There was a rather strange comment on our sister site Untold Arsenal this week in which an Aston Villa fan said that Arsenal supporters have no right to comment on Villa when in fact Arsenal had bribed their way into the first division in 1919.
I must admit I thought that the old Tiny Totts propaganda on that topic had been put to bed a long time ago and that supporters didn’t just repeat the old line. But it seems not.
So although the prime business of this site is Arsenal 100 years ago I’ll deviate a little and give some background into Arsenal’s last ever promotion to the First Division, in 1919.
In the final pre-war season, the First and Second Divisions of the Football League were made up of 20 clubs each, as they had been since the last upgrade at the end of the 1904/5 season.
Everyone wanted more games so it was agreed to increase each division by two clubs, thus creating four more games per club. (There was no third division at this time – that came quite a bit later).
The first thing the League did was look back to the summer of 1905 – the last upgrade. At the AGM in that year the bottom two teams of the first division (Bury and Notts County) did not go down, and the top two of the second division (Liverpool and Bolton) went up.
That left Division II with 16 clubs so four more were needed. However Doncaster Rovers who came bottom of Division II were not re-elected by the other clubs, and so five new clubs were elected – including Chelsea who were given a place even though they had no club, no team, no supporters and had never even played a match in the Southern League – the normal feeder league.
This approach of manipulating promotions was well established and went on most years with teams being de-selected, and others being brought in, not because of outstanding playing merit (there was no Chelsea and they had never played a game) but because of football politics.
The five new clubs were Chelsea, Hull, Leeds, the Orient, and Stockport. Two London and three from the north – with the London clubs refusing to allow anything less than two of their number through.
This regional argument was always there, because the League had been formed exclusively as a northern and midlands activity. Arsenal were the first southern team into the League in 1893.
Because new admissions to the League were voted on by the clubs, and because the clubs from the north and midlands had a continual majority, they constantly tried to keep the southern clubs out, claiming that London teams should play in the Southern League.
They had voted Woolwich Arsenal in because of the earlier notion of making the league a National League, but quickly went off the idea, and named their annual trip to Kent as “the weekend in Hell”.
In fact the only other southern teams to get into the League was Luton Town in 1897 and Bristol City in 1901. And this despite the fact that London was the biggest city in the world at the time.
To show how biased this was, consider Tottenham. Tottenham actually won the FA Cup in the Southern League – but still couldn’t get into the Football League, and while as Arsenal fans we might enjoy that fact, when we set our feelings aside we must admit that it was outrageous block voting by the north and midlands at work as usual.
So at the time of the 1905 expansion the clubs in London made it clear they had had enough, and two more London teams joined the ranks to avoid a split. But bad feeling remained, and by the time of the 1919 AGM and the proposal to increase the number of teams per league to 22, everyone knew there was going to be another dog fight.
In the last pre-war season, Tottenham and Chelsea were in the bottom two relegation spots in Division I. Derby and Preston were first and second (the promotion spots) in Division II.
Tottenham and Chelsea were ready to argue that as in 1905 they should stay up, despite ending in the relegation zone, but the northern clubs didn’t want to help London’s clubs, and would have been much happier without any London clubs in the First Division (which would have been the case if those two had gone down).
But this time there was another factor: match fixing, primarily 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 so avoided relegation.
So Chelsea put up a new argument which said Manchester United and Liverpool should be thrown out of the League.
This caused panic, not just because they were big clubs, but because it would mean that the League would have to admit in public that matches had been fixed. (Everyone knew this – match fixing was wholesale, but until then had been swept under the carpet).
When the feeling of the meeting was clearly “no” to this step Henry Norris moved in, as chairman of Arsenal. He reminded the meeting of how the London teams had done their bit for professional sport, and how Woolwich Arsenal had defied the FA in becoming the first professional team in the south.
When this approach brought snears from Manchester United and Liverpool, the southern clubs, and those in the rest of the league who had suffered at the hands of the match fixing cartel started to build a bloc and it began to look as if instead of building into an even stronger league of 44 clubs, the league would split in two – with the midlands clubs looking to join forces with the London teams to make a league of their own.
If the League as a whole would not hear of the match fixing clubs being punished then it had only one compromise to offer – a “rearrangement” of the promotion and relegation issues for the expansion of the league.
They needed two more clubs for Division I and three more for Division II (Glossop North End choosing not to continue in the League).
First they re-elected Chelsea back into the First Division, on the grounds that if Liverpool and Man U had not been bent, they would have stayed up anyway. Tottenham who came bottom were relegated as they had no claim to a place because of any match fixing and still had few friends in the League.
There was also universal acceptance that the top two from Division II should go up – Deby and Preston, and this was agreed. This left Division I a team short.
This is when Norris made his play. He pointed out that although quite rightly Chelsea had not suffered because of the match fixing, the two clubs involved were still not being punished, and he would not accept this. If he left the meeting with them still in the first division, he argued, he would use his extensive political power (he had been knighted at the end of the war, and elected to parliament) to force government action against the corrupt Football League who “encouraged” gambling and corruption.
With the northern clubs absolutely refusing to budge, the League hierarchy then did a secret deal. Arsenal would be voted into the final place in the first division and one new London club would get into to Division II (West Ham). Coventry, Gateshead, Rotherman and Stoke made up the numbers.
So it was done. The argument of course is, should the southern clubs have broken away and exposed the League as the corrupt outfit it was, and has been for much of its life? Possibly, but Norris had invested his fortune in building Highbury, and clearly was not going to throw that away.
The evil of the match fixing remained, and Man U and Liverpool went unpunished, knowing they could do what they liked with impunity. If Tony Blair had been alive and interested he would have said that a line should be drawn under the events and we should move on. It was that sort of deal.
More on Arsenal’s history here.
(c) Tony Attwood 2010.