by Tony Attwood
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He was Arsenal’s first-ever match day programme editor, a journalist of international renown, an important member of the War Office team working on propaganda in the first world war, the BBC’s first sports commentator, and manager of Arsenal, winning the league twice and the FA Cup once.
George Allison came from Hurworth on Tees, village south of Darlington. Although I have mentioned it before I still don’t think they have anything up to commemorate their most famous son – after finishing this piece I’m going to drop them a line (for the second time) and see if they have. Certainly nothing on wiki about the village being the birth place of George Allison. And even the local history site “Keys to the Past” has nothing on him.
George is reputed to have played amateur football, and (so the story goes) started out by writing about his team for the local paper. He had a trial with Shildon, a local non-league club who are still in existence playing in the Northern League. (Ditto – have they done anything to commemorate him?)
Being a better writer than footballer he took up the former and dropped the latter and at some stage before 1906 was apparently assistant to the manager of Middlesbrough FC – although there is little information available on this.
So here’s the first question: what took George to London in 1906? My guess is a desire to break into the big world of journalism for in London he worked for Edward Hulton who ultimately started the Daily Sketch.
But it appears that he initially got freelance work and quickly established himself as a football writer who was willing to go out to the wilderness of north Kent to report on Woolwich Arsenal. This was the era when the club was on the edge of becoming something special for both in 1906 and 1907 Woolwich Arsenal got to the semi-final of the FA Cup, and indeed in 1907 they had their best league finish – 7th in the first division. Indeed it is said that Allison wrote reports on the matches at Plumstead for several different papers using different journalistic “voices” and different writing nom-de-plumes. (It was the basis for the novel “Making the Arsenal” – just in case you’ve read that).
By 1910 things had moved on. He became the greyhound racing correspondent of Sporting Life, and under Henry Norris’ ownership of Woolwich Arsenal started to write Gunners’ Mate – the leading article in the matchday programme.
It is also reported that at the coronation of King George V (an event which failed to set the working classes of London alight with royal enthusiasm) he met Lord Kitchener, and wrote up the story for the New York Post which led to a regular weekly column in that paper. In 1912 he joined the staff of William Randolph Hearst, the American politician and newspaper magnate.
In 1913 George Allison edited the first club handbook in which appeared the first official history of Arsenal FC while still working for Randolph Hearst – and that is interesting as Hearst is described in the book Unreliable Sources as a man who “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.” A similar charge is laid in the book “The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism” by Upton Sinclair.
Given that the early histories of Arsenal seem to be a little wayward in their reporting of what actually happened it may be that Allison took the same route on occasion. Certainly, it seems likely that the tale which the Arsenal handbook ran in the 1960s, of Arsenal being unable to play local clubs after they became professionals in 1893, was quite untrue. Maybe that’s how the tale started.
Certainly, the “Universal News Bureau” owned by Hearst, re-wrote the news of the London papers and then sent it out to American afternoon newspapers under the names of non-existent “Hearst correspondents” in Europe.
Knowing this much background we might guess at once at what George Allison’s job was in the first world war. He worked with the War Office and the Admiralty writing propaganda – thus carrying on his close liaison with Sir Henry Norris who rose to become in charge of recruitment for the army, conscription and later the decommissioning of the forces.
Post war Allison became a director of Arsenal, and also worked for the BBC and was the first person to do commentaries on major sports events such as the Derby, the Grand National, the football international England v Scotland (then an annual match) and, most notably, the 1927 Cup final of Cardiff v Arsenal.
Indeed it is said that by 1931 the BBC was broadcasting over 100 games per season. This was the era in which the Radio Times ran a picture of the pitch divided into squares with a background voice saying which square the ball was in as play moved around the field. It is also said that this was the origin of the phrase “Back to Square One”.
But Chapman fell out with Allison, and called a board meeting (to which Allison was not invited, although he was a director) and persuaded the board to ban Allison from doing any more radio broadcasts from Highbury. Eventually, the League banned the BBC from doing live radio broadcasts of all matches – a ban that remained until 1945.
When Herbert Chapman died in January 1934 the club appointed Joe Shaw as temporary manager for the rest of the season before giving the job to George Allison. He won the league (1933-4) and the FA Cup (1935-6), followed by the League again (1937-8).
If you know the face and look of George Allison it is probably because you have seen him in The Arsenal Stadium Mystery movie (1939) where unlike most of the rest of the club, he had a proper acting role as himself in the film, and says, partway through the game that is the heart of the story, “It’s one-nil to the Arsenal. That’s the way we like it.”
Bob Wall (Herbert Chapman’s assistant said in his autobiography “Arsenal from the Heart”, “Allison was a complete contrast to Chapman… He never claimed to possess a deep theoretical knowledge of the game but he listened closely to what people like Tom Whittaker and Alex James had to say. Like Chapman before him, Allison always insisted that, no matter how good a prospective signing might be, he would secure him only if his character was beyond reproach.”
In the second world war Allison was persuaded to run Arsenal on his own, from a small room at White Hart Lane, although he had wanted to retire. He remained for the 1946-7 season, in which we came a disappointing 13th, going out of the FA Cup in the third round to Chelsea. After this single post-war season George Allison retired, and he died ten years later on 13 March 1957.
100 Years in the First Division: the absolute complete story of Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.
Details of other series can be found on our home page and on the column on the right side of this page. In particular, you might like to note…
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.