By Tony Attwood
This monday sees the publication of “Dial Square to Woolwich Arsenal: the real story of Arsenal’s early years.” It is being published by Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, and everyone who is a member of AISA will get a copy. Those attending the AGM on Monday will not only get to hear Ivan Gazidis speak (which is obviously the star attraction), they’ll also get a copy of the publication at that meeting.
“Dial Square to Woolwich Arsenal” covers the club’s progress from its foundation in 1886 until its death and rebirth in 1910. That may not sound too exciting, given how many times the story has been written up, but what’s different about this publication is that it exposes all the many errors that are reported in virtually every other report of the era.
Arsenal’s history suffers from the fact that in 1905 “The Book of Football” was published which had a summary of Arsenal’s early life in it. It was written from recollections rather than from documentation, and contained numerous errors. Since then these errors have been taken as the gospel, no one has gone back to check, and some ludicrous howlers have simply been printed and reprinted over and over again even though a moment’s historical research could have shown how silly some of the statements are.
There’s something in the order of 18 such bits of nonsense recorded and resolved in “Dial Square to Woolwich Arsenal”. I won’t spoil the reading of it by reporting them all here, but here are a few tasters…
1: The Isle of Dogs.
Supposedly the venue for our first ever game. And maybe it was. But what certainly did not happen (contrary to the Official Illustrated Arsenal History and many other books) is that the players crossed the Thames on the Woolwich Free Ferry. There was no Woolwich Free Ferry in 1886. In fact there was no ferry from Woolwich at all at that point – the previous ferry company having gone bust several years before. How the players got there we don’t know, but however they did it (if they did on that occasion), it was one hell of a journey.
2. Going pro
Arsenal did not become a professional club because Derby County tried to poach Bobby Buist after a match with Woolwich Arsenal. We know this because Buist did not sign for Arsenal until some 8 months after the supposed incident! But it is true that the club did feel threatened by poaching of players from northern teams who were already professional.
3. Being thrown out of the FA
The Kent and London FAs did not throw Woolwich Arsenal out of their associations, after Woolwich Arsenal became a professional club – making them the first pro club south of Birmingham. The vote by the London FA was taken, and the vote was lost. Arsenal offered to resign but the offer was not accepted, and so the club stayed in its associations.
4. Arsenal were not lacking in local matches after going professional
As a result of the mis-reporting of the London FA incident many commentaries (including the club’s own handbook which in the 1960s used to publish a history of the club) reported that Woolwich Arsenal only played friendlies against northern professional sides, since they were boycotted by all amateur teams in the south. The cost, the handbook used to say, was horrific, and Woolwich Arsenal nearly died before it was born.
Quite untrue. “From Dial Square to Woolwich Arsenal” reveals who the club did play at this time. Even the reserves were playing local sides. There was no boycott.
5. Why Woolwich Arsenal went bust in 1910.
The reason for the decline in Woolwich Arsenal had little to do with transport problems in the area which stopped fans getting to the ground, although the lack of extra trams on a saturday was always an annoyance.
The problems with the club arose from changes to working patterns of the men in the armaments factories, and a decision by the board to try and exploit the rapidly growing transfer market by selling off the best players and bringing in youngsters. It was a policy that led to Jack Humble’s resignation in 1907 and the ultimate collapse of the club in 1910.
6. Arsenal, not Woolwich Arsenal
The club officially changed its name to Arsenal Football and Athletic Club in 1910 – although it continued to play as Woolwich Arsenal until near the end of the 1913/14 season.
There’s much more revealed in the pages of Dial Square to Woolwich Arsenal, and I do hope you will join AISA if you are not already a member so that you can read a copy. And indeed I hope to see you at the AGM on Monday if you can come (see their web site for details).
I’ll declare an interest and say that I am one of the co-authors of the publication, but I would like to express my sincere thanks to Andy Kelly, who has not only provided so much information for this site, but who also did so much to get the publication written.
Without Andy’s research we would never know about what really happened. Indeed Andy must surely have the award of being Arsenal’s most influential historian ever for his work in this publication.
And I must thank Paul Matz, secretary of AISA, whose idea this was, and without whom the idea would never have been pushed through to publication. I think we all owe Paul a very solid vote of thanks.
Also available: “Making the Arsenal” – the story of Arsenal in 1910