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William Elcoat: an update on the Woolwich Arsenal manager

The Woolwich Arsenal managers

Woolwich Arsenal had only three long term managers, Bradshaw, Kelso and Morrell.

Before that they had short term holders of the post, and the further we go back the more we get towards managers who were more orientated towards the Committee that ran the club, sitting alongside the Secretary and Chairman, rather than the players who played for the club.

William Elcoat was the last of the short-term managers, and it looks like he was a manager in the modern style.  But he is a man who has caused us a lot of difficulty, first because he has been confused with others, and second because (until 2020) of a lack of information.

Let’s do the name first.  He is often wrongly named as George Elcoat – who was in fact the brother of  William (with whom he is often confused) who was born in Durham in 1859.   William was a director of Stockton FC before he came to Arsenal.

William Elcoat at Arsenal is best known for a total an utter transformation of the team.  Not one player who started in the first match for the 1897/98 season under his predecessor Mitchell, actually played in the first match of Elcoat’s one and only season at the club.

But this should not be seen as Elcoat starting a dynasty of new players.  He brought in a new team, but after one season only two of them survived in Bradshaw’s first game: Ord the goalkeeper and Dick, the centre half.

It was an experiment, and it didn’t really work.

During Elcoat’s year, the crowds of 1898/9 were modest – the first home game against Leicester Fosse getting 6,000.

It is often written that the lack of crowds held the club back at this time, but the reality was that 6,000 was a decent crowd for the second division at this time.  Leicester Fosse traditionally always got big crowds at their ground (or at least this is what the stats showed) and they got 10,000 for the return game against Arsenal.   2,000 to 5,000 was more commonplace for most clubs.

It should also be noticed that many of the names in the second division that year were not names we would ever associate with big grounds and big time football.  In this season Arsenal played Luton, Port Vale, Darwen, Gainsborough, Walsall, Burton Swifts, Grimsby, New Brighton, and so on.

Manchester City and Manchester United (Newton Heath) were there, but they were getting the same sorts of crowds – around 5,000.  The giant Old Trafford ground was not opened until 1910 (it’s covered in the “Making the Arsenal” book.)

William Elcoat, came from Stockton-on-Tees, and reports suggest he had a showed a strong preference for Scottish players.  Yes, that’s true, but so did Woolwich Arsenal, because of the number of Scottish people working in the factories.  It was the natural destination for footballers from Scotland who had drifted south.  The fact that he played eight Scots in his team did not strike anyone as unusual.  11 would not have raised an eyebrow.

Woolwich Arsenal finished seventh out of 18 under Elcoat’s one year in charge, which was pretty much what was expected.  The Cup offered nothing, we were knocked out in the first round – 6-0 by Derby, and it is reported in some places that this was the start of his downfall.  He left in February 1899 after just ten months in the job.  He was replaced by our first long-term manager in the modern sense, and our first successful manager.

But what happened next?  For this I am grateful to Tim Carder, Chairman, Brighton & Hove Albion Heritage Society who has provided more information.  He writes, “William Elcoat was (financial) secretary at Brighton from circa 1906 to circa 1909 – that is I believe he was not an employee of the club, but worked for the club’s accountants or whatever. We also have a postcard which shows WR Elcoat.”

He is named in the club company accounts of this time.

Today William Elcoat is forgotten in Arsenal’s history, and indeed there is not even a picture of him to be had.  Worse, he is eternally referred to as George – due to a mistake in earlier histories.  But at least we now know where he went after he left Arsenal.

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Untold Arsenal: today’s stories yesterday, or something like that

Woolwich Arsenal: the index

Making the Arsenal: it used to make sense, but now I wonder

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