The man who wrote Arsenal’s history to suit himself

By Tony Attwood

If a historian from the future were to read the pages of Untold Arsenal he/she would immediately be struck by the variety of opinion that is expressed on that blog.  Wanting to get a further view on the club at this time, such a historian might turn to the official Arsenal website, the club programme, the official illustrated history, other blogs, and so on.  All tell a different tale.

But looking back 100 years we don’t have this problem.  In fact we have a totally different problem.  A problem related to a total lack of sources of information.

Of course we know about the club, its results, its players.  But what went on behind the scenes?   That is where we have a problem because hardly anyone left any documents that give us a real insight.

Nowhere is this more so than with the management of Leslie Knighton – Arsenal’s manager in the period between the first world war and the arrival of Herbert Chapman.

Our problem is that Leslie Knighton wrote an autobiography.  But others involved at the top of Arsenal at the time (most notably Jack Humble and Lt Col Sir Henry Norris) did not write anything much about themselves and the club, and neither left us any diaries or papers which give much insight into the club’s inner workings.

So the story we have is Knighton’s story and as it is the only story we have, it is a story that has been told over and over again as if it is the absolute truth.

Now in writing that sentence I am not suggesting in any way that Knighton deliberately lied in his autobiography, but the fact is that when one writes one’s own story one does it to promote one’s own version of events and (and I think this was the case here) to make a bit of money through sensational exposure).

Arsenal, during Knighton’s reign as manager, did poorly, and eventually Knighton was sacked.  In fact history shows him as our worst ever manager (excluding two temporary managers who oversaw just a handful of games).

Someone had to take the blame for that failure, and if Knighton had said in his book, “yes, it was my fault, I was useless” it wouldn’t have looked too good – and wouldn’t have got that many sales.  So naturally the blame in the book goes elsewhere.

Knighton wrote his book at the end of his working life.  He had retired from football and was living in Bournemouth, working as the secretary of a golf club.  He had spent most of his working life in football, but had won nothing – although he had reached the FA Cup Final with one of the clubs he managed.

It is likely that at the time he welcomed the cash he could make out of what was one of football’s first autobiographies by a manager telling it “how it was” inside the world of the big football clubs – a world that people knew far less about when the book came out, than we do today.   Even the title Behind the Scenes in Big Football gives us an insight into the way the book was promoted, and in 1948 – as football got going again after the second world war to have the inside story on Arsenal, who won the league yet again that year, was a sensation.

But the problem we have is that with only Knighton’s  side of the story to consider we don’t really know who to believe, and so we have to look for the facts around the issues that Knighton wrote about, to see if they back up his claims.  And as we do this we find that the automatic acceptance of the Knighton view of pre-Chapman Arsenal really won’t do at all.

In reality, many of the facts we can find don’t back up Knighton’s version of events – and yet that has not stopped writers down the ages from repeating the Knighton version as the truth.  And as such we have ended up with a warped version of the story of Arsenal after the war.  I’m going to try and set this to rights in this, and subsequent articles.

Knighton was born in Derbyshire on 15 March 1887.   He was a player, but got injured early on and so moved into coaching and management working at Manchester City (1909-12) and then Huddersfield Town.

Immediately after the first world war Arsenal were elected to the first division, upon its expansion and in the aftermath of the match fixing scandal that had affected club positions in the league in 1914/15, and Knighton became Arsenal’s manager.

Below are the results he achieved.

In the FA Cup during this period all league teams entered in the 1st round.  The 4th round – the furthest Arsenal got, was the quarter finals.

Season League position FA Cup exit
1919/20 10th 2nd round to Bristol City
1920/21 9th 1st round to QPR*
1921/22 17th 4th round to Preston
1922/23 11th 1st round to Liverpool
1923/24 19th 2nd round to Cardiff
1924/25 20th 1st round to West Ham

* QPR were at this time a third division team.

For the record, 1924/25 was Arsenal’s worst division 1 season ever, ending just one place above the relegation clubs.  In the following season, Herbert Chapman took the club to second in the first division, and the quarter finals of the cup, using pretty much the same squad as Knighton had assembled.

Leslie Knighton’s version of events in his autobiography was that he could have done much better at Arsenal, only he was hampered by an utterly unreasonable and impossible owner – Lt Col Sir Henry Norris.

You may have come across the Knighton tales – that Sir Henry would not let him buy players costing over £1000.  That Sir Henry had minimum weight and height requirements for players signed.  That Sir Henry insisted that the whole Arsenal scouting network was wound up, and that he (Knighton) was left to working with an informal arrangement of pals to keep the club supplied with players.

These allegations have never been investigated before, and instead historians have just repeated them and taken them as true.

In these articles I will examine the Knighton years and see if the stories he left us in his notorious book actually match reality.

As you may have guessed from the headline, they don’t.


The history of Arsenal, manager by manager

Arsenal in 1919

5 Replies to “The man who wrote Arsenal’s history to suit himself”

  1. A good read Tony, thanks.
    It will be interesting to see what light you can shed on the alleged doping episode.
    If true then surely not the mark of a good manager.

  2. Haha…having done a bit more reading about it I hope that you might include Sir Henry’s newspaper advert for a replacement – aposite reading.

  3. A total failure as a football manager, a man who is economical with the truth in order to satisfy his lust for money.
    I thought you must surely be talking about ‘Arry Redknapp!

  4. Thank you for another good blog. Bernard Joy gives the Knighton line and I’ve just read Wiki which also carries Knighton’s account. So I look forward to your follow up blog. Arsenal finished 19 & 20. I think he was lucky he didn’t go after finishing 19th.

  5. It could be argued that 1923-24 was the worst season. Arsenal finished just 1 point clear of relegation whereas the following season they were 7 points clear.

    There may well be interviews with Norris about his time at the club but if they are out there it is like searching for a needle in a haystack. We did note that whilst researching Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football that the communication from the board before Norris became involved was very open and there was plenty of it. However, once Norris took over, club statements tended to be short and to the point. Which, as Tony points out, makes for a very one-sided commentary.

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