By Tony Attwood
On 31 May 1893 Woolwich Arsenal FC were elected to Division II of the Football League.
It was an amazing moment for the club, because at the time it was under a ceaseless assault from a rival organisation – Royal Ordnance Factories FC, which had been formed by ex-members of the Royal Arsenal committee who were working in cahoots with Arsenal’s landlord at the Invicta Ground.
Quite what the rival group thought they could achieve and how they could achieve it remains unclear. Maybe they thought that when the landlord of the Invicta increased the rent of the ground, the club would meekly bow down and accept. Perhaps they genuinely believed (as they implied in their press statements and letters) that Woolwich Arsenal was run by a bunch of nobodies, and would quickly fail without their personal support.
Eventually Arsenal left the Invicta and set themselves up at the Manor Ground – and even there Royal Ordnance Factories tried one last trick of allowing Arsenal to upgrade the ground ready for the new season, and then buying it from the landlord – leaving Arsenal bankrupt.
But what the Royal Ordnance Factories club didn’t realise was that they were dealing with men of reliance who believed in their club. Arsenal outwitted ROF FC on every issue – buying the Manor Ground themselves, and joining the League. ROF FC were left to join the Southern League – where they survived for three seasons, before calling it a day.
The full story is told in the forthcoming book “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” – and I won’t try and cover the full set of events now. It is dramatic, and great fun (because the good guys win) but I just want to celebrate our anniversary today.
Royal Arsenal had turned professional in 1891, and contrary to reports in some of the poorly researched publications on the era, did not almost go bust when other clubs refused to play them. Far from it – everyone wanted to play Royal Arsenal FC, as they were by far the most famous team in the south.
Royal Arsenal had also attempted to start a Southern League, and although there was interest, only a small runt of a league got going (the Southern Alliance). Arsenal continued playing friendlies and FA Cup matches through these first two years, and then took the decision to apply to join the Football League.
Thus it was that they were accepted into the second division on 31 May 1893, and played their first match the following September.
This is, in fact, the day the modern Arsenal started.