I wrote recently about the old story, still propagated by Tottenham supporters, that somehow Arsenal had stolen a place from Tottenham in Division I in 1919. The article is on this web site if you want to find it – just scroll down after this piece.
And then it struck me that since in the modern day Arsenal are about to play Chelsea, we might continue with the theme of fixed promotions by taking a look at the biggest fix of all – which involves Chelsea themselves.
At the end of the 1904/5 season it was decided that the First and Second divisions (the only two there were in England) should be expanded from 18 clubs each to 20 clubs.
What happened on this occasion was that the clubs that had finished in the bottom two places of Division I were “re-elected” and so there was no relegation. But the two clubs at the top of Division II went up to make the first division up to the required 20.
That left Division II four clubs short. That number went up to five when Doncaster Rovers (who had had a dreadful season in 1904/5, gaining only 8 points in the whole season – 19 points short of safety) were thrown out of the league. So there were five places available.
At this time Woolwich Arsenal were the only London team in the league, being firmly mid-table in the First Division (they came 10th that year).
There were applications from many clubs for the five places, and this was the start of the feeling (which erupted with such force in 1919) that London should have more league teams. Therefore it was not surprising that the applications included Fulham, Tottenham, Chelsea and Clapton Orient, to join the one and only London club (who were in fact playing in Kent).
Fulham, Clapton and Tottenham all had decent cases to make for helping even out the geography of the League being professional teams who were making a fair show of their role in the Southern League. Indeed Tottenham having won the FA Cup were the strongest applicant of all.
Chelsea had no case. They were in no league. They had no players. They had no management. They had nothing – except that just as the applications went in, they said there were going to sign a lease for what was one of the biggest grounds in the country – Stamford Bridge.
For a long time it was not at all clear they would get Stamford Bridge. Fulham, under Henry Norris (who took over Woolwich Arsenal in 1910) had expressed an interest in the new ground, and he was arguing with his current landlords (the Church Commissioners) over the rent they were paying at Craven Cottage. There was also talk of the ground being a dog track, and having it used for other sports.
And there was one thing that was certainly clear – in the summer of 1905 when the applications for the new places in the league were in, Stamford Bridge was absolutely not ready – they were still building it.
The architect of the ground, and the man in charge of overseeing the work was Archie Leitch. He was a man of mixed reputation. On the plus side he got work done on time and on budget, and he never demanded immediate payment. On the down side, a lot of people had died at Ibrox – one of his first grounds – when the terracing had collapsed.
The point about Ibrox was that the supports of the terracing had been built of the wrong wood. Leitch claimed it was not his fault, since he had specified the right type of wood but the builder had cut corners. But there was one other difficult question for Leitch – he was in charge of supervising the builders and checking the work. It can be difficult finding good builders and tradesmen who can ensure that no corners are cut. That is why it is important that strong supervisors can be put in place to keep an eye on construction work. Whilst Leicht was an architect, he was not a builder by trade.
The suspicion that Leitch was a good architect but not a good supervisor of builders was reinforced in the summer of 1905. By the summer Fulham had given up the thought of moving to Stamford Bridge, and decided to stay at Craven Cottage, but with a new grandstand. They asked Leitch to design it, get planning permission and then get it built.
Meanwhile the owners of Stamford Bridge had asked Leitch to do exactly the same thing. So he put in two sets of plans for the grandstands – which were in fact identical. The Stamford Bridge plans were passed, and Leitch asked for the Fulham plans to go through on the nod because they were the same. The planning department agreed – even though the plans were not at all the same.
Both developments went ahead at the same time with Leitch jumping between one site office and the other – not a good move for someone who was already guilty of not supervising work properly.
Meanwhile the owners of Stamford Bridge put forward their own plan for a new London team based at their ground, to have a place in the Second Division – taking up one of the five vacant places. Even though the ground was only half built, and there was no team or club.
And the Football League said yes.
In fact the places were given to Chelsea and Clapton Orient, to help get the London numbers up a bit, plus Hull, Leeds and Stockport.
So how come Chelsea got in without playing a game and without going through the Southern League – the normal feeder for southern teams?
After plans for alternative uses of the area known as Stamford Bridge (plans which included turning it into a coal yard for the Great Western Railway) were abandoned, the owners of the ground decided to put together a football club – so they formed Chelsea Football Club on 14 March 1905 at The Rising Sun pub. But it was a club in name only – they formed a limited company, nothing more.
First off the club applied to join the Southern League, but Fulham and Tottenham objected, saying quite reasonably that a club with no pedigree or experience or anything should at least start in one of the lower leagues.
But bizarrely Chelsea were instantly granted a place in the Football League in May 1905.
Chelsea’s first league match took place away at Stockport and they duly lost 1-0 on 2 September 1905 just six months after the invention of the limited company.
One could argue that the Football League were trying to spite the Southern League, and it is true they were wanted to improve the standing of professional football in London – where amateur football and amateur rugby ruled the sporting scene. Leitch also made the point in his plans that the ground at Stamford Bridge would be “fit for the cup final” – but then he said that about all the grounds he developed.
But the only real explanation there can be is that money changed hands. Stamford Bridge was an expensive development and the thought of just turning it into a coal yard would not have pleased the developers at all. They were building on spec, but they needed an income, and football was perfect for their needs. A few more pounds in the hands of the clubs within the league who were voting clubs in, was the most likely course of events.
However all was not plain sailing for Chelsea after that. For a start, the ground was a mess, and by 1910 huge sections of the ground were roped off because the terraces were crumbling.
As for the new London clubs, Orient came bottom of the league in their first season and never escaped Division II. Chelsea fared better and went up in 1907 but were back down in 1910.
Getting a non-existent club into the Football League when it had nothing but a limited company and a half-built ground, and when the club had already been turned away from the Southern League is probably one of the biggest con tricks in football of all time.
There is more on the story of Arsenal in 1910 in the novel “Making the Arsenal”
Other tales of con-tricks and corruption appear on the blog “Untold Arsenal”