January 1910, and Arsenal played in Woolwich. We were in the First Division, but had never won any of the major trophies, such as the League or the Cup. The nearest we had come to was being in the semi final of the FA Cup two years running.
The ground could hold around 33,000, but for the most part crowds were between 10,000 and 20,000. There was one small stand at the Manor Ground – the rest was open terracing. When it rained you got wet.
Although we always think of Arsenal as a London club, 100 years ago we were in fact a club based very much in Kent. Plumstead, where we played, was a small town. Most of the men who came to support the club were workers at Woolwich Arsenal – the armaments factory.
But all was not well in the area. The closure of the torpedo factory had been announced, despite the fact that the biggest news story of the time was that at any time now the German navy would sail across the North Sea and invade up the Thames. Maybe that was why they moved the torpedo unit to the Clyde – to stop it falling in the first attack.
There were no floodlights, so games began at times to coincide with the light – at this time of year 2pm or 2.15pm.
Many commentators like to think that at some time in the past players came from the locality where they played, and teams were settled, but this certainly wasn’t the case at Woolwich Arsenal. Players came and went all the time, and the number used in the first team was about the same as now – although with far fewer games to play. For much of a time we were a Scottish team, made up of men who had travelled south looking for work.
Players did have positions (although they didn’t wear numbers or names), but there was little in the way of tactics at this stage. Training involved physical fitness work, rather than ball skills or tactical awareness.
There were also no substitutes, so players tended to play on through injuries. Indeed at one stage in the 1909/1910 season Arsenal were so short of a goalkeeper that their regular player had to play even when injured. According to the newspaper report, he couldn’t jump and couldn’t bend down. Blackburn scored seven that day against us.
So it was a different sort of occasion. A much tougher off side rule, a much slower game, a much heavier ball, and pitches that quickly degenerated into mud as autumn approached.
As for the FA Cup – Arsenal entered in the first round in mid-January. The non-league teams had already played each other, and the first and second division teams joined them in round 1. There was no third or fourth division in those days.
You can read more about this period in MAKING THE ARSENAL the story of Arsenal in 1910 – told from the point of view of a Fleet Street journalist who covered Arsenal and other matters during the year. Details on www.woolwicharsenal.co.uk
Today on Untold Arsenal – Club Owners, Club Morals, Club Debt.