The unique quality of Arsenal: players, supporters, owners and managers, united as one.

By Tony Attwood

There is a new book that three of us are working on called WOOLWICH ARSENAL: THE CLUB THAT CHANGED HISTORY.

That title is being seen as very pompous and overstated, and yet I believe there is validity in it for a whole range of reasons.  Here’s one of them…

Arsenal was just about the only club (perhaps the only club) that reached the highest status in football, but in which at the start the owners, players and management committee, were all from the same group of people.

Take Jack Humble for example.  He was a player in the early days, and moved on to be a director of the club – staying with the club from 1886 to the late 1920s and actually managing to see the club win its first ever major trophy.

What’s more there was a link between the players and the area in which Arsenal played, since many players found employment in the armaments factories in Woolwich.  Indeed many travelled to the area to look for that work and then found employment with the club.

Thus men who had been work mates could become footballers for the local team, and since the ordnance factories were just about the only employer of significance in the area, there was a chance that as a supporter working there, you would know of the new potential players coming through.

Since Jack Humble and the rest of the early organisers of the club were from the same area, we have a unity between players, supporters and management.

This obviously started to change when Arsenal became a league team in 1893, not because of going into the League nor because of becoming a professional team, but rather because of the need to move from a co-operative (which is effectively what Royal Arsenal FC was) into a limited company.

But the shares were owned by a wide range of pe0ple with no dominant share holder, and the committee continued to be elected from the membership.  (It is also interesting to note that the area that gave birth to  the club was also the home of the largest of the co-operative societies).

Matters particularly changed in 1907 when the club’s benefactor felt he could put no more into the loss making club and the directors of the time started out on a journey which involved selling off the best players while bringing in cheaper employees.  From there it was a downhill journey into administration, and rescue by Henry Norris in 1910.

But we should notice something here – something generally ignored when stories about Norris are told.

First, he paid off the debts of the club personally, and arranged an honourable administration.

Second, he then went and offered shares in the newly created company to the local public.   In effect he tried to give the company back to the locals (many of whom were vocal in their criticism of him, and each other) and only kept control and moved the club in 1913 because the local supporters would have nothing to do with the club.

By 1913 the support had died, and so few turned up to say farewell to Woolwich Arsenal at Plumstead that the directors had to pay the benefit fund themselves for the player who was guaranteed a minimum from the gate for that match.

But despite the desperate attempts by Islington Council, the “Highbury Defence Committee” (the local residents association) and above all Tottenham Hotspur, the crowds did come rolling in at the new Arsenal Stadium at Gillespie Road.

By this time there was however some division.  Players and crowds were separated because there was no local dominant employer, and top players started to have local employment “arranged” to overcome the rules about the maximum wage of £4 per week.  Ownership was in the hands of Sir Henry Norris, (he had been knighted and had also been made a Colonel during the war, and became an MP in 1919) and other shareholders.  There was a full time manager and a small coaching staff.

So supporters, players, owners, directors and management began to be separated – although undoubtedly not as much as now.

What’s more, some links remained.  George Allison was a journalist, who became involved in the club through writing Gunners’ Mate and editing the programme eventually became manager of the club.  He was, like Jack Humble, a continuing link between different divisions within the club.

But today I fear there are no links, which leads me to my next question.  Do you support the club, the players, the manager or the board?

I ask this because I witnessed a discussion among some very serious Arsenal fans just recently in which it was clear that the general (but not universal) answer was, “I support the players”.

But that is, “I support the players as long as they are with us.  The moment they are not, I reserve the right to treat them as many aggrieved partners treat their ex husband or wife during and after a divorce.”  (No one in the discussion said that, but if you have been through it you will know what I mean!)

I want to take that part of the discussion into another article – perhaps best put on Untold Arsenal, but here as I begin to learn more about our fans and our early support, I find it is true.  At the start of Arsenal there was an amazing unity between fans, players, management and board.  And that I think was unique.

Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football, will be published early next year, and further details will be released here shortly.

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One Reply to “The unique quality of Arsenal: players, supporters, owners and managers, united as one.”

  1. When the club was formed into a limited liability, it was suggested at the 1893 AGM that the minimum shareholding to be considered for a place on the board was 5 shares. This was argued down and it was finally agreed that only 1 share would be needed. This meant that the working men that had formed and supported the club would continue to be able to have a say in running the club. The first board contained 6 men from the Royal Arsenal and this continued until 1910. Very much the people’s club.

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