Arsenal March 1927: from regular turmoil to total turmoil and the edge of the cliff

By Tony Attwood

By the start of March 1927 Arsenal was in turmoil.   One director was about to resign, the board could not agree on the best way forward, the manager and the chairman were at loggerheads, the trainer had gone (although to be fair, he was replaced by a man who turned out to have much greater ability in the art and science of getting players fit), the team’s performance all season had been a pale shadow of the year before, and the chairman was threatening to start a legal case against a director of another club, the implications of which would be horrdenous.

And among all this mix, because of the decline in the club’s league performance the crowds were down (in the end they were down by 4% on the previous year).  The only light shining anywhere was that Arsenal were still in the FA Cup and the income from the cup games was more than making up for the decline of around 1500 per home game on average.

But overall the central focus was one of expectations not being met.  A season in the league like this a couple of years before would have been seen as most satisfactory.  But after last year’s runners’ up position, and Huddersfield with their tiny crowds challenging for the title yet again, Arsenal’s performance looked poor indeed.  Here is the league table at the start of March 1927.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Newcastle United 29 17 5 7 67 39 1.718 39
2 Huddersfield Town 30 13 13 4 65 46 1.413 39
3 Sunderland 31 16 5 10 73 53 1.377 37
4 Burnley 29 14 7 8 70 53 1.321 35
5 Leicester City 30 13 7 10 70 58 1.207 33
6 Aston Villa 31 14 5 12 62 59 1.051 33
7 Blackburn Rovers 31 14 5 12 64 71 0.901 33
8 Liverpool 30 14 4 12 49 43 1.140 32
9 West Ham United 30 14 4 12 50 48 1.042 32
10 Arsenal 29 11 9 9 52 52 1.000 31
11 Bolton Wanderers 28 12 6 10 50 36 1.389 30
12 Manchester United 30 11 8 11 42 47 0.894 30
13 Sheffield United 29 11 8 10 50 62 0.806 30
14 Tottenham Hotspur 30 11 7 12 53 55 0.964 29
15 Sheffield Wednesday 30 10 8 12 53 63 0.841 28
16 Birmingham City 29 12 3 14 35 47 0.745 27
17 Derby County 29 12 1 16 53 51 1.039 25
18 Cardiff City 29 9 7 13 35 46 0.761 25
19 Bury 29 8 8 13 47 55 0.855 24
20 Leeds United 30 8 6 16 48 59 0.814 22
21 Everton 31 7 7 17 48 71 0.676 21
22 West Bromwich Albion 30 7 5 18 45 67 0.672 19

The month however started with tragedy that took most people’s thoughts away from football and most other matters – for yet another mining disaster occured on 1 March, this time an underground gas and coal dust explosion at Marine Colliery, Cwm, Monmouthshire, which resulted in the death of 52 miners.

Meanwhile the Kinnaird Park Estate Company continued its genteel approach to property development as Bromley council passed two planning applications both for garages, also on 1 March.  One was for a house that had just been built and the other was for the home of KPEC’s own architect, William Harrington.  Clearly no one involved in the company needed any extra income from the business, but were just undertaking projects to keep the company in operation.  I rather wonder if Lord Kinnaird had left instruction that the company was to keep actively trading for some reason, and that is what the directors were doing.

Back with the football, at this time most newspapers didn’t bother dividing up home and away form when they printed the league tables, but had they done so the readers would have seen that a significant part of Arsenal’s difficulty came from the team’s decline when playing away from Highbury.   Here is how the away form table looked at the start of the month…

Pos Club P W D L F A G.AV Pts
16 Arsenal 15 2 4 9 17 39 0.436 8
17 Everton 18 2 3 13 29 54 0.537 7
18 Birmingham City 16 3 0 13 20 44 0.455 6
19 Sheffield Wednesday 18 0 6 12 21 55 0.382 6
20 Leeds United 17 2 1 14 21 45 0.467 5
21 West Bromwich Albion 17 1 3 13 15 44 0.341 5
22 Derby County 17 1 1 15 16 37 0.432 3

In the previous season Arsenal had had the fourth best away form in the league. This time around the form had collapsed with just two wins and 17 goals scored in 15 games.

Meanwhile, Chapman, as we have seen, had two huge problems on his hands.   The club were doing far worse than had been expected, and he was at war with his chairman.  In today’s world the manager would normally have offered his resigation at such a point, but apart from feeling that he was totally in the right over both issues, Chapman was probably also worried what job he would get if he left Arsenal at this time.  He had resigned from Leeds City suddenly after a falling out with the board, and his reputation might have been dented somewhat by this year’s performance in the league.

