Leslie Knighton was Arsenal’s first manager at Highbury, and the first manager in the current 1st division run which has lasted over 100 years.
He stayed for six years in which Arsenal came 10th, 9th, 17th, 11th, 19th and 20th. To give a context to this, the 21st and 22nd clubs were relegated each season.
He would probably not cause us more than a moment’s notice on this day were it not for the fact that in 1947 (22 years after he left Arsenal) he wrote his autobiography which contained a vast array of interesting but uncorroborated (and often as it turns out often utterly false) statements, about his work at Arsenal. The autobiography was serialised in a Sunday newspaper and contained an unrelenting outspoken attack on Sir Henry Norris, Arsenal’s chairman who had hired, and eventually sacked him, and who by this time had long since passed away and so could not sue.
Interestingly at the same time George Allison, who had managed the club from 1935 to 1947 (winning two League titles and the FA Cup) and who had been with Arsenal from 1910, and who thus also worked with Henry Norris, also published his autobiography. Allison had become internationally famous as a journalist and broadcaster, and had served his country in the War Office during the first world war.
Allison is very positive about Norris in his work, yet it is Knighton whose scandal-laden autobiography is always the one used as a source. Allison’s commentary is ignored despite his greater fame, longer service to the club and much greater success.
Indeed virtually every scurrilous and negative story you may ever heard about Norris will have come from Knighton’s autobiography (although a few have been added later by Tottenham fans), and yet it seems that until the AISA Arsenal History Society published its history of “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” no one had ever checked out any of these bizarre tales. It was just the Knighton fantasy repeated over and over.
At the start of 1925 Arsenal was the leading force in London football, not very high up the first division table but still above Tottenham and West Ham, with Chelsea and Fulham in the second. What’s more, Arsenal were also getting the top crowds in the League.
Then as now clubs in the first division joined in the FA Cup in January; Arsenal were drawn away to West Ham in what was then called the First Round Proper.
Knighton wrote at length about this match with Chapter X of the autobiography titled, “I dope Arsenal for a Cup tie.” In essence he says that prior to the game he was approached by a famous (but unnamed) Harley Street doctor who offered pills that would boost the players’ performance. This he welcomed because, he says, WHU were such a strong team.
Up to this point in the cup Arsenal had, under Knighton, generally gone out in the first or second round in which they played, while WHU themselves despite one cup final appearance were very much a mid-table to lower-table side.
Yet Knighton speaks of West Ham’s “mighty reputation as tough fighters.” And then suddenly along comes an anonymous but “distinguished West End doctor,” who offers him a set of pills to give to the players. The doctor then leaves, Knighton doesn’t know who he is, and that’s that.
The FA Cup 1st round was scheduled for 10 January 1925 but much of London was beset by dense, heavy and unremitting smog and so the match at West Ham was postponed. However Knighton states that shortly before kick off the players each took the pill which is odd because the weather reports show it was clear from first light that the game would not be played. A check of the weather reports for the time shows that in London “between the 10th and 12th there was persistent dense fog, some of it freezing.” Knighton makes no mention of the weather.
The match was then scheduled for 12 January but as the reports state the fog was still there (which was how it tended to get before the Clean Air Act, yet again Knighton he suggests the pills were taken just before kick off.
On 14 January the WHU game was finally played although this time he claims the players refused to take the pills because of unacceptable side effects. It was a draw.
The following Wednesday Arsenal played West Ham in the replay at Highbury, with 34,160 in the crowd, and this time it was another draw (2-2), Brain getting both goals for Arsenal. Again it is said that Arsenal players were offered the pills before the game, but again refused to take them.
Finally on 26 January the FA Cup tie against West Ham was settled, once more without recourse to pills, in a replay at Stamford Bridge, the result being West Ham 1 Arsenal 0.
So we are left with a question in relation to the drugs which ultimately were never used in a game, given by a gentleman whose identity Knighton did not know. Apart from it being all so odd (including taking the pills when it was clear the game was not going to be played) how come 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 year would surely have been too much to resist. But we never heard a word of it until Knighton wrote his autobiography.
But what the story does do, in the biography at least, is take the focus away from what was happening to Arsenal’s form – as Arsenal were by now in freefall and missed relegation by one place.
It is but one of a whole series of bizarre tales from Knighton’s autobiography, but at the heart of it all are the attacks on Sir Henry Norris who is presented as an appalling man. Perhaps I might just offer one more tale, to give a feel of the volume.
Knighton complains throughout his tenure he was never given a transfer budget by Sir Henry, and had to scrape around for players. Yet the records show constant transfers in Knighton’s period at the club, often at the high end of fees paid at the time.
He also claims he was reduced to playing the brother in law of the club’s physio on the wing, as he had no one else available because of Norris’ unwillingness to pay for players.
Like the rest of the autobiography the tale is false, for although Dr Jimmy Paterson was the brother in law of the club’s doctor, he was both a significant war hero and one of the most famous players of the era. Dr Paterson had won the Scottish League with Rangers, been awarded the Military Cross for bravery in the war, played for the Scottish League against the English League, and when returning to London after the war, was offered contracts by every London club. He chose Arsenal as his brother was with the club.
The book is full of tales like this, many of which can be proven to be quite untrue, and yet the tales of the evil Norris, all of which originate in the Knighton autobiography, live on.
Thus the moral of the tale is, be careful to create your own autobiography. Just in case someone writes about you to excuse their own awful behaviour and failings, long after you’ve gone.
You can read more about the final months of Knighton’s reign at Arsenal in these articles…
- Managerial fantasies about West Ham, as a deep rot sets in. Arsenal in January 1925.
- Experimenting with the offside law as Arsenal lose six in a row.
- Arsenal in March 1925: The run of consecutive defeats ends, but recovery is slight
- April 1925: the end is nigh; Arsenal escape, experiments continue, a new dawn approaches.
- Arsenal in the summer of 1925: Knighton out and the club advertises for a manager
For details of the videos sorted by club, and videos in the order we published them, plus our 21 golden great videos please see here.
Just as the videos have been put in date order so we are now doing a day-by-day series of Arsenal events, looking to find one good story a day throughout the year. This project started on 1 December, and we are adding to it each day. The index is here.
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.