8 September 1914: there might be war, but football continues




8 September 1914

War was declared against Germany on 4 August 1914, and the FA immediately took the decision that football should continue for the 1914/15 season.  The League concurred, probably both influenced by the commonly held view that the war was going to be over by Christmas, and they didn’t want to have half a season lost for no reason.

Thus the clubs were told to continue with their pre-season preparations, which Arsenal had done with their friendly away to Tottenham, so they were ready for the opening day’s kick-off.  On that opening day, Tuesday 1 September, the League and FA announced that after further consideration they confirmed again that the season would continue, despite the major condemnation by some newspapers which wanted horse racing to continue (for the good of the horses) but not football (a distraction for working men).

Arsenal played their first Football League Division Two game of the season in the late afternoon / early evening of 1 September with the result The Arsenal 3 Glossop 0 with a crowd of 7000 – not as good as might be hoped but it was on a Tuesday and already a lot of young men had already been recruited for the war effort.

According to Sally Davis, biographer of Henry Norris, at some point around this time James “Punch” McEwan was taken on as a coach working under the direction of manager George Morrell.  However in working on the book “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” we concluded that McEwan had joined in 1913 rather than 1914.  Either way, he was certainly at the club by this time and working alongside the manager.

Punch McEwan (his nickname came from the fact that he told an endless stream of jokes of the type found in Punch magazine at the time) in fact went on to have a significant input into Arsenal, taking over the manager’s position for the last two games of the 1914/15 season and seeing the club through the war.  Yet another man who gave selfless service to the club, but who is now forgotten.

He was the first Arsenal manager who played football himself at a significant level, and indeed had played in the  1903 FA Cup final for Bury where his team beat Derby 6-0 in front of 63,000 at Crystal Palace – the biggest FA Cup final win ever.

After playing for Bury he moved to Luton, and then became manager of Norwich after a two-year stint as a player. He came out of retirement in 1911 to play two more League games for Glossop, one of his earlier clubs, before joining the coaching staff at Fulham – thus becoming known to Henry Norris who was a director of Fulham at the time.

Having joined Arsenal, McEwen’s job was developing the young players in the reserves but after the League was abandoned at the end of the 1914/5 season, he managed the playing affairs of The Arsenal, with John Peters acting as secretary.  He stayed in post until he handed over the first team reins to Leslie Knighton in April 1919 as the League prepared to resume its activities, and Punch reverted back to his duties of looking after the affairs of the younger players.

In 1929 Arsenal formed an ‘A’ team that was used to trial young players and gave the opportunity for the senior players to have a relatively easy game of football when returning from injury.  Punch McEwen managed the ‘A’ team in the London Professional Midweek League until it was disbanded in 1935.

He remained at Arsenal in the capacity of dressing room attendant finally leaving the club just before the start of the Second World War after devoting the majority of his working life to Arsenal.  He is a man who is sadly now forgotten, but really should be remembered for his selfless devotion to the club throughout his working life.

Thus The Arsenal as they were now called started the new season on 1 September, as was the tradition (unless the 1st was a Friday or a Sunday, in which case the season started on the second day of the month), with a victory over Glossop North End, 3-0.

What is noticeable about this game is that Harry King, who joined the club from Northampton in April 1914, scored two in his first outing – the start of an utterly sensational season for him at Arsenal.  The crowd however was only 7,000 – a reduction caused by it being a mid-week match and against unattractive opposition – and there was still the reaction against the notion of playing football while the country was at war (although this had never been raised during the Boer War).

On 3 September the FA attempted to head off some of the negative publicity that it was getting because of its decision about continuing professional football, by encouraging younger footballers to join up.  However, as Sally Davis points out, “Charles Buchan wrote in his memoirs that when he told his employers at Sunderland FC of his intention to join up, they responded with a not-particularly-veiled threat to sue him for breach of contract; so he didn’t volunteer until the summer of 1915.”

The FA also started to encourage clubs to offer their grounds for use by the military for drill practice as well as suggesting that prominent figures should use football matches to aid recruitment.   And indeed it was Arsenal owner Henry Norris who was one of the key players in this idea – Sally Davis suggests Norris may have suggested it to the FA – and from here on he regularly spoke at matches encouraging young men to sign up.

The idea then got a further boost the following day as the Prime Minister announced that he would personally soon address all the London mayors on the subject of what they could do to aid recruitment.

Arsenal’s second game of the season on 5 September was away to Wolverhampton Wanderers who had been a resolutely mid-table second division club since coming bottom of Division One in 1906.  Arsenal might have hoped to gain at least a point, but instead lost 0-1.  The crowd of 8000 confirmed what numbers were going to be like through much of the season – or at least until the war was over “by Christmas”.

Away from the football, on this day the London Agreement was signed with which each member of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) agreed that none would seek an individual peace settlement with the enemy to the exclusion of their allies.

At the same time the Battle of the Marne began and in the course of the following week half a million combatants were killed.  The horrors of the first world war had begun with a vengeance.

On the following Tuesday, 8 September, Arsenal played the return game with Glossop North End, and this time went one better with a 4-0 away win with King getting another two.  For the third match running the crowd was small – again just 7000.  But Arsenal had scored seven goals in the first three games: not a bad start.

Before the match the chairman of Glossop, Sir Samuel Hill-Wood, announced to the press that he could no longer support the club financially.   Clearly, given that he subsequently took over Arsenal and bequeathed it (via his shareholding) to his family as their right to run the club, what he was looking for was a club that made a profit.  Which in time of peace was Arsenal.  Looking back it doesn’t seem a very honourable thing to do.

However on the pitch the result of this match against Glossop meant King had scored 10 goals in four games of which six were scored by one man: King.

The following Tuesday Henry Norris held a public meeting at the Fulham Town Hall and announced that 2900 young men had thus far been recruited through his efforts – but more were now needed.

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