Is the idea of having three clubs with grounds close to each other a good idea or a bad idea?
Today it is less of an issue than in the past, since in earlier days clubs were more dependent on local support, so the argument could be put that having two clubs in close proximity was a bad idea as it would spread the level of interest between two clubs rather than having it focussed on one.
This was certainly on the mind of the board of Tottenham Hotspur when they first heard that Woolwich Arsenal were proposing to move to Highbury.
And so on 23 February 1913, Tottenham Hotspur went on the attack, demanding that the Management Committee of the Football League state that Woolwich Arsenal could not move in on “their” territory.
Tottenham were aided in this by Clapton Orient and on one front it looked like they might have a case, since clearly the region already had two clubs. Indeed if anyone were to be objecting it should have initially been Clapton, since they had joined the League in 1905, three years before Tottenham invaded their territory. But that was ignored. Instead it was suggested that a third club in the area, it was argued, seemed like overkill.
But although that seemed logical on the face of it there were other issues to be considered.
The first was, why on earth was Henry Norris deliberately bringing a club to within a few miles of two existing clubs? Yes he had found a good plot of land to build the new stadium, but surely in the whole of London there had to be other good plots of land he could have taken. He was after all a property developer and so was used to finding “good plots of land”.
Henry Norris in fact had two major reasons for choosing Gillespie Road in Islington for the new ground, other than the fact that the space was there and available.
First, he relished the transport links. True he had actually opposed the introduction of trams to Fulham, for as a Unionist mayor of Fulham he was obliged to listen to those who voted for his party, and they were very conservative and resolutely against the move fearing it would allow the riff-raff from the West End – at the time a part of London notorious for crime and prostitution – to enter their area of the London suburbs.
But he knew well enough that for a football club to flourish, the transport issue was key. Even over 100 years ago, the days of the fan walking along a couple of streets to see his/her local team had gone. Now fans were travelling by train, underground and bus. Indeed an important part of Woolwich Arsenal’s support in Plumstead came from a group of fans in Rotherhithe.
Gillespie Road, where the new ground would be, had transport options ready-made: Finsbury Park rail and underground services were working by 1913, as was Gillespie Road (later renamed Arsenal) underground station.
But Henry Norris had also seen a rise in football interest in Fulham, once Chelsea created their club in 1905, and he felt that putting three clubs together in one small area could really bring football to the top of the agenda. Although we have no reference to him saying this, my belief from what we do know is that he felt that having the three clubs in one area would force football onto the daily local newspapers’ agenda every day of the week. And Norris did know a lot about newspapers, not least as a regular contributor of a column in his local Fulham paper.
In this he was right. For although it is often forgotten, the fact is that Tottenham and Arsenal both had significant increases in their crowds from September 1913 onwards once the two clubs were local rivals.
That then was Norris’ logic for the move. But there was something else. Norris knew that Tottenham had no ability to object to the move, because Tottenham had been down this road before. When both Chelsea and Clapton Orient had applied for places in the Southern League in 1904 and 1905 respectively, Tottenham had objected. The Southern League had accepted Clapton in 1904, but then rejected Chelsea in 1905, after those Tottenham objections. Clapton and Chelsea then jointly applied to join the Football League and were accepted and here Tottenham could have no objections since Tottenham continued to play in the Southern League until 1908.
But what really made Norris secure was the meeting in 1910 at the time of Arsenal’s fall into administration, from which Norris rescued them. Norris had discussed with the League, three proposals at that time. One was to merge Fulham and Woolwich Arsenal, one was to move Woolwich Arsenal to Fulham’s ground, and one was to keep Woolwich Arsenal where it was for a year, to allow the people of Plumstead to support their club by buying shares and coming to matches.
In these discussions, the League made it quite clear that
a) they controlled which division a club played in but
b) they had no right to decide where the club played
These rules have of course now changed, but that was the state of play in 1913 as it was in 1910, so Tottenham had no case, and must have known they had no case.
Tottenham’s request for the League Management Committee to hear the issue was thus rejected at once, since the Management Committee were perfectly aware that their rules, re-iterated in 1910, were clear: they did not control where clubs played.
Tottenham did not give up the fight – and the matter rumbled on for some time to come, but eventually even they had to concede. Arsenal became close neighbours and Tottenham’s crowds rose as the area became London’s hotbed of football.
For thoughts on Arsenal today please see Untold Arsenal
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.