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By Tony Attwood
While we see promotion and relegation based on final league positions as normal today, for much of the existence of the Football League and other leagues in England, this has not been the case.
Indeed even today it is not the case throughout football, for just as I write this the news has come in that the FA wants to reorganise some of the lower leagues in English football. The idea is to change the number of leagues at a lower level and the FA is inviting clubs to apply to be in one league rather than another. No relegation or promotion just applications.
On fact drom the very start until 1986 in fact, entry into the Football League always resulted from clubs by being voted in by other league clubs. Similarly, expansion of the leagues – which inevitably meant promoting some clubs from a lower league to make up the numbers, was by a voting process on a club by club basis, rather than automatically being based on the final position in the league the previous season.
Sometimes the system worked smoothly, but sometimes it was fairly chaotic. For example, in 1907 when Port Vale were in severe financial problems the club left the football league. This was moderately common, and had gone on since the earliest days when Accrington left the league rather than face life in division 2.
But what then happened was more strange. In October 1919, Port Vale returned mid-season. Leeds City was thrown out for financial irregularities, and clubs applied for the right to take over the fixtures of that club. Port Vale won the vote – and took over Leeds’ record to date. Leeds City then reformed and were admitted back into the League as Leeds United a year or two later – again on a vote.
Clubs could also appear in the league out of nowhere, rather than be voted in after a good season outside the Football League. The happened with Chelsea in 1905. There was no Chelsea, just an empty sports stadium and an idea. So an application was made to the Southern League on the basis that if a place could be found for the newly invented club, Chelsea would be formed, players found, and they would play at Stamford Bridge.
The Southern League said no (after an objection from Tottenham who were in the Southern League at the time) so Chelsea put in an application for the Football League instead and got a place. The League did the same with other clubs – most notably Bradford City who got a place in order to establish football in a rugby dominated part of the country.
Some teams were also given places in the League because they had large grounds, even though they were not doing well elsewhere – Thames Association and New Brighton Tower were examples, although both failed to attract crowds and quickly folded.
It was not even the case that to be voted in or out of a league that clubs had to win the lower league. Tottenham came 7th in the Southern League in 1908, and were given a place in the Football League, for example.
And into modern times when clubs at the foot of the 4th division had to re-apply each season to play in the league, it was not the bottom club that always got voted out (in fact most of the time no one got voted out, as the 3rd and 4th division clubs tended to vote for the incumbents in the hope that when they one day finished up in the bottom four, they too would be voted back in. It was called “The Old Pals Act”).
But it could go wrong. In 1960 to take just one example, Gateshead ended up 3rd from bottom of the 4th Division, but were ejected from the league on the chairman’s vote while the clubs ending up five and six points below them were re-elected.
I give this long background because the election of Arsenal to Division I in 1919 is often misunderstood. The First Division was expanded by two for this season, and the phrase “everyone expected the bottom two of the First Division to be re-elected” (or something like that) is often used as a preliminary to suggesting something odd happened. In fact it didn’t – all the normal procedures were followed (just as they were a little later in the season when Leeds City’s fixtures were taken over by Port Vale).
It is true that in the previous expansion in 1905 the bottom clubs in the First Division had been re-elected, but it was not agreed beforehand – it was as a result of a vote that happened to go that way.
Certainly such precedents can give rise to expectations and this probably happened between 1946 and 1958, when every club applying for re-election to the Third Division South and the Third Division North was re-elected. Each year by the 1950s everyone expected the bottom clubs to get re-elected – but the process still had to be gone through. Gateshead probably thought it was a foregone conclusion that they would be re-elected, and were probably very surprised when it didn’t happen. Maybe they called it a fix. But it was a process.
But the fact is that that in 1919 there was no 12 year continuous history of what happens at the end of a season other than the fixed rules of promotion between division 2 to 1 of the top two, so most people would have been aware that the due process had to happen – and so lobbying took place, as we shall see below.
