Arsenal’s view of its own history is starting to change

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By Tony Attwood

I have mentioned ad nauseum that I have a column in the Arsenal programme this season: “Arsenal Uncovered” which jumps around Arsenal’s history here and there, in a wholly illogical manner.  What I have not mentioned is that the club programme also has a series of articles tracing the history of the club from 1886 onwards, running in sequence.

The first article of this sequential series appeared in the Udinese programme, and covered that troublesome initial period 1886-1890.

What is so revelatory about that article is that for the first time ever (I really mean ever) an official Arsenal document has acknowledged that some of the early tales about Arsenal that appear in other Arsenal histories might be wrong.

This is the message that this site has been putting across since its foundation – and of course I’ve been helped enormously by Andy Kelly with his encyclopaedic knowledge of our club’s history.

Indeed I see the hand of Andy in the 1886-1890 article in the club programme – and Andy does actually get a mention in the piece.   The article raises all the points we have been pushing for the last couple of years: that there was no ferry to take the players across the Thames, that going there for the first ever match was just bizarre given the journey, that there were plenty of other places available to play, that the light would have faded before half time… and so on.  If you have read articles here before you’ll know the story – and if not, and if you don’t want to go hunting on this site, all will be retold with more detail than ever before in the forthcoming book WOOLWICH ARSENAL: THE CLUB THAT CHANGED FOOTBALL.

This book is currently being written by Andy, Mark Andrews and myself, and you never know we might actually get it out by Xmas.   But the point is we have come up with a wide range of stories about Arsenal’s early years that can either be proven to be untrue (the Bobby Buist tale and the “Arsenal thrown out of the London FA are good examples), or are likely to be untrue (Dial Square on the Isle of Dogs, for example).

But beyond this the article in the club programme highlights one of the issues that arise with football history – stories are told and information is given which is believed to be right, and then they are told and re-told, until someone goes back and check.

In fact the programme article illustrates this in a way that goes beyond anything that might have been expected.   In the programme article on 1886 there is a mention that in 1886 there were no licensing laws controlling the sale of alcohol in pubs.  That comment probably came from an article of mine on this site, or a comment I wrote in the AISA publication “From Dial Square…” which all AISA members will be getting with their membership packs.

When I wrote it I certainly thought it was true – wholesale regulation of public houses came about in 1914 to ensure that workers worked for the war effort, rather than got drunk through the day.   But I have just recently come across an article suggesting that there was licensing by magistrates before 1914, but it was rather ad hoc, and varied from place to place.  So it is quite possible that there was some restriction on the sale of alcohol prior in the days of Woolwich Arsenal – although Mark Andrews’ work in studying the crowd that attended Woolwich Arsenal matches suggests clearly that alcohol was on sale in the ground throughout the games.

I don’t bring this up to point a finger at the programme – I am thrilled that Andy Exley, the programme editor, is taking Arsenal history so seriously this season and of course I am really chuffed to be writing my own column this year.  Rather the point I want to make is that something written in good faith by one person can be picked up and used in good faith by the next.  But that doesn’t make it true.

The key point the programme article on the early years makes is that the source of the stories about 1886 is one guy – and he played a very fringe part in the history of the club.  And that’s what excites me.  The club is recognising that history is not right just because George Allison wrote it, or because the club’s own Official History book says it is.  We’re all working on unravelling it together.

My piece in the Udinese programme, for what it is worth, was on what happened to the players who played in our famous defeat to Walsall under Herbert Chapman in what turned out to be his last ever FA Cup match.  In the next programme it is the Great Arsenal Drugs Scandal.   I do hope you manage to get a copy of the programme.

The 18 most common errors that appear in most Arsenal histories

Are you related to anyone involved in the original Woolwich Arsenal club?  Player, supporter, manager, official, director…  If so I need to hear from you

“Making the Arsenal” is now available via Arsenal’s official on line shop

More details on “Making the Arsenal”

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