By Tony Attwood
In my last post I introduced Leslie Knighton, the man who was Arsenal’s least successful long term manager ever. And yet he was a man who has significant impact on the way in which we see Arsenal in the period between the first world war and the arrival of Herbert Chapman.
More, Knighton, through having left us an autobiography, has influenced everyone’s view of the board of directors at Arsenal, including Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, the man who rescued the club in 1910 and who built Highbury, William Hall and Jack Humble. And so we come to the stories – all of which are told by Knighton, and for which there is no supporting evidence, although there is sometimes some directly contradictory evidence.
In looking at this era we must recall that Knighton was writing during the second world war, in order to produce a best-seller that would help fund his retirement. He was also writing in order to restore his reputation after a lifetime in football management in which he had actually not won anything. And perhaps most significantly he was writing about Arsenal over 20 years after the events he described, (a club from which he had been ignominiously sacked) without recourse to any Arsenal papers or documents. He was in fact, writing from memory, looking for a good storyline, and attempting to beef up everything he wrote in his favour.
First, and perhaps most famously, Knighton claimed in his autobiography that Norris put a strict limit of £1,000 on transfer fees. This story has been told over and over again, and yet the simple facts don’t support it. Arsenal transferred in a number of players with values over this amount. What’s more Knighton must have known the story of Clem Voysey’s transfer, which was a major talking point in football because the transfer was subject to an enquiry, and which suggested a much higher than £100 payment for the player who turned out to be not very special.
Second, there is the oft reported story that Sir Henry refused to accept any player under 5’8″ tall or weighing less that eleven stone. Knighton then signed the supposedly 5′ tall Hugh Midget Moffatt in 1923 from Workington, and, according to the story, Sir Henry overruled this.
In fact what happened was that without the player ever playing for the first team, Arsenal sold the player to Luton. This is an interesting story from the manager since he offers no supporting evidence at all – and an investigation of the tale turns up some interesting bits and pieces.
Workington A.F.C were founder members of the Cumberland Association League and after that moved leagues several times before joining the North Eastern League in 1910. But in 1911 the club folded. A new Workington A.F.C. was formed in 1921 and re-joined the North Eastern League.
So what was first division Arsenal doing buying a player from somewhere around the 7th tier of English football? Maybe they did purchase him – but if so it would have been very much a case of buying a junior player who might make it up in the following years – but this was certainly not a first team player that was brought in.
Assuming that it is true that the player did come into the club there is every chance that he was transferred out again to Luton Town of the 3rd Division South simply because he was not developing into a decent player. Indeed if he had been a decent player then he would have been sold surely to a team higher up the league.
What we see here is a story which might be true in the sense of there having been a transfer in and out without the player actually making it to the first team (either in the style of Clive Allen many years later or as per many of the hopefuls Arsenal has brought in over the years and then released as they have failed to maximise their potential). And maybe there was an argument about the player’s height. But it has been blown up into a story “proving” the impossibility of working under Sir Henry, when in fact at most it was nothing more than a first division team taking a look at a player from the minor leagues and then moving him on when things didn’t work out.
Indeed it is more than likely that Arsenal made money from this deal, since Luton, although in the bottom tier of the English league (3rd division south), was a professional club, which Workington were not. Luton probably paid much more for the player than Arsenal paid – if they paid anything at all.
What is clear is that Knighton’s transfer policy did not work very well in terms of results, although as we shall see, his reign did indeed bring in some players with great potential.
But Arsenal declined under his management, and it is certainly possible that the invented tale of the £1000 maximum and the height restriction was used by Knighton to excuse the failure of the club.
What we do know however is that Arsenal did regularly bring in amateurs, some of whom are extremely hard to trace. Take Reg Boreham for example – who played 53 games for the club starting in 1921. It is hard to find any record of this player, either in terms of previous or subsequent clubs, or any personal details.
But again we must remember 1921/22 was a season in which the club used 30 players – 13 of whom played five games or less. That is how football was in the years after the first world war. Many of the men who would have been at the height of their footballing ability by 1922 had tragically died or been injured in the war, and the hunt for good young players was harder than ever because of the missing generation. Searching everywhere for possible players was a central part of what clubs did.
And yet in his autobiography Knighton also claims that he was “ordered” to “abandon” the Arsenal scouting system by Sir Henry and that as a result he had to scrabble around to find players.
As we’ll see in the next article, there is clear evidence that this is simply not the case.
The Leslie Knighton story: Part 1 – how the story of Arsenal after the first world war is not quite as we’ve been led to believe.