Although the issue of the trainer was now resolved, there would be people who would question how well Chapman might get on with the existing staff in another club, if he did choose to move and was given another chance in football. Of course I have no idea what Chapman thought, but if he had no worries he must have had a super-human mental constitution.

Indeed, as we put these episodes together we find there is a side of Chapman’s personality which is often missed in the books that look at his work.  For if we consider what had happened thus far, and then look forward a few years we find more examples of what we might call both an unscrupoulous and an unforgiving approach.   For example some time around  1 April 1931 Arsenal, seemingly at Chapman’s insistance wrote to the BBC banning all future radio broadcasts from Highbury.  (The exact date uncertain, but certainly within two days either way).  However Chapman made certain that George Allisonm the corporation’s voice of football commentaries and a director of Arsenal, did not know this was happening and would not be present.  It was quite a dramatic (and as it turned out, given that there is no evidence that radio broadcasts were affecting Arsenal’s crowds) unnecessary action.  Indeed in  the light of the 1927 travails, one wonders if the 1931 action were not set up to take a swipe at a director that Chapman thought was getting above himself.

We should also note that Sir Henry was the one man on the Arsenal board who would stand up to Chapman in an argument, as he had done over the issue of the sacking of Hardy (at least until Hardy quickly found himself another job with Tottenham). He was in fact the only man on the board who stopped Chapman having absolute power and control as the Hardy issue had showed.

And again we might also pause to note another later incident – the signing of David Jack from Bolton Wanderers, for whom the club had originally asked for a fee of £13,000, almost double the existing record transfer fee at the time. Bob Wall, Chapman’s personal assistant is quoted as telling the story of how the negotiations took place in a hotel bar in this way…

“We arrived at the hotel half-an-hour early. Chapman immediately went into the lounge bar. He called the waiter, placed two pound notes in his hand and said: “George, this is Mr Wall, my assistant. He will drink whisky and dry ginger. I will drink gin and tonic. We shall be joined by guests. They will drink whatever they like. See that our guests are given double of everything, but Mr Wall’s whisky and dry ginger will contain no whisky, and my gin and tonic will contain no gin.”

The story is told as an amusing anecdoate today, with Arsenal taking advantage of the rather silly northerners who were not nearly as street wise as the clever men from the capital.  But in reality it represents a man who would go, if not to any lengths, then quite a long way, to get what he wanted.  Getting the opposition drunk in order to swing a deal is hardly the work of a gentleman and the tale reveals a contemptuous attitude towards the opposition.

But our duty here is to consider March 1927, so now let us return to the cup…  The draw had been favourable to Arsenal with them drawn against Wolverhampton Wanderers of the 2nd Division, who of late had been having a difficult time in the league (perhaps like Arsenal, holding themselves back for the Cup gamers.)   Here are their results leading up to the Arsenal match…

Date Game Res Score Competition
9 Feb Notts County v Wolverhampton Wanderers D 2-2 Division 2
12 Feb Middlesbrough v Wolverhampton Wanderers L 2-0 Division 2
19 Feb Wolverhampton Wanderers v Hull City W 1-0 FA Cup
26 Feb Southampton v Wolverhampton Wanderers L 1-0 Division 2
5 Mar Arsenal v Wolverhampton Wanderers L 2-1 FA Cup

By the end of February Wolves were lying 18th in second division having won just two away games all season up to this point although with a much superior goal average compared with those around them.

Pos Club P W D L F A G.Av Pts
16 Notts County 30 9 4 17 51 70 0.729 22
17 Fulham 29 8 6 15 37 67 0.552 22
18 Wolverhampton Wanderers 28 7 7 14 52 51 1.020 21
19 Grimsby Town 29 7 7 15 51 69 0.739 21
20 Darlington 29 7 4 18 53 69 0.768 18
21 Leyton Orient 29 6 5 18 37 73 0.507 17
22 Bradford City 30 3 8 19 33 61 0.541 14

In the FA Cup match Chapman played his dedicated FA Cup team.   Blyth and Butler scored in front of 52,821, and Arsenal duly went through.

A match commentary was broadcast again by the BBC; and this time the commentator was the Arsenal programme editor, George Allison.  There was also a tale of a man running onto the pitch carrying a mascot dressed in Arsenal’s colours who was apparently  seen off by Charlie Buchan.  And the opening half did not go that well with Arsenal were not only 0-1 down but reports suggest Wolverhampton had every chance to make it 0-2 before Arsenal started to get their act together.

