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Finding the elusive Eastern Wanderers, Arsenal’s first opponents

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Historians can’t just accept what is passed down as the truth across the generations – they need some evidence.   But the reality is that most people who write about the history of football either simply accept handed down fairy tales (as for example happened with the ludicrous book “What you think you know about football is wrong” by Dr Kevin Moore, in which the authors re-runs the old tale of Arsenal bribing their way into the 1st division in 1919, without looking at any of the evidence) or just record some facts without looking for corroboration.

When The Arsenal History Society came on the scene the story was there that Arsenal had played its first match on the Isle of Dogs against Eastern Wanderers.   But how could we be sure?  At the time the main reports that this was the start of the match contained no contemporaneous accounts of the game, and no history of “Eastern Wanderers” existed.  We didn’t know who they were, or why they played at Millwall, or if they are actually played at all.

So the History Society raised the question: how can we know this is true?  In short instead of just accepting that it was true, we started from the premise that it wasn’t and went out to find evidence.    One of the main pieces of evidence comes from this day in 1885: a report of the result of a match between Millwall and Eastern Wanderers, just on a year before Arsenal’s first game.

Thus we had proved that what everyone else accepted as true, was very likely to be true: Eastern Wanderers existed and they played on the Isle of Dogs.

But it doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes we find situations in which there is only one source of evidence, and that looks so shaky that it is safer to conclude the evidence is false or at least “unproven” rather than accept it as fact.

That is what history is about.  Not just collecting facts, but trying to verify them as true.

Here are the anniversaries.

5 December 1885 Millwall beat Eastern Wanderers 3-1 at Glengall Road. This game has significance because it gives us a record of Eastern Wanderers, playing in this area and around this time.  The first Arsenal game (as Dial Square) took place, on the Isle of Dogs (where Millwall played) against Eastern Wanderers one year later. 

5 December 1886: A likely date either for the setting up of Dial Square FC or a practice match ahead of the first game.

5 December 1904: Woolwich Arsenal 26 Parisian XI 1; one of Arsenal’s biggest wins.  It is reported that the French team were a man short and used an Arsenal reserve to make up the numbers.

5 December 1914: The crowd for Bury v Arsenal was just 5,000, significantly down on the previous year.  By the end of the season the First Division had reported crowds overall down 38%.  

5 December 1916: King George V asked the Conservative Party leader Bonar Law to form a government.  However Bonar Law declined the request, feeling it would be impossible to hold any sort of administration together.

5 December 1920:  In a vote that is perhaps hardly remembered now, Scotland voted against prohibition of alcohol in the country.

5 December 1921:  The FA cited opinions about football’s unsuitability for females and told registered clubs “to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches”. The ban destroyed women’s football and was not lifted until 1971.  Even to this day, the FA has (perhaps typically) never apologised either for the ban or the delay in lifting it.

5 December 1925: Arsenal drew 2-2 against the champions Huddersfield Town away, having lost their last two games against them 4-0 and 5-0.  Neil and Buchan scored and the result meant that Arsenal had played the current top team and last season’s champions and gained three out of four points.   Norseman in the local paper, was full of praise.

5 December 1931: Arsenal won 3-1 away to 4th placed Sheffield Wednesday.  Jack got two meaning he had now scored 11 in the last seven games – scoring in each match having scored only scored two in the first ten games he played.

5 December 1936: Arsenal lost to Manchester City after four consecutive wins in which the team scored 16 goals.   But thereafter Arsenal lost just one match in the next 14, and scored 13 in the next three.

5 December 1942: Southampton 1 Arsenal 3 in the wartime Football League south.  This came in a run of six consecutive wins in which Arsenal scored a total of 26 goals.  The crowd was 9000.

5 December 1959: Lee Chapman born.  He started out with Stoke with whom he played 99 league games and scored 34 goals, but he was never able to rediscover that form at Arsenal.

5 December 1960: Arsenal lost 1-3 to Chelsea in the London Challenge Cup final.  The competition had started out as a tournament for the first half of the season but had moved to an April or May final in the 1930s.  This was the first season it returned to a winter final.

5 December 1967.Pat Rice’s first start for Arsenal in the League Cup against Burnley.  Arsenal won 2-1 with goals from Radford and Neil. Rice had already been listed as the substitute a couple of times, but had not been called upon.

5 December 1970: Man City 0 Arsenal 2.  Armstrong and Radford scored in League match 20 of the first Double season.

5 December 1981: Début for Stewart Robson in West Ham 1 Arsenal 2, having been a youth and reserve player since 1978.  He went on to make 150 league appearances but later became a highly eccentric anti-Wenger commentator 

5 December 1981: Last game for Pat Jennings, the first man to play over 1000 senior games.  Arsenal beat WHU 2-1 with Hollins and Whyte scoring. It was the 5th of 6 consecutive wins, but the 6th game was not played until January 20 because of bad weather.

5 December 2006: Matthew Connolly scored for Arsenal against Nottingham Forest.  He later went on to win the Championship three years running with three different clubs!

5 December 2009: After a 0-3 home defeat to Chelsea Arsenal beat Stoke 2-0 to start a month of five wins and one draw.   It was Arsène Wenger’s 500th game in charge.

5 December 2015: Arsenal 3 Sunderland 1.  Goals from Campbell, Ramsey and Giroud. The first of four consecutive wins in which Giroud scored in each game.

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