By the end of January 1910 Henry Norris – owner of Fulham FC – was firmly established as a man who was talking an awful lot about Woolwich Arsenal FC and its impending demise.
And as always happens in such circumstances journalists went a-digging.
For those that were interested there were plenty of strange things to find out about Henry Norris. Most notably was the event seven years earlier when Fulham (of which Norris had just become chairman) got elected to the top division of the Southern League.
The way the system worked was through Test Matches (or “play offs” as we call them).
Fulham played Brentford for the right to rise to Southern League Division I, and Brentford won 7-2. But they didn’t. Norris turned up exactly at that moment, argued his point to the good and the great of Southern League football, and Fulham went up instead.
What was particularly extraordinary was that during what was reported a very angry meeting of the Southern League the vote on who should go up (which should have been a formality) had to be re-taken as there were protests from around the room. One report speaks of a fight breaking out.
So Fulham win the vote, and Norris gives the vote of thanks. And makes a lot of enemies.
Now does that remind you of anything later in history?
In fact a similar situation arose in 1919 when the Football League clubs met together to decide who should be in the First Division for the start of football after the war. Arsenal who had come 6th in the Second Division’s final season before the war, were voted up, while some clubs above them were not.
Indeed some records subsequent to this were changed to show Arsenal had ended up 5th, rather than 6th (it was a question of whether you divided goals against into goals for, or vice versa). Norris got them to change the approach and Arsenal were one spot higher, although still not enough to get into the First Division.
So what did Norris do on these occasions when he wanted to twist the rules? There are no official records available for either meeting, so we have to guess. But there is some hard evidence on the issue of 1919 – because the previously played season (1914/1915) had been overshadowed by a huge max fixing scandal involving Manchester United and Liverpool, and it seems clear that Norris and others were demanding the relegation of those two clubs as a result.
This horrified the league since those clubs were, as now, specially protected and had many friends in very high places. Norris eventually allowed himself to be “bought off” in return for Arsenal going up. It seems likely a similar edge was brought to the 1903 negotiations involving Fulham.
An interesting link between Norris and Woolwich Arsenal also emerged. Norris had used the architect Archi Leitch to build his stand at Fulham. Leitch had also designed the stand at the Manor Ground, and the ground at Chelsea. In fact he worked on both Fulham and Chelsea at the same time!
This is curious because it was only a few years since Leitch had been implicated in (but not found guilty of any offence in relation to) the terrible collapse of the Ibrox stadium. What is also curious is that Leitch was not paid for his work at Woolwich Arsenal.
Around this time Norris also threatened to leave Fulham – a threat which he didn’t carry out until years later. But he was simultaneously telling the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who owned Craven Cottage that he could no longer afford their rent, and was also trying to get Fulham into Stamford Bridge, before Chelsea took occupancy in 1905. He was in fact playing all sides at once.
The link with Norris and the church is particularly interesting, when you recall what Highbury was before it was a football stadium. And in fact there was more Norris/Commissioner activity before he moved over to take full charge of Arsenal. As Mayor of Fulham, and the leading property developer of the era he had a lot of chances to get to know the high and mighty in the Church of England – and he did just that.
In short Norris was a wheeler dealer and a self-publicist, who had used the media in the past for each of his campaigns – such as getting Fulham promoted, or trying (unsuccessfully) to stop the launch of Chelsea in 1905).
There was no doubt that he would try the same methods again if he really wanted to get his hands on the failing Woolwich Arsenal.
You can read the whole story of Norris purchase of Arsenal through the eyes of a journalist in 1910, in Making the Arsenal.
(c) Tony Attwood 2010