The equaliser came on the hour, and Arsenal with the psychological advantage then knocked in the second to make it Arsenal 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1.  thus Arsenal were now heading for their first semi-final since 23 March 1907 when Arsenal lost to Sheffield Wednesday.   Here are the Cup games for this round:

Home team Score Away team Date
Millwall 0–0 Southampton 5 March 1927
Southampton 2–0 (R) Millwall 9 March 1927
Chelsea 0–0 Cardiff City 5 March 1927
Cardiff City 3–2 (R) Chelsea 9 March 1927
Swansea Town 1–3 Reading 5 March 1927
Arsenal 2–1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 5 March 1927

But away from the football the nation had worries – but not this time in terms of the strikes that seemed to be cropping up continuously.  A new flu epidemic was gaining strength with over 1000 people now dying a week from its effect.  This outbreak of flu was particularly bad in the USA with some reports saying that in North America that its effect were as bad as the “Spanish” flu epidemic that hit the UK immediately after the war.  It wasn’t that back in Britain, but the Spanish flu was too recent for anyone to take a relaxed attitude about it.

Back with the football, on 7 March Arsenal had to play the league game postponed because of their appearance on the Saturday in the FA Cup – an away match with West Ham, and this is a match that is worth looking at in some detail.

Arsenal made three player changes from the FA Cup quarter final, and one positional change.  Not enough, one might have thought to shake up the side or make it lose confidence.

The West Ham team Arsenal were playing had lost four of their last ten games, won five and drawn one – although two of these games were against Brentford of the Third Division (South) – where they occupied a mid-table position.

Here are West Ham’s results building up to the Monday afternoon match against Arsenal.

Date Game Res Score Competition
08 Jan 1927 West Ham United v Tottenham W 3-2 FA Cup
15 Jan 1927 Leicester City v West Ham United L 3-0 Division One
22 Jan 1927 West Ham United v Everton W 2-1 Division One
29 Jan 1927 West Ham United v Brentford D 1-1 FA Cup
02 Feb 1927 Brentford v West Ham United L 2-0 FA Cup
05 Feb 1927 West Ham United v Huddersfield T W 3-2 Division One
12 Feb 1927 Sunderland v West Ham United W 2-3 Division One
14 Feb 1927 Blackburn Rovers v West Ham United L 4-1 Division One
19 Feb 1927 West Ham United v West Brom. L 1-2 Division One
26 Feb 1927 Bury v West Ham United W 1-2 Division One

Prior to the match West Ham were 9th in the league having won 14 games and lost 12.   But in terms of goal scoring they were only 16th – this was clearly not their strength.  They had scored 50 and let in 48.   Arsenal had scored 52 and conceded the same number so on this basis the teams were well matched.

But at home West Ham were one of the four worst performing clubs with seven wins, two draws and five defeats.  On the other hand Arsenal had only two wins away from home with four draws and seven defeats.

Put all this together and a betting person might have gone for a home win by maybe 2-1 or 3-1.   There was probably nobody even offering odds on West Ham to win 7-0.  Indeed it seems the locals didn’t expect this – only 11,764 turned up against an average crowd of 18,136 – although to be fair it was played, as noted, on a Monday afternoon.

Now I dwell on this 7-0 victory by West Ham because it is identical to the hammering Arsenal took the season before at Newcastle.  That was the game when Buchan claims (falsely I suspect – I’ve explained why in the relevant chapter for that game) that he and Chapman sat down after the match and worked out the new WM system.  In that game Arsenal went 6-0 down in the first half, re-arranged the line up and kept the score down to 1-0 in the second half.  Here it was different; West Ham got three in the first half and four in the second.  Arsenal did nothing at half time to counter the WHU attack.

As you may have seen, in relation to 1925/6, the first season after the new offside law was introduced, I kept track of other big scores throughout the first division, and as you may have seen there were many of them – sometimes several in one weekend.  But as we also noted, these gradually faded out, thus supporting the notion that the clubs were all evolving their own systems of attack and defence in the light of the introduction of the new law.  The Islington Gazette called the match an “inglorious display” by Arsenal. That was probably putting it mildly.

So all the indications are that this was not a one-off disaster.  And indeed as we shall see, subsequent league results confirm that, for starting with this match something went seriously wrong for Arsenal in the League.  It was in fact the start of six consecutive league defeats in the course of which Arsenal conceded 26 goals – an average of 4.3 goals a game!

