by Tony Attwood
On February 6th, 1909 Arsenal played Millwall Athletic in the FA Cup in front of a crowd which is recorded as an astonishing 32,000.
Arsenal had only played in front of bigger crowds when playing a couple of league matches at Chelsea (where 50,000 was not unknown) and in the second of their two cup semi-finals where 36,000 turned up at St Andrews to see the game against Sheffield Wednesday.
This particular Millwall match in 1909 is to be remembered for two reasons. First, the size of the crowd, which was explained by the fact that Millwall were Arsenal’s local rivals at the time. And second because at that time Millwall were planning to move south, across the River Thames and find success. At the time of this game, the foundations for the new Millwall ground (The Den) were already being laid.
Henry Norris, a director of Fulham, would have looked at this crowd at Millwall, the rivalry, and the move across the river, and noted it all. Then, having become a director of Arsenal in 1910, as he plotted the move of Arsenal in 1913 – the move that would take Arsenal in the opposite direction – he would have recalled exactly what Millwall had done.
Millwall Rovers initially played on the Isle of Dogs, being formed one year before Arsenal in 1885. In April 1889 the club changed its name to Millwall Athletic and they were founder members of the Southern League.
In the first 25 years of their existence, they occupied no less than four different grounds but had never found huge support – and the 1909 game against Arsenal from across the river may well have been their biggest crowd during this era.
So in 1910 Millwall (having dropped the name Athletic – which was taken when they moved to a ground of the same name) moved to their new stadium. A fictionalised account of their opening game at the ground is provided in the novel “Making the Arsenal”.
Woolwich Arsenal never played Millwall during the remaining years when both were south London clubs, but the 1909 match was still a major local derby, just as the Cup game between the two sides had been in 1893 when 20,000 turned up at the Manor Ground for a third qualifying round match. Given that Arsenal’s largest crowd in the League in that inaugural season was 13,000 the power of local rivalry was clear.
So Henry Norris, thinking about what to do with the club in 1912, had in Millwall a model. First, a move across the river need be no bad thing. Millwall had made a success out of their move south. Second, a move that left one very close to another club, could be a benefit in stimulating local interest in football rather than a distraction.
Of course, Norris had other reasons for picking Highbury as his ultimate venue for the new Arsenal in 1913. Most importantly, there was the type of housing in the area meaning that local residents would be likely to be interested in football, and there was the issue of travel. The games between Arsenal and Millwall had been difficult for supporters because of the local transport difficulties. Norris wanted a venue that was served by good public transport.
Highbury, with its two nearby underground stations and its railway connections was ideal, in exactly the way that The Manor Ground in Plumstead was not ideal. You could get to Highbury readily no matter whether you were coming from the north, south or west. At Plumstead all journeys were difficult.
So it must have been with great interest that Henry Norris watched what happened when Millwall played Arsenal in 1909 and then what happened when Millwall moved south in 1910. And it certainly must have been clear to Norris that what Millwall could do in one direction, Arsenal could do in another.
For thoughts on Arsenal today please see Untold Arsenal
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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.