29 November: Unravelling the lies of the Arsenal manager

On 29 November 1924, Bolton beat West Ham 5-0, and at once you are probably saying, “so what?”

In fact, this is noteworthy as Arsenal’s manager Leslie Knighton claimed 22 years later that WHU were the most fearsome team of the era, and suggested that he had had to drug the Arsenal team to get them hyped up enough to play against the club.

And that point is remembered because Knighton’s autobiography, published in 1946, has been a prime source of misinformation for journalists and “historians” (I use the latter word lightly) ever since.

Which itself is important since Knighton’s tales of Arsenal, which take up much of the book, although he managed elsewhere, are the single source for almost all the negative tales that have since been propagated about Arsenal and its chairman, Henry Norris, who rescued the club in 1910, paid off the debts, moved the club to Highbury, successfully got the club back into the top division, and then brought in Herbert Chapman as manager.

What is particularly interesting is that the stories about the awfulness of Henry Norris have survived, despite two simple facts.

First, if anyone bothers to check the data they will find very quickly that huge chunks of the autobiography simply don’t fit such facts as can be checked.  Second, because at the same time as Knighton’s tell-all book was serialised in the News of the World, George Allison published his autobiography – and that tells an utterly different tale.

Now as you may know, Knighton was a real failure as a manager, managing to keep Arsenal in the 1st Division by the skin of their teeth, and nothing else.  Whereas Allison won the league twice and the FA Cup, and without any reward kept the club going through the second world war, managing them on his own from a small room in White Hart Lane.

So why has Knighton’s work been accepted as the truth?  First, because it is scandalous.  Apart from suggesting that he drugged Arsenal players, he suggests Henry Norris was a crook, he argues that he had been promised the entire gate receipts of Arsenal v Tottenham in 1925 in compensation when he was sacked, and never got them, and says that if only he had been able to buy the quality players he wanted he would have taken Arsenal to the top, rather than the bottom of the table.

What makes this situation so outrageous however is not so much that Allison says otherwise (Allison worked for Arsenal and in fact knew Norris from 1910 onwards, and goes out of his way to praise him) but rather that so many of the allegations in his book are easy to check against the facts.

Like the fact that he was really worried about playing against WHU, claiming them to be the most fearsome team of the era, and he had to drug the Arsenal team to get them hyped up enough to play against the club. This is why WHU’s result on this day is interesting. They were not a fearsome team.

They were just an ordinary club – Arsenal remained the dominant London team, not West Ham. But the appropriately titled “Chapter X” of the autobiography pulls no punches for it is titled, “I dope Arsenal for a Cup tie” and he says (page 74) that Arsenal had been having a bad run and he was approached by a famous Harley Street doctor with his pills while in his office contemplating the tactics to employ to overcome West Ham in the 1st round of the FA Cup.  He doesn’t give his name, or leave an address, Knighton doesn’t check him out, he is just given the pills. So Knighton uses them.

Arsenal’s record in the FA Cup since Knighton took over was hardly exciting.  Under Knighton Arsenal had once got to the quarter-finals but otherwise had gone out at the first or second time of asking.  They had won just five cup matches in five years, and not a single one of these was against a first division side.

And just to be clear, Knighton’s quarter-final appearance with Arsenal was certainly not a record for the club.  Arsenal had twice made the semi-finals while playing at Plumstead.  So Knighton’s record with the knock out trophy was fairly modest.

But Knighton notes none of this in his autobiography.  Instead, he makes the point that he was very specifically concerned about this match in the 1st round of the FA Cup, because, most specifically, Arsenal were playing against West Ham.  So could it be because West Ham United were Arsenal’s bogey team?

In fact, Arsenal had only played West Ham five times in their history, once in the cup with a replay in the Plumstead days, and three times in the league, winning once and losing twice by the odd goal.

And in the run-up to the WHU games things were fairly normal for Arsenal with four wins, seven defeats and one draw, and as a result of what we might call this “modest” record hey were currently sitting 16th in the league.

Yet Knighton writes (page 74) “then during the cup rounds, we were drawn against the Hammers.  Rightly has West Ham gained this menacing nickname.  They have a mighty reputation as tough fighters who can beat the most polished and skilful opposition into a frazzle.  A year or two before our match with them they had thudded their way to the Final.

“I was sitting in my office in Highbury with my head in my hand, wondering how on earth we could make sure of putting West Ham out of the cup, when a card was handed to me.  It bore the name of a distinguished West End doctor.”

Now the story of how Knighton confesses to drugging his team in order to get them to win this match is widely known; but its only source is his autobiography.  The doctor in the case has never been identified.

But as we can see, West Ham are set up as something very special indeed.  And yet this was only their second year ever in the first division.  Prior to that, they had spent three years in the second division, finally gaining promotion by coming runners up.  Before that, they were 16 years in the first division of the Southern League, highest position 4th, which they achieved twice.

The story rambles on in the autobiography, with the game being postponed twice but the players taking the drugs twice anyway, and getting awful side effects and then the players refusing to take the drugs in the match that was played.

But curiously not a word of this leaked out to the press at the time.  Players were paid pitiful wages in those days and the chance of a couple of pounds extra in return for the story of the century would surely have been too much to resist.  But we never heard a word of it until Knighton wrote his autobiography.  That just seems too unlikely for words.

To me everything about the story is something made up with a record book of the fixtures in hand, to suit the needs of either the newspaper or the book publisher.  It is easier to tell as a tale totally related to West Ham and the Cup.  And 20 years on, would anyone remember whether West Ham were a force to be reckoned with at this time or whether the fog suddenly came down, or was there all day?  What it does do, in the biography at least, is take the focus away from what was happening to Arsenal’s form.

Yes, Bolton thumped West Ham on this day in 1924, showing us that WHU were at the time a modest middle-of-the-road team – just another fixture.  Yet the wild crazy story about the drugs has been repeated many times since about how Arsenal were afraid to play them.

Like the whole of Knighton’s autobiography, it is nonsense.

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ARSENAL HISTORY SOCIETY VIDEO COLLECTION

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100 Years in the First Division: the absolute complete story of Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.

Henry Norris at the Arsenal:  There is a full index to the series here.

Arsenal in the 1930s: The most comprehensive series on the decade ever

Arsenal in the 1970s: Every match and every intrigue reviewed in detail.

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