One might have expected Sir Henry Norris to react immediately to the West Ham defeat, but if he was minded to, an event on the other side of the world would have utterly distracted him, for on the same day as the WHU match there was a major earthquake in Japan in the city of Kobe where Sir Henry’s sister Lilian and her husband Percival Gillbard lived.  News of course travelled more slowly in the 1920s, but the telegraph, the ever expanding BBC news services, and the newspapers which aggressively competed with each other to bring in all the news of the day, meant that the story was breaking by the evening of March 7, and Sir Henry would have been anxiously waiting for news of his sister.

Mr Gillbard was in Kobe running an import-export business and Sally Davis, having spoken to family members reports that the Gillbards lost their business as a result.   Although the news of the quake arrived quickly, it would of course have taken days if not weeks for news of whether the family had emerged unscathed or not to get back to London.

The following Saturday Arsenal were away again, this time against Sheffield Wednesday, who were mid-table like Arsenal, and just a couple of places lower.  Just before the match it was announced that on this day (12 March)  Reg Tricker was signed from Charlton for £2,250 on this day.  He was undoubtedly considered as a replacement for Buchan, who may well have already indicated to Chapman that he was going to retire at the end of the season.

Mindful of what had happened at West Ham, Chapman returned mostly to his best XI players although Kennedy did get his fourth game of the season at full back.   One might imagine that the manager’s instructions were to keep the game tight for the first half, but if so it didn’t work, as Arsenal were 2-0 down by the break.  The second half was more even, leading to a final score of 4-2.

There was however a spot of light relief as on 16 March the reserves beat West Ham reserves at Highbury 3-1, to stay top of the reserve league.  And it was reported that the crowds for reserve games were growing, reflecting their good form.

Next up on 19 March 1927 Arsenal had a chance to change their losing streak as they were at home to Everton, who despite spending £20,000 on players in the past two months, in an attempt to avoid relegation were now sitting just two points above Leeds who were in the relegation zone.

Worse for Everton they had played two more games than the two teams below them.  Although they had beaten fellow relegation contenders Leeds in the last match their previous game before the Leed encounter had been a 7-3 defeat to Newcastle.  It looked just like the game that could get Arsenal back on track as far as the League was concerned.

An above average crowd of 33,788 turned up for the match but the result was Arsenal 1 Everton 2.  Arsenal sank to 12th in the league.

The next match, on 26 March, was the FA Cup semi-final, against Southampton who were currently lying 8th in the second division, their great moment of the season having been the beating of Newcastle 2-1 at home in the fifth round of the cup.

In its match preview the Times suggested that Arsenal would win, although noting that Southampton had the better FA Cup record of the two (based on their two appearances in the final in 1900 and 1902 – both of which they lost).  In 1922 Southampton had gained promotion as champions from the 3rd Division (south) thus moving up to the second division where they would stay until 1966.

After three defeats in which Arsenal had conceded 13 goals, the result went as league positions suggested, Arsenal winning 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, with 52,133 in the crowd; Hulme and Buchan got the goals.  This was the semi-final that saw the “lucky Arsenal” tag wheeled out with a vengeance by the press, who claimed that Southampton were denied two obvious penalties as a result of “fouls” by Horace Cope.

Southampton the papers said, played the better and “more intelligent” football.   I think by this the commentator meant that with the pitch little better than a muddy field, Southampton’s long ball game worked better than Chapman’s favoured short passing game.  The reporter also felt that Arsenal revealed “a woeful lack of imagination”.  Most reports agreed however that Hulme was the outstanding player of the afternoon, and it was he who gave Arsenal the lead, Buchan getting the second.

Meanwhile Arsenal Reserves beat Leicester City Reserves to extend their lead at the top of the London Combination, but as we look back at the events of the day from our vantage, all such matters were overshadowed by the fact that after the match William Hall made public his resignation as a director of Arsenal, following (he said) a disagreement with Sir Henry – who was of course not there to comment.

On 29 March the club announced that it had already received more applications for Cup Final tickets than it could accommodate, and would not be taking any more.  On the same day the officials for the final were announced: W F Bunnell of Preston would referee the match; the linesmen would be be D E Watson of Kent and M Brewitt of Lincoln.  

