2 May 1891: Arsenal vote to become the first professional club in the south

By Tony Attwood

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On this day Royal Arsenal’s club committee held the historic Extraordinary General Meeting where they voted by 250 to 10 to turn professional.

The fifth season in the history of Royal Arsenal FC was an utterly momentous season in every way.  Arsenal had played their first game at the Invicta Ground on 6 September 1890  – a friendly against the 3rd Highlanders, and drew 1-1 in front of a crowd of 7,000.

Arsenal played a number of games against professional clubs from the north during the season, and lost them all, and I suspect it was this thought that was particularly on the minds of the General Meeting members when it came to the vote.  If Arsenal wanted to play against clubs at the top level, professionalism was what had to come.

Interestingly Arsenal did not play Tottenham this season.  Possibly the 10-1 thrashing of Tottenham the season before had made both clubs realise the gulf between the two was too great to make a re-match worthwile.

That then was the season – pretty much as the previous but with more crowds measured in the 5,000 to 8,000 bracket, and a new ground.

As Andy Kelly pointed out in an article on the Arsenal History Society website,  “The club held its 4th annual dinner at the Freemason’s Hall, Mount-pleasant on 25 April 1891. At this point, the club was still amateur and had not stated any intention to turn professional. The club secretary, George Osborne, stated that the following clubs had agreed to play Arsenal during the 1891-92 season: St Bartholowmew’s Hospital, Old Carthusians, Casuals, Crusaders, Cambridge University, Chriswick Park, London Caledonians, Clapton and Chatham.”

There’s nothing particular in that list, as they are much the same sort of clubs that Arsenal had played in the 1890/91 season.  (No Tottenham again, we may note!)

But the list became important in what follows.   To return to Andy’s commentary…

“On 2 May 1891, the club’s committee held an Extraordinary General Meeting where they voted by 250 to 10 to turn professional. The club knew that the London FA and Kent FA cup competitions were open only to amateur teams so they resigned from the two associations.

It is an important point: Arsenal offered their resignation.  But for years the club handbook and other publications suggested Arsenal had been thrown out of the two regional associations.  Yet this was completely untrue.

So clearly, with Arsenal getting good results against other local amateur teams, but not doing well against the northern professional teams, if Arsenal wanted to continue its growth, professionalism was a way forwards.

Second, this was a working men’s club – not a club with a middle class benefactor running the show.   The players deserved reward for their work – so the idea was that they should be paid.   The gentlemen of leisure could afford to play for nothing, but the working men needed a proper wage.

Third there is the story that after the Derby County FA Cup game Derby tapped up at least one if not two Arsenal players.   The reports of this story are wrong in detail (Buist for example is mentioned as one of the tapped up players, and yet he wasn’t even at Arsenal at the time), but it is possible that the word would be passed around that this or that player at Arsenal was particularly good, was playing as an amateur and might be open to an approach.

Thus Arsenal had a dilemma.  If they continued to improve so they could beat the professional teams from the north they had to keep their best players, not lose them to the northern teams Arsenal wanted to emulate.

And if Arsenal paid their players, then Arsenal would be able to do the tapping up themselves – attracting the very best amateur players from all over their own region in which Royal Arsenal would be the only serious professional team,

Andy takes up the tale here:

“On 16 May 1891, the club held its Annual General Meeting. It voted against forming a limited liability company [this did not happen until Arsenal won its place in the league two years later].  It was reported in the local press that the club had tendered its resignation from the London FA and the Kent FA after the Extraordinary General Meeting on 9 May but had not yet had a response from either association.”

In fact the members of the FAs voted against a boycott of professional teams. And to prove it, during 1891-92, Royal Arsenal played against eight out of the nine amateur teams that they had originally announced prior to the professional players decision.   Many more amateur teams were added to the list as the 1890/91 season drew to a close, such that 35 Southern clubs that Royal Arsenal played during 1891-92. They in fact played a further 16 Southern clubs during 1892-93.

So there we have it, Arsenal turned professional, but not in the way, and not really for the reasons that the books say.

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.

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