Arsenal anniversaries 26 January: the full story of the Arsenal drugs scandal



By Tony Attwood

This story revolves around the 1st round FA Cup match in 1924/5.  Arsenal were drawn against West Ham United and the Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton seemingly was approached by a  Harley Street doctor and Arsenal fan, who offered a supply of “little white pills” for the players.  They would, he said, give them extra courage in facing the local rivals.

There being nothing illegal in this proposition (since there were no laws concerning the use of legally available drugs by athletes) Knighton suggested in his autobiography he listened.

Arsenal had won 10, drawn 4, and lost 10 in the league by the time of the match and West Ham were similarly mid-table so there was no clear favourite.

According to Knighton’s memoirs the entire Arsenal team and himself each took one of the pills, but then a fog swept across Upton Park and the game was called off.  The players reported having a great surge of energy – but also sore throats and a very strong thirst that no amount of water could assuage – as a result of the pills.

The match was rescheduled for the following Monday, but once again the fog put a stop to proceedings.  This time the players refused to take the pills but the manager did take one, and again suffered the same side effects – much to the players’ amusement.

The tie was finally played on January 14th and this time the players agreed to take the pills, once they saw the pitch was clear.  Knighton described the players as “like giants suddenly supercharged.”  But the game ended goalless.

The replay was at Highbury the following Tuesday in front of a crowd of 34,160 with Arsenal now in the midst of a bad run of results, losing four of the previous five league games.  The players again took their pills as ordered but the replay ended 2-2.

The second replay was held at Stamford Bridge on January 26th with Arsenal going down 1-0 to a goal in the last minute.  The players, by now fed up with the side effects, refused to take their pills, and indeed refused to take them ever again.

As for Arsenal the bad run continued with six defeats in a row including the aforementioned 5-0 home thrashing by the eventual champions Huddersfield Town.

In fact Arsenal’s post-drug season was awful: won 4, drew 1 and lost 14 ending the season just one place above the relegated clubs.

Yet when Herbert Chapman replaced Knighton that summer he used many of the self-same players to take Arsenal to second in the league and the sixth round of the FA Cup.  Motivation and tactics it seems could do more than pills.  But, we must still ask, what was Knighton doing?  He knew, having taken the pills twice, that they had terrible side effects.  So why did he go on and on with this experiment?

His autobiography, from which the story comes, offers no explanation.  Such action suggests, perhaps, a combination of desperation and wrecklessness, even accounting for the different standards that existed vis a vis drug use at the time.  The source of the drugs, is a mystery man.  There is not even any verification of his status.

Anyone tempted to try such pills out would surely have used them first in a reserve game, or even a training game.  And perhaps would have checked the doctor out.

The full story of Leslie Knighton’s shambolic reign at Arsenal is told in the most detailed review of Knighton’s time at the club ever written in our series Leslie Knighton at The Arsenal

Below are all the anniversaries for this day.

26 January 1889: St Luke’s 5 Arsenal 0 – a reminder that Royal Arsenal were strong but certainly not invincible in the early days.

26 January 1891: Royal Arsenal 0 Everton 5.  After three games in which Arsenal scored a total of 16 goals the club (which was playing its final season as amateurs) was brought down to earth by first division Everton.

26 January 1895: Crowd incidents in the Woolwich Arsenal v Burton game led to the ground being closed by the FA for two games.  The original sentence proposed was that the ground would be closed for the rest of the 1894/95 season. However, on appeal a “compromise” of 6 weeks suspension was agreed upon by the FA.   See also here.

26 January 1918:  Tottenham 0 Fulham 1 at Highbury (as Tottenham’s ground was closed for the duration).  Sir Henry Norris attended with his daughter who took her dog into the directors’ box.  The dog then escaped and then ran on the pitch and play was stopped while it was rounded up.  However this story also turns up in another match so may not be true.

26 January 1925: WHU 1 Arsenal 0 (at Stamford Bridge).  The second replay of the FA Cup match that was the scene of the Arsenal drugs scandal.  Curiously the only source for the story is the man who dished out the drugs to the team: the Arsenal manager who claimed he didn’t know the man who offered him the pills! 

26 January 1926: John Logie Baird demonstrated a mechanical television system in London – the first faltering steps towards TV.

26 January 1946: Leicester 4 Arsenal 5 in Football League South.  The last of six consecutive victories in the war time league in which Arsenal scored 20 games.  Arsenal then failed to win any of the next five games in the league.

26 January 1957: Ex player Freddie Cox DFC started his most famous FA Cup run as a manager of Bournemouth, beating Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur before narrowly losing to  Man U.

26 January 1969: James Ramsey died.  He went to Arsenal from Kilmarnock in 1924, and returned there in 1926, leaving Arsenal after 75 games.

26 January 1971: The journey to the Double was held up by a waterlogged pitch for the 4th round cup replay at Portsmouth.

26 January 1980: Arsenal beat Brighton And Hove Albion 2-0 in the cup with 43,202 in attendance.  After some poor performances Brady and Rix were back to their best and Arsenal could have reached double figures, except the Brighton keeper had the game of his life.

26 January 1985: York 1 Arsenal 0 (FA Cup).  Having taken two attempts to beat Hereford, Arsenal went down to York in front of a packed house of 10,840

26 January 2005: Jackie Henderson died in Poole, Dorset.  He played for Scotland and was a great favourite at Portsmouth, but couldn’t pull Arsenal through on his own.

26 January 2008: Arsenal beat Newcastle 3-0 at home in the FA Cup.

26 January 2013: Brighton 2 Arsenal 3 (FAC 4). This came in the midst of some high scoring matches including a 7-3 win over Newcastle, a 5-2 win away to Reading and a 5-1 win over WHU. 

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