By Tony Attwood
What we know of Leslie Knighton we mostly know from his autobiography. It is for the most part made up of short remembrances strung together in themes. It is clear that neither he nor his editors of publisher did any checking of his stories, for where they can be readily checked, such as in relation to the achievements of certain players, we can see that he is wrong.
This is not to criticise him too heavily – he was writing around 1946/7 (the book is not dated, and we can only take this fact from the report that he makes that he is writing the book while managing Shrewsbury) and so is writing in, what he himself admits is poor health, and thinking back to events that took place over 20 years before.
In his writing of Sir Henry Norris he is critical, but also admires the chairman in some ways. He reports on Sir Henry almost as an eccentric, and suggests he (Knighton) is trying forever to come to terms with his boss.
His great achievement – the one that he cites several times over – is in getting the £60,000 debt down to zero during his period with the club, although our reading of the accounts suggests that the club owed £45,000 in April 1916 and £39,000 in May 1920.
Whatever the real figure Knighton takes credit for reducing it – he cites Sir Norris saying that everything is going well near the end of Knighton’s reign, focussing on the ground and the gates. But what Knighton utterly fails to consider (and what surely can’t have escaped his memory) is that in the penultimate year of his time at Arsenal, the club escaped relegation only on the last day of the season. What’s more in the season he was sacked Arsenal came only one place off relegation, (although admittedly being clear by a few points).
It is also interesting that Chapman continued with Knighton’s team the following season and took them up to second. This is of additional interest since Knighton repeatedly says that Sir Henry did not have a clue about football and how to structure a team. So simple was Sir Henry’s view of football that he just wanted to buy centre forwards, because scoring goals was what it was all about!
But despite his protestations, the crunch came and Sir Henry sacked Knighton. Knighton subsequently alleged that Sir Henry sacked him at the end of the season to avoid paying Knighton a bonus he had been promised – effectively the gate money from an Arsenal/Tottenham game. When Knighton protested he was told that it was only a verbal promise, and not worth anything.
Whether the promise was ever made we’ll never know. If it was it would suggest that Sir Henry was anxious for Knighton not to take a job offer in Manchester, which he was intending to take. Was Sir Henry that keen on Knighton, towards the end of his time at Arsenal? It seems unlikely. Was Knighton so naive as to take such a remark at face value – especially when the reward was going to be financially huge (£3000 or more). Again unlikely.
We should perhaps also consider Sir Henry’s record on this. On the last day of the 1912/13 season Joe Shaw had a benefit match – the final league game of the season. But the crowd was very poor, and so Joe (who went on to be an Arsenal manager upon the death of Chapman) was out of money. Henry Norris and his fellow directors then made up the money that was owing to Shaw out of his own pocket.
What we know for sure is that Knighton’s memory was not perfect and it was certainly selective, and that with Sir Henry no longer living, nothing he said could be challenged. After six years in charge Knighton had taken the club further and further down the league until they were, in his final two seasons, just avoiding relegation. Wanting to hold onto the manager seems unlikely.
If Sir Henry had wanted to sack Knighton and bring in Chapman, he had to do it when he did. Chapman probably wouldn’t wait for another offer, and anyway, another season of Knighton could see Arsenal in division 2 with the better players ready to move on.
Of the two scenarios it seems unlikely that Knighton’s version is true – or at least totally true.
Knighton also reports that Sir Henry later said that dismissing Knighton was the “one mistake in his career”. It is a fact repeated in Soar and Tyler’s book and elsewhere. But there is no corroborating evidence that this was actually said. Again Knighton may have been mistaken, or maybe it was said ironically. Likewise we have no supporting evidence that Knighton was left £100 in Sir Henry’s will. Maybe Sir Henry left several friends some money – maybe Knighton was mistaken.
Knighton’s star was obviously on the wane after leaving Arsenal for he went to to Bournemouth, who had entered the Third Division South one season before, and ended up one from bottom and then two from bottom. Knighton took them to mid-table positions in his three seasons there, before moving on to Birmingham of the first division.
Birmingham were a mid-table team and he kept them there, but in the 1930/31 season they sank to just two places off relegation, although they did get to the cup final where they lost to West Brom. After two more mid-table finishes he moved on to Chelsea, where he stayed until the outbreak of the second world war.
As Chapman took Arsenal through league championship after league championship, Knighton once again managed a team in mid-table (with again one narrow escape from relegation).
His Chelsea record was
- Played 272 Won 93 (34.19%)
At Arsenal it was
- Played 268 Won 92 (34.33%)
The similarities are overwhelming.
After the war he managed non-league Shrewsbury, and then retired to Bournemouth as a secretary of a golf club. Behind the Scenes in Big Football. was published in 1948.
The series concludes tomorrow.