But I doubt many people inside football would have taken much notice of that because at the same time JJ Edwards, acting for Sir Henry Norris obtained writs for defamation against John Dean (founder and chairman of Fulham), Joe Bradshaw (ex Woolwich Arsenal player and Fulham manager), Edward Liddell (ex Woolwich Arsenal player who was soon to become chief scout at Fulham) and James MacDermott.   The matter of concern was of course the defendants comments to the effect that Sir Henry had acted illegally and criminally in relation to the cheque for the sale of the Arsenal reserve team bus.

I will let matters unfold in relation to this in the next chapter, but (as I suspect you may already know) this was the key moment in the affair, and in Sir Henry’s life in football.

The resignation of William Hall appeared in the local paper on 30 March, wherein it was linked with the earlier resignation of Charles Crisp, (the first man to be elected a director of Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company after the club moved to Highbury, and a man who by 1927 had all sorts of connections within football, stretching out across Europe) and noting that Arsenal had lost two very important men in football from their board – two men who had rescued the club in 1910.

As a director of Fulham from 1905 William Hall worked closely with Sir Henry Norris and it was Hall who went to Woolwich on 18 March 1910 to attend the EGM of Woolwich Arsenal, where liquidation of the club was discussed. As he was not a shareholder, he was not allowed in, but he did establish some contact with George Leavey. He was also present at the 18 May 1910 League meeting to finalise the takeover buy 240 shares in the club.

As well as his directorships at Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham, Hall was elected to the Football League Management Committee from the summer of 1912, revealing the esteem in which he was held in the football world.   He was also (unlike Henry Norris)  invited to the Woolwich Arsenal supporters’ (Rotherhithe section) farewell evening – a highly symbolic local event as it was the Rotherhithe section which had worked the most to raise money to keep Arsenal in Plumstead.

Neither Sir Henry nor Hall owned anything like a majority stake in Arsenal – as we have noted all the way through, Sir Henry’s aim was to pay for the development of the club partly by loaning the club money and underwriting the overdraft, and by selling shares in the club.  Hall was at the time of his resignation a larger shareholder than Sir Henry.

At the end of March 1927 the league table ran like this…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Newcastle United 33 20 5 8 79 47 1.681 45
2 Huddersfield Town 34 15 14 5 69 49 1.408 44
3 Sunderland 36 18 6 12 84 62 1.355 42
4 Burnley 35 16 8 11 81 68 1.191 40
5 West Ham United 34 17 5 12 67 52 1.288 39
6 Leicester City 34 15 9 10 78 62 1.258 39
7 Aston Villa 35 17 5 13 72 68 1.059 39
8 Bolton Wanderers 33 13 9 11 60 46 1.304 35
9 Liverpool 34 15 5 14 56 49 1.143 35
10 Blackburn Rovers 34 14 6 14 68 78 0.872 34
11 Tottenham Hotspur 34 12 9 13 61 63 0.968 33
12 Sheffield United 34 12 9 13 58 75 0.773 33
13 Cardiff City 33 12 8 13 43 49 0.878 32
14 Sheffield Wednesday 35 12 8 15 60 78 0.769 32
15 Arsenal 32 11 9 12 55 65 0.846 31
16 Derby County 34 14 2 18 68 58 1.172 30
17 Manchester United 34 11 8 15 43 58 0.741 30
18 Bury 34 10 9 15 56 63 0.889 29
19 Birmingham City 32 13 3 16 42 55 0.764 29
20 Everton 36 11 7 18 59 81 0.728 29
21 West Bromwich Albion 34 9 6 19 57 74 0.770 24
22 Leeds United 34 8 8 18 53 69 0.768 24

Arsenal had sunk down to 15th as we can see but had a couple of games in hand.  Mid-table respectability was still possible, but primarily everyone was thinking about Wembley, although a few who had realised the implications were considering just what Sir Henry had done in starting legal action.  I opened this month’s story saying that at the start of the month Arsenal was in turmoil.   That was nothing compared with where they were by the end of the month.

Here are the month’s results…
Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
05/03/1927 Wolverhampton W. (FAC 6) H W 2-1 52,821
07/03/1927 West Ham United A L 0-7 11,764
12/03/1927 Sheffield Wednesday A L 2-4 21,252
19/03/1927 Everton H L 1-2 33,788
26/03/1927 Southampton (FAC S-F) N W 2-1 52,133

The series continues…


Details of the whole series of articles on Henry Norris at the Arsenal can be found here including an index to a selection of articles covering the election of Arsenal in 1919 – which is a topic that is still seemingly considered contentious in some quarters, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

An index to our various series published prior to this one, and to the anniversary files can be found on the home page.



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