But we must note that 1919 had three issues to consider. First, there had been no Football League since 1915, due to the war. Second, the leagues were expanding. Third the final season before the war had faced a match fixing event involving Manchester United and Liverpool. They fixed an end of season match so Man U won and so ended up with one more point that Chelsea and thus avoided relegation.
The League had recognised this as fact in its enquiry before the outbreak of war, but nothing was done, so when discussions began in March 1919 about the new season there were several items on the table:
1. What to do about Chelsea who had been unfairly relegated because of match fixing
2. What to do about Manchester United and Liverpool who were guilty of match fixing
3. How to expand the First Division to 22 clubs
4. How to expand the Second Division to 22 clubs, taking into account that Glossop were not going to continue in the Second Division because of financial troubles.
It is sometimes written that Henry Norris fixed the promotion issues at the AGM of the Football League but in fact if Norris did anything it was that he became a better lobbyist than the other chairmen.
The debate started months before that, particularly in Athletics News, the highly esteemed weekly which dominated football journalism at the time.
This magazine was the first to take up Arsenal’s cause, this being the journal that wrote about Arsenal’s claim to one of the extra first division places through its heritage of having brought the professional game to the south, having seen off the opposition of the Kent FA and London FA who had tried (unsuccessfully to have Arsenal ejected from the associations for going professional) and who had been a successful first division club for many years before 1913.
Other clubs put in their bids for the extra first division places and they too lobbied.
Chelsea said that they should not have been relegated at all. They came one point behind Manchester United, and that club had been found guilty of match fixing.
Tottenham said that they had been in the First Division in 1915, and despite coming bottom with just 8 wins in 38 games, they should be allowed to stay up having been in the top league for five consecutive years. They also cited what had happened the last time the league was expanded.
Derby County and Preston North End pressed their cases on the basis that they had come in the top two in 1915, and so automatically would have had promotion.
This left the clubs below the top two, also putting in bids: Barnsley, Wolverthampton, Arsenal, Birmingham and Hull. It is sometimes suggested that just Arsenal bid for a place in the top league at the expense of either Chelsea or Tottenham, but in fact all these clubs asked to be considered. If Birmingham would have won the bid, and Tottenham had been defeated, then Tottenham would have had to argue that “Birmingham stole their place”.
But before the vote the League took a decision. The outcry against Man U and Liverpool was so strong, Chelsea were given place, although it was decided not to take action against Manchester United and Liverpool and leave them in the first division on the grounds that too much time had gone since the event!
Second it was decided that the promoted clubs would go up as normal. So that meant Tottenham, Barnsley, Wolverthampton, Arsenal, Birmingham and Hull were thrown together in a vote of league chairmen. Only the top club would go up. Meanwhile, in a separate vote the chairmen had to vote on who would join the second division.
In the end Arsenal got the extra place in the first division and West Ham, Coventry, Gateshead, Rotherman and Stoke made up the numbers in the second.
As always the club chairmen took into account anything they wanted to take into account, and this would have included the lobbying, their personal friendships, plus the crowds that promoted or newly entering clubs would bring – both home and away. (As we show in our book on Woolwich Arsenal, Arsenal were the first team to create an away support, and this would have helped their cause. Also Norris had built Arsenal a large stadium, and in those days match income was shared between home and away clubs. And the ground had very easy access for teams from the Midlands and North which they appreciated).
The bad news was that the evil of the match fixing remained, and Man U and Liverpool went unpunished, knowing they could do what they liked with impunity. As I said in an earlier commentary, if Tony Blair had been alive and working for the League he would have said that a line should be drawn under the events and we should move on. It was that sort of deal.
Tottenham was not happy and spoke of Arsenal stealing their place, and perhaps many years later other clubs voted up and down, in and out thought much the same, but that was the system, both before and after the vote. And sadly the fuss Tottenham made removed the pressure on the League to deal with Manchester U and Liverpool once and for all.
But Arsenal got their place in the first division, and have been there ever since. It was an iconic moment for the club, for it encouraged Henry Norris to press ahead with his plans for the club, and working with Jack Humble he was then able to bring a certain Herbert Chapman into the club.
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