31 March 1919: how an Arsenal v Fulham match changed the face of London football

After the end of the 1914/15 season the Football League and the Southern League in England were suspended (although league football continued in Scotland) until the end of the war with Germany.

On 11 November 1918 the ceasefire that ended the war was declared, and on 6 December 1918 there was a meeting of the London Combination – the league founded in 1915 as a regional wartime league for London clubs during the war – to decide on what to do next.

There was at the time some talk of the London clubs breaking away from the Football League, and of the League dividing into regional leagues, given the disruption to the coal industry (which of course powered the trains and industry) caused by four years of war and the pre-war and post-war industrial unrest.

Despite these broader issues the 6 December meeting confined itself to football over the next few months – as no one was quite ready for the big step into a new organisation of football on a national level for 1919/20 onward.

During the war, the payment of players’ salaries had been ruled illegal by the league (a matter that caused the lifetime ban on Herbert Chapman, which fortunately for Arsenal was subsequently rescinded), and the (not rescinded) demise of Leeds City FC as a result of breaking these rules.

Player payments were the main issue of the day, and the first step taken was to agree that players could be paid from 7 December 1918 – albeit with a maximum wage installed once again (something Arsenal chairman Henry Norris argued against).  The first match for Arsenal at which this could happen turned out to be against Tottenham for the start of the 1919/20 season.  It ended Arsenal 0 Tottenham 1 on that day.

The match was notable in passing for the attendance of the Mayor of Islington – George Elliot.  Notable not just because it was his first-ever football match of any type, but because of the energetic way in which the borough had attempted to stop Arsenal coming to Highbury by supporting the reactionary Highbury Defence Committee.  But now there were elections in the offering, and no one had a clue which way these would go, not least because of the new electoral rules about who could vote.  So the Mayor probably thought showing an interest in the people’s game in general and the club in his constituency in particular, was not a bad idea.

On 1 January 1919 (a Wednesday, and not a public holiday) the London Combination’s Victory Cup (sometimes known since as the London Victory Cup) kicked off with one of the opening round matches ending Millwall 0 Arsenal 1.  By chance these clubs also played a London Combination league game (that is the wartime league not the reserve league) the following Saturday, again at Highbury (4 January 1919this one ending Arsenal 4 Millwall 1.  The crowd was 8000 – which was not bad considering most of the military personnel were still either overseas or in their English military camps.

Thus the route to the resumption of football seemed to be moving ahead peacefully but there were still many, many issues to be resolved.

Of course the big issue of the era was the election of Arsenal to the First Division which happened on 10 March 1919.   But there was another issue which although of less long-term consequence was nevertheless of considerable interest at the time.  Which brings us to 31 March.

On Monday 31 March 1919 the second round of the London Combination Victory Cup was held.  The match to be placed at Highbury was between Arsenal and Fulham – which was of interest because Henry Norris was a director of both clubs and Fulham’s manager was the ex-Arsenal man Phil Kelso.

Naturally, Henry Norris was at the game which saw Fulham beat Arsenal 4-1.  However Arsenal appealed, on the grounds that Fulham had knowingly played not one, but half a team’s worth of ineligible players.

(During the war, eligibility to play rules had been abandoned and guest players were everywhere.  But by the time of this game the rules of eligibility had been re-introduced, but Fulham just ignored them).

There doesn’t seem to have been any sympathy for Fulham in the media, and on 4 April 1919 the Arsenal complaint against Fulham was heard by the Committee of the London Combination, with Henry Norris at the meeting speaking on behalf of Arsenal and asking for Arsenal to be awarded the tie and Fulham disqualified.   The Committee recognised that Fulham had broken the rules but merely ordered the game to be replayed at Highbury on 10 April 1919.

However, before the replay could happen Fulham quite amazingly appealed against the appeal – even though there appears to have been no process allowing this laid down in the rules of the London Combination.

Even more incredibly the London Combination allowed the appeal not only to go ahead, but they awarded the appeal on the appeal to Fulham – and it seems they failed to invite Norris (as the spokesperson for Arsenal) to the meeting.  But as a result of this phoney appeal, the replay of the game was cancelled, and Fulham went into the semi-finals of the Victory Cup.

On 11 April 1919 Norris wrote an open letter complaining about Fulham’s appeal and this letter was published in Athletic News (whose man had interviewed Norris at the game) on 14 April 1919.  Norris then resigned from Fulham FC’s board of directors.

But that was not the end of the affair.  On 19 April 1919, the semi-final of the London Victory Cup took place and the selected venue was Highbury.  The result was Chelsea 4 Crystal Palace 0.   The other semi was played at Stamford Bridge and the result was Fulham 2 Tottenham 0.  For this game, Fulham avoided all controversy and played none of their loan players but their regular team.

The committee of the London Combination then decided, perhaps as a sop to Norris, to play the final on 26 April 1919 at Highbury, and to have another committee meeting on the eve of the event.

At this committee meeting on 25 April 1919 the Combination prepared to vote itself out of existence, as per the mandate it had given itself in 1915 – that of being a regional amateur league for the duration of the war.   However, such were the tensions that existed in football and such were the power plays that were going on, the members instead decided to keep the Combination, not least to protect the interests of London clubs against what they perceived as the pro-northern bias of the Football League.

The next day, 26 April, the final went ahead and Chelsea beat Fulham 3-0 in front of 36,000.

Naturally many in the crowd were Arsenal regulars and they spent the game letting Fulham know what they thought of them.  This anti-Fulham feeling was encouraged by the fact that Arsenal loaned Jack Rutherford to Chelsea for the match and in true Rutherford style he scored two of the goals for Chelsea.

Henry Norris and his wife were at the game and Edith presented the trophy to Chelsea.

Subsequently, the Combination continued and became the reserve league for London clubs and later for clubs from other areas.  It lasted until May 2012, just three years short of its 100th anniversary.

And in today’s football news…

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