11 February 1888: Arsenal play Millwall at the Sportsman’s Grounds.

By Tony Attwood

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According to the book “The Gunners: Day to Day Life at Highbury”, Royal Arsenal played Millwall Rovers at the Manor Ground, Plumstead on 11 February 1888. This was (they say) the first Arsenal game at the Manor Ground.

But according to Roper (2004) although the first match was indeed against Millwall Rovers, but was not until 30 March 1888. So which one is it?  And why were Arsenal playing in Plumstead when they were Woolwich Arsenal?

Let’s deal with the name and location first. Arsenal’s first match was played as Dial Square played on the Isle of Dogs.  After that match, they became Royal Arsenal, a name they happily held until 1893 when the club (by now professional) joined the Football League and became a limited company.

Then as now, limited companies are not allowed by law to have a name that suggests a royal connection, so they changed to Woolwich Arsenal, which was the name of the factory where the original players had worked, and indeed where many of their supporters still worked.

But that didn’t mean they played in Woolwich – no, they actually had a ground in Plumstead initially called Mr Cavey’s Field, then the Manor Field, but then becoming the Manor Ground in 1894.  And the first game at the ground was indeed the one against Millwall Rovers, although not until  30 March 1888, and it wasn’t even called the Manor Field then but rather “Mr Cavey’s Field”.    Arsenal did indeed play Millwall Rovers on 11 February 1888 but this was played at The Sportsman Grounds.

Royal Arsenal played at the Manor Field (under its varied names) between 1888 and 1890, before temporarily moving to the Invicta Ground, which was almost opposite. Following the split in the club between those who wanted the club to be professional and those who didn’t, Arsenal bought the Manor Field, while the rebels who wanted only amateur football moved across the road to the Invicta and formed a rival team: the Royal Ordnance Factories FC.

The rivals, who favoured amateur football, turned out to be a really nasty bunch of people, and attempted to bribe the owner of the Manor Field, that Woolwich Arsenal FC were taking over, to allow the directors of the club to make numerous improvements to the ground, including the building of a stand, and then quadruple the rent, forcing the directors to pull out of the scheme, and thus lose the money they had invested in the improvements.  That would probably have pushed them into bankruptcy.

It was the most appalling attempt at underhand dealing, and the professional club and its directors were only saved by the honesty of the owner of the Manor Field, who refused the bribe and allowed Woolwich Arsenal to have the ground and start playing league football there.

So the Manor Field which was, in essence, a field, became the first home of Woolwich Arsenal FC, and hosted league games there, from 1893.   The transformation was undertaken in a matter of a few weeks, after the owner of the Invicta Ground conspired with some members of the Arsenal committee to take over the club, by doubling the rent and thus forcing the existing committee out.

Thus Plumstead ended up with two clubs opposite each other: Woolwich Arsenal in the Football League and Royal Ordnance Factories in the Southern League.

And on 11 February 1888 Arsenal played Millwall Rovers at The Sportsman Grounds as the battle between those who wanted professional football (Royal Arsenal, about to become Woolwich Arsenal FC) and those who wanted amateur football (the soon to be born Royal Ordnance Factories FC).

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