The story of Arsenal’s post-first-world-war era is that (allegedly) Sir Henry Norris refused to allow Leslie Knighton to buy players, but subsequently allowed Chapman to buy anyone he wanted. That at least is how it is generally reported, without explanation, not least because a lot of Knighton’s autobiography is a justification of Knighton’s time at Arsenal, and contains such allegations. His failure with the club, he reports, is because Sir Henry Norris would not allow Knighton to spend more than £1000 on a transfer.
Now it is true that with very little support, Sir Henry constantly argued for a limit on transfer fees, but no limit on player salaries. However the other chairmen feared wage inflation and so voted him down every time.
But in effect, if Knighton was told anything by Sir Henry it was to keep the top level of Arsenal transfers at something around half the world record. To put that in context, today that would mean “no transfers over £55m.”
But there is more – and this might be the key issue with regards to transfers. In late 1924, Syd Hoar – a winger joined Arsenal from Luton of the Third Division South for £3,000 – a sum that was over half of the then British transfer record.
This makes a mockery of Knighton’s self-proclaimed limitation on transfers and it is also interesting that in reality, Chapman did not go in for wholesale changes. The regular core of his team was made up of the players that Knighton left behind. Only 17% of the playing positions in Chapman’s first season were taken with newly introduced players.
And yet remarkably while Knighton had been fighting relegation with this squad, Chapman took the team up to second in the league – their highest ever position – working a near miracle mostly with a squad that had, the previous season, just avoided relegation.
So how did he do it?
Obviously, we have no video footage, and sadly much of the reporting of matches in the newspapers is functional rather than insightful.
But what we do know is that Chapman had crafted a league-winning team at Huddersfield for a club with one of the lowest crowd attendances in the first division.
In 1924/25, Knighton’s last season, Arsenal had the highest average attendance of any club in the country at 29,485 while the average attendance in the 1st division of the League was 21,609, and the average across all divisions of the Football League was 12,496. Under Chapman the average attendance at Highbury varied year by year, the lowest being in 1928/9 when Arsenal were 8th in terms of the crowd and got an average of 26,690 up to 1931 when for the first time Arsenal had the biggest average attendance in the league at 37,106. Through this time the best-supported clubs were Newcastle (twice) and Chelsea (three times).
But Arsenal’s attendance was totally out of sight compared with its days in Plumstead. Here is the chart for Arsenal’s crowds from the time Henry Norris took over the club through the move to Highbury for the 1913/14 season, the Knighton reign up to the summer of 1925 and then the Chapman era from 1925 on.
|Season||Lge pos||Division||Average crowd||Attendance position|
It was the crowd growth that paid for Arsenal’s new stadium, and its ability to bring in new players.
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.
100 Years: 100 Years in the First Division
Arsenal today: Untold Arsenal