The Arsenal manager who founded the AAA.

By Tony Attwood

What we have seen is that Leslie Knighton, the manager who came to Arsenal to take over after the first war world was in many ways doing what others were all over football were doing: bringing in players where ever he could find them, using 30+ players in a season (seasons which included only the FA Cup and the League – no extraneous issues in those days) and trying to cope with the fact that so 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.

Yet despite having a average sized squad for the first division and using many players throughout each season, 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.

An example given of how he told the story that he had to scrabble around to find someone, anyone, to play for the club is that of Jimmy Paterson, the Arsenal club doctor’s brother-in-law.  The story is told in a way as to suggest that the poor manager was left asking anyone in the club if they had any ideas who could play for Arsenal (because he couldn’t search people out through the normal scouting system, as Sir Henry was bizarre and eccentric in the way that he ran the club.)

Arsenal forced to play the doctors brother-in-law because the boss wouldn’t allow scouting.  It makes Arsenal look a laughing stock, and gave Sir Henry the sort of reputation the memory of him now has.

But with Paterson, as elsewhere, the story told in Knighton’s 1945 book does not hold up.  Paterson in fact played for Rangers and Queen’s Park in Scotland, while training as a doctor (so he was no mean footballer), and after serving his country with great distinction (he won the Military Cross for bravery in action in France) he joined his brother-in-law’s medical practice in London.

As a player of distinction before the war, it was natural he would look to play again, and where else than London’s most famous team, where his brother in law worked.

So he joined as one of a dozen or so Arsenal players who played as an amateur.   (Amateurs did not get a club salary, but did get expenses, and as the earlier story on this site of the goalkeeper Roose has shown, they could earn a lot more than professional players in this way.)

That Paterson was a good player (rather than a make-weight signed because he was the brother in law of the club doctor) is shown by the fact that during his spell with Arsenal he also played for the English League against the Scottish league.

What’s more, having retired from playing in 1924, he was persuaded to come out of retirement by Herbert Chapman, who is thought to have known a thing or two about players, and played in the 1925/6 season (the one in which Arsenal reached the unprecedented heights of second in the first division).  Paterson in fact ended his career in February 1926 as a highly regarded player, having played 77 times for Arsenal.

Thus again we find a story presented by Knighton over 20 years after he left Arsenal, and writing with no papers, memos or other reference paraphernalia to go by, is not quite as it might seem when we dig into the detail.

Of course Knighton did bring in players: people like Bob John, Jimmy Brain, Tom Whittaker and Alf Baker (and all brought in despite his having to “abandon” the Arsenal scouting network, and having to resort to signing 5 feet tall players from the 7th tier of English football).

But even here the story needs a little unravelling for it is said in his autobiography that Knighton had a network of footballing contacts in the north and he used them to find unknown players, after Sir Henry imposed his crazy restrictions.   So as we investigate these players we start with looking for unknowns playing in the north of England.

Bob John was in fact playing for Caerphilly when he was transferred in January 1922, and there were other clubs interested in signing him.  (In fact Knighton makes much of how he beat the others to the signature of John, in his autobiography.  He made his first team début in October 1922.)

Jimmy Brain was also in Wales, a player at Ton Pentre, and he came to Arsenal in 1923 – again not being a player picked up through an extensive collection of northern contacts.

Now, it is interesting that we have no record of the manager’s connections with Wales, and we had no scouting network, so how were these players found?  The answer can only be that there was indeed a scouting network, and it wasn’t just based on the north where Knighton still had friends.

Tom Whittaker served his country in World War I and played for his regiment, but then gave up engineering and joined Arsenal in November 1919, signing pro forms in 1920 – another scouting success.

As for Alf Baker, he had played for Crystal Palace during the war, and was in London when he signed for Arsenal at the conclusion of hostilities.

So what was going on at Arsenal at the time?    Certainly during this period, Sir Henry and William Hall (who were primarily property developers) were incredibly busy with their business, as well as spending time abroad (which Sir Henry had always liked to do).  When these two were away Jack Humble took greater responsibilities in the club, but he was still employed full time with the armaments factory.   So there was no Henry Norris breathing down the managers neck every day of the week.

Indeed there is a story that Knighton tells in which the Duke of York came to a match at Highbury on 4 February 1922, and with Sir Henry and William Hall unavailable, Jack Humble and two other directors (Charles Crisp and George Peachey) did the honours.   Here Knighton could have made much of the man who famously walked from Durham to Plumstead to find work, in 1886, had met the Duke as a director of London’s most famous club.   But no, he gets in a dig at Arsenal in terms of the club not knowing how to behave by suggesting (and it is all done by suggestion) that Arsenal wasted money buying in the finest champagne for the Duke, only to find that all he wanted was a cup of tea.  

It was as if the story could have been written by those whom these days we call the AAA, who purport to be fans of the club, but are forever sniping, pointing out errors, and suggesting things could have been much better if only they were running the show.   Champagne for the Duke, winding up the scouting system, putting arbitrary restrictions on who could be signed…  it is all set up to show that Sir Henry was a fool with no knowledge of football and that Knighton was the man holding it together.

But it wasn’t like that at all.


The Leslie Knighton story

1:  How the story of Arsenal after the first world war is not quite as we’ve been led to believe.

2:  The transfer saga: Height and cost restrictions

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The history of Arsenal, manager by manager

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