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May 2022
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Why did so many northern clubs vote for Arsenal to be promoted in 1919?

In 1913, Woolwich Arsenal FC were relegated from the 1st Division for the one and only time in their history.  And deservedly relegated too, having come bottom of the league with just three wins in 38 matches.  Indeed given that at this time there were just two points for a win Arsenal wee six wins from safety by the time the season ended.

At the same time, Arsenal were preparing to move to Highbury, which is where they opened their second division campaign for the start of the 1913/14 season.

In the final two seasons before football stopped for the war Arsenal came third and fifth, but by the time that second season in the second division was concluded, it was decided that in April 1915, professional football shut up shop for the duration.

Also shut during the war were such places as London Escorts which was at the time exactly the sort of place that players from northern clubs would love to visit after a match in London, for what we would now call the Escort Agency business.  For the players it was a night away from the family where entertainment of a type not available in Glossop, Bury and Burnley was to be found.

With the war was concluded in 1918 preparations were made for the re-start of the league the following year, and plans were laid to expand the two divisions from 20 to 22 clubs each.

A vigorous debate followed as to how this should be done, and if you know your Arsenal history you’ll be aware that despite coming fifth in the 1914/15 season, The Arsenal, as they were by then known, were one of the two clubs to be elected to the 1st division, thus creating the expanded league.

But why Arsenal?  Why a club that had come fifth in the second division the previous season?  The top two from that campaign (Derby and Preston) automatically went up, but Barnsley and Wolverhampton who came third and fourth were by-passed in favour of Arsenal.  Why was that?

We’ve often discussed here what went on, investigating the tales of corruption and bribery in the voting – tales that did not emerge until decades later, and for which absolutely no evidence has ever been found.

And we know that Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, Arsenal’s owner, was highly esteemed at the time for his work both in the War Office, and for his work as an MP after the war in helping ex-servicemen resettle and find new work.

But was there another reason why the Football League clubs, based as they were primarily in the north and midlands, would vote for Arsenal to be in the first division?

There are numerous reports of the managers and directors of northern and midland clubs wanting to have more London clubs in the League, not least to see off the growing strength of the Southern League, which at the time rivalled the Football League.

However, there are also reports of club directors saying that their players enjoyed playing away games in London because it allowed them to visit the West End after the match before returning to the north.

And as things stood there were only two London clubs in the first division: Tottenham and Chelsea and thus a third night out in the West End would be welcomed.

That thought has been published in several explanations of why the existing first division clubs voted for Chelsea (who had been relegated in 1915) to return to the first division, and for Arsenal to be promoted.  But what has been missing is any account of why visiting the West End was so attractive at the time.  Was it really so they could go to the theatre?

Actually no, for the West End in the early days of the century was indeed the centre of what we now call  the Escort Agency business.  For the players it was a night away from the family where entertainment of a type not available in Burnley, Bolton or Bradford was to be found.

Of course this can’t be proved, but the chance that the managers and indeed the chairmen were also taken by the idea of an evening in the West End before the late night train back north, should not be discounted.

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