11 September: Arsenal’s first league win and most humiliating defeat

11 September 1893 – the anniversary of our first ever league win (and remembrance of Walsall)

It is curious that Arsenal’s first-ever league win should be against the team that ultimately caused our most celebrated disaster of a defeat: Walsall.

In 1893/4 when Arsenal entered the league, Walsall were called Walsall Town Swifts being an amalgamation of  Walsall Town and Walsall Swifts – both clubs pre-dating the foundation of Arsenal in 1886.

Walsall TS entered the second division of the League in its first year – one year ahead of Woolwich Arsenal.  They survived three seasons but then failed to be re-elected and so left the league, changing their name in 1896 to Walsall.

In our first season in the league, the early results were

  • September 2  Woolwich Arsenal 2 Newcastle United 2 (home – attendance 10,000)
  • September 9  Notts County 3 Woolwich Arsenal 2 (away – attendance 7000)
  • September 11 Woolwich Arsenal 4 Walsall Town Swifts 0 (home attendance 4000 – the low number being caused by the match kicking off on Monday afternoon – the crowd for the second half was considerably higher!)

Fortunately, we did not have to wait long for the second victory – for in the next game we beat Grimsby 3-1, but then lost the return match against Newcastle 6-0.  Those fans who thought that the journey through the league into the first division was going to be a simple one, were given a real wake-up call.

Woolwich Arsenal finished the season in 9th place, one place and five points above Walsall Town Swifts.  We won 12, drew 4 and lost 12.

So on to the other big match against Walsall: Walsall of the Third Division North vs Arsenal; 14th January 1933.  In the previous season, we had come second in the league and were runners-up in the F.A. Cup.  At the time of the Walsall game, we were top of the 1st Division – and we went on to win it.   Walsall on the other hand included a fair number of amateur players in their squad and ended up 5th in the 3rd division north.  Yet they beat Arsenal  2-0.

So what happened?

To understand that game it is important to remember that at this time both the standard of play and of refereeing in the lower leagues was quite different from that in the first division.  Football everywhere was more of a contact sport in the 1930s, and in the third division, much of the more “vigorous” conduct went unpunished.  With no broadcasters at the games and the only reporters at league matches being from the (inevitably biased) local press, refs by and large let players get on with the game, rather than blow the whistle for every infringement.  Besides there were no red and yellow cards, and name taking and sendings-off were rare indeed.

As for the ground, Bernard Joy in his report on the match speaks of how too many fans were let in (it wasn’t all ticket) and how the spectators encroached onto the pitch throughout the match.  It was not what the players of Arsenal were used to.

Meanwhile, on the same day at the same time, Arsenal Reserves played Northampton Town at Highbury winning 5-0.  The reserve team included Leslie Compton, Horace Cope, Ray Parkin, Alf Haynes, and Joe Hulme, all of whom played in the first team that season.

And it is this that gives us a clue as to what Herbert Chapman was doing.  He wasn’t giving first-team players a rest at all.  No, he was finding out whether four of his reserves were mentally and physically strong enough to play for Arsenal’s first team.

One of the four (Norman Sidey) did pass the test and played 45 times for the club.  But for the other three, it was both their first and last game.

Billy Warnes joined Arsenal as an amateur in 1925.  He played in 25 of the 29 reserve games that season before Walsall, leaving the club at the end of the season to go to Norwich City.

Charlie Walsh also joined Arsenal as an amateur and signed as a professional on 11 May 1931. He played in 17 of the reserve games that season before Walsall but left the club almost immediately afterwards, joining Brentford on 27 January 1933.

Tommy Black joined Arsenal on 4 July 1931 from Strathclyde.   He was by no means a regular even in the reserves, playing just 16 games that season before Walsall.  He was transferred to Plymouth Argyle six days after the Walsall game.

So for three players, the experiment was a disaster, but it allowed Mr Chapman the chance to have a bit of a clear-out.  Sadly however he never had the chance to try the experiment again, for this was his last Cup game before his early death.  Had he survived who knows what he might have done next?

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