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28 March 1896: the 18th Arsenal local derby!

by Tony Attwood

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On 28 March 1896 Royal Arsenal FC played their local rivals, Millwall.  The score was Millwall 1 Arsenal 3.  This was the 18th game between the two great rivals either side of the Thames since February 1888, and Arsenal had not lost a single game.

Arsenal’s first game, as we know was on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames, at, or very close to, the original ground used by Millwall.

By the time Arsenal started playing Millwall regularly they were playing in their second ground in East Ferry Road, but they moved twice more before then making the six mile journey across the Thames to Cold Blow Lane in 1910. (The distance Millwall moved is far less if you are a crow, or indeed if you have your own boat and landing stages, but the actual route by road is more or less six miles).

Curiously the journey from Millwall’s grounds on the Isle of Dogs, and from the Den to Plumstead, was much the same distance – about 7 miles, so throughout the whole of Arsenal’s existence in Plumstead, Millwall was the big local rival.

And while Arsenal moved from being Royal Arsenal to Woolwich Arsenal, during this south London period, Millwall too changed their name.  In April 1889 they changed from Millwall Rovers to Millwall Athletic.  Later they became Millwall – but I am not sure when.  Opinions seem to vary.

Arsenal moved into the Football League in 1893, and around the same era Millwall were founder members and champions of the Southern League in 1894/5, winning it again in 1985/6 and being second in the third season of the league.  However thereafter they became more of a mid-table club, only once reaching third in the league.  But they did reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup in both 1900 and 1903, although did not enter the Football League until 1920, by which time Arsenal were packing in the crowds at Highbury in the First Division.

Most of the games played between the two clubs, while Arsenal were based in Plumstead, were friendlies, but over time competitive games crept in.   The most notable were of course the FA Cup matches.

The first match against Millwall Rovers was an away fixture on 5 February 1887, in front of 600 spectators.  The score was 0-4 to Arsenal.

In 1891 Royal Arsenal became a professional club, and that, combined with the great interest that the FA Cup held at this time, explains the sudden explosion of interest on 19 November 1992.   But even this was nothing compared with the game one season later, again in the FA Cup when 20,000 turned up.

That the friendlies of the mid 1890s could get 10,000 crowds was perhaps not surprising with Millwall at the top of the Southern League and Arsenal in the Football League.   On 6 November 1909, 32,000 turned up to watch the 1-1 draw in the Cup between the two clubs, played in Plumstead.

But by this time it was the Chelsea v Arsenal game that was getting the crowds as on 2 November 1907 65,000 were at Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea beat Arsenal 2-1 in the League.

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