having no pre-season tour arranged, it was not surprising that on 15 August, 11,406 came to Highbury for the traditional pre-season practice match between the Arsenal first team and the Reserves: the Reds vs the Blues.  It was Chapman’s first game at Arsenal.

On 16 August the formal arrangements to buy Highbury Stadium were finally completed and the deeds signed and on 22 August at the second such game 13,269 turned up – crowds which I believe (although accurate figures are hard to come by for previous seasons) were significantly above average for these games.

The season proper began on 29 August 1925 – and I shall turn to that in the next episode.


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

The final round of misinformation and unsupported statements

Knighton’s notoriously inaccurate autobiography reports his departure from Arsenal with a whole raft of statements which a review of the historical facts shows to be untrue, ranging from his “building a new team” in 1919, to the notion that he would have got Buchan at a much lower cost.  He complains also about not getting a benefit match and claims Sir Henry Norris left him £100 in his will, stating that sacking Knighton was his biggest mistake.  There is no evidence for any of this and with so many other statements in this section of his autobiography being plainly wrong, we may wonder about these.

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