By Tony Attwood
Continuing the story of Arsenal immediately after the first world war.
It is clear from his record at Arsenal, and elsewhere, that Leslie Knighton, the manager for those early post-war years, was a man who could spot talent, but who could not combine the talent he found into a consistently effective, or even mid-table, team. Knighton clearly tried to excuse his failure at Arsenal through blaming Sir Henry Norris and his fellow directors, knowing full well that when he wrote his book (in 1944/5) that none of those he sought to blame were still alive.
If we want to have sympathy it should perhaps be for Sir Henry Norris who put up with Knighton for so long. In the end it was the threat of relegation two seasons running that caused Sir Henry to move to bring in the most successful manager in the country at the time (and indeed the most expensive) Herbert Chapman.
And at this point in the story we once again have good reason to doubt that story that Knighton propagated to the effect that he was undermined by the restrictions his boss put upon him, for if that was the case, what was Sir Henry doing talking to Chapman? (It is quite possible that an unofficial sounding out happened on February 14 1925, when Huddersfield beat Arsenal 0-5 at Highbury. Certainly Sir Henry would have met Mr Chapman at that game).
And our feeling of disbelief is enhanced by Knighton’s own account of one of the most bizarre stories in Arsenal’s history.
The story revolves around the 1st round FA Cup match in 1924/5. Arsenal were drawn against West Ham United and Knighton seemingly was approached by a Harley Street doctor and Arsenal fan, who offered a supply of “little white pills” for the players. They would, he said, give them extra courage in facing the local rivals.
There being nothing illegal in this proposition (since there were no laws concerning the use of legally available drugs by athletes) Knighton suggests he listened.
Arsenal had won 10 drawn 4 and lost 10 in the league by the time of the match and West Ham were similarly mid-table so there was no clear favourite.
According to Knighton’s memoirs the entire Arsenal team and himself each took one of the pills, but then a fog swept across Upton Park and the game was called off. The players reported having a great surge of energy – but also sore throats and a very strong thirst that no amount of water could assuage.
The match was rescheduled for the following Monday, but once again the fog put a stop to proceedings. This time the players refused to take the pills but the manager did take one, and again suffered the same side effects – much to the players’ amusement.
The tie was finally played on January 14th and this time the players agreed to take the pills, once they saw the pitch was clear. Knighton described the players as “like giants suddenly supercharged.” But the game ended goalless.
The replay was at Highbury the following Tuesday in front of a crowd of 34,160 with Arsenal now in the midst of a bad run of results, losing four of the previous five league games. The players took their pills but the replay ended 2-2.
The second replay was held at Stamford Bridge on January 26th with Arsenal going down 1-0 to a goal in the last minute. The players, by now fed up with the side effects, refused to take their pills, and indeed refused to take them ever again.
As for Arsenal the bad run continued with six defeats in a row including the aforementioned 5-0 home thrashing by the eventual champions Huddersfield Town.
In fact Arsenal’s post-drug season was awful: won 4, drew 1 and lost 14 ending the season just one place above the relegated clubs.
Yet when Herbert Chapman replaced Knighton that summer he used many of the self-same players to take Arsenal to second in the league and the sixth round of the FA Cup. Motivation and tactics it seems could do more than pills. But, we must still ask, what was Knighton doing? He knew, having taken the pills twice, that they had terrible side effects. So why did he go on and on with this experiment.
Such action suggests, perhaps, a combination of desperation and wrecklessness, even accounting for the different standards that existed vis a vis drug use at the time. The source of the drugs, is a mystery man. There is not even any verification of his status.
Anyone tempted to try such pills out would surely have used them first in a reserve game, or even a training game. And perhaps would have checked the doctor out.
The Knighton series…
1: How the story of Arsenal after the first world war is not quite as we’ve been led to believe.
Arsenal’s Anniversaries: 20 new dates added in the last week