Why did Arsenal go into liquidation?
Just over 100 years ago Arsenal FC (then known as Woolwich Arsenal) teetered on the brink, and toppled into administration. There were four separate buy-outs, the last of which saw the club purchased by Henry Norris, who also owned Fulham FC.
The question is why did this happen?
One hundred years back football clubs were as liable to go bust as today, and for much the same reason – lack of money.
But since the events of 100 years back virtually every commentary on this period in Arsenal’s history gives one reason for the club’s demise – that the crowds were too low and that Arsenal suffered from their being too many other London clubs around.
It was only a little bit of investigating into this that led me to realise that the official line on Arsenal’s history at this point was utterly wrong. A bit of digging and I found out exactly why Arsenal were in trouble.
It was in fact the first bit of research I did that revealed something new and rather exciting about Arsenal 100 years ago, and it was this research that led me to decide to write “Making the Arsenal” – the story of Arsenal 100 years ago.
My thinking in fact was, if something as simple and oft-reported as this fact could be so wrong, maybe a lot of Arsenal’s history could be wrong. And so it turned out to be.
If we start with the common explanation – that there were too many clubs in London – we can see very quickly how false that is.
In 1910 there was little tradition of moving from one club’s ground to another to catch a better game. If you lived in Plumstead or Woolwich you went to watch the Arsenal, if you lived around Tottenham, you went to see that club, and so on. The only clubs that really seem to have suffered from a drifting fan base was Chelsea and Fulham who were then, as now, right on top of each other.
Remember also, that when the first team was away the reserves would generally have a home match, played on the first team pitch, and although crowds would be lower, it was still possible to find between 5000 and 10,000 at a reserve game. Local football was the entertainment – not travelling across the city.
It is true that Woolwich had bad communications with London, and the tram company for some reason refused to put on extra vehicles when a game was on. Whether it was because they didn’t have the trams, or whether they didn’t want to have their beautiful timetable dictated by such a working class entity as football, is unclear. But either way they would not move.
So the trams stopped people coming in from a distance, but that was all. When Woolwich was doing well, they got crowds of up to 28,000. When doing poorly the numbers went down. With the trams they might have got some more, but they certainly wouldn’t have attracted many people from thin London itself.
Woolwich Arsenal were certainly not the worst supported team – teams like Preston were struggling along on crowds of 5,000. And unlike today clubs got some of their money from the away games – gate money was shared between clubs. The home team got the majority, but the away team would take a percentage. I’m not sure how much it was in 1910 – but I believe it was 33%.
But Arsenal did have four problems, that led to their difficulties in 1910. These problems have not, as far as I know, ever been reported before.
First, success. In football success breeds… debt. After years of failure in the early rounds of the FA Cup (often in the preliminary rounds) Arsenal reached the semi final in 1906, playing six games in front of 116,000 people. In 1907 they repeated the feat, again playing six games in front of 120,000 people
These were major boosts to the club’s income – and it is noticeable that some league games during the cup runs got higher gates that might otherwise be expected. But in the following years up to the fateful 1910 Arsenal exited the FA Cup in the second round. The extra money vanished.
Second, Arsenal had a problem attracting good players from the northern heartland of the League, because of their isolation. The club was founded by men who worked in the armaments factory, but that was in decline as an employer.
Third, there was Archie Leitch. Leitch was the architect of the rebuilding of the Manor Ground after Arsenal took it over for themselves, but for some reason he was never paid. I can find no record as to why, but his bill was certainly still on the club’s books when the insolvency occurred, and there was discussion about how to settle it.
The odd thing is that the Leitch debt was ten years old. Why had he not pressed his case before?
One reason is that Leitch’s reputation when he designed the stand at Woolwich Arsenal was at a low point, because his big project up to then had been Ibrox – and part of his terracing design had collapsed, killing a large number of people. In an enquiry against the builder Leitch was not the defendant, but the evidence certainly suggested that Leitch might have been negligent in his work of overseeing the builder.
Curiously Leitch did the Ibrox job for nothing, and it is possible that he worked for Woolwich because of the club’s Scottish connection, via the many men who had moved from Scotland to work in the munitions factory. It may have been a rehabilitation, with a deal that as long as the stand didn’t fall down he would be paid.
Whatever the reason, the Leitch bill was a significant part of the debt that Woolwich Arsenal had in 1910, and that gave the club its headache.
And finally there was the killer blow. In early 1910 the government started to close the torpedo factory at Woolwich and moving the unit to Glasgow. I have found no official reason as to why this was so – the Parliamentary record simply reports the fait accompli, without explanation. The book, “Making the Arsenal” gives a reason – and it is a possible explanation, but I can’t prove the point.
Whatever the cause, Woolwich Arsenal found itself in 1909 with a decline in its captive audience – the working men of the armament factory, and that was not good news when they were already struggling.
Some overspending after two years of success, some difficulty attracting good players (and perhaps the need to pay over the odds for those they could attract from the north, although I have no evidence to show this was the case – indeed how does one find the real value of a player?) and a debt that should have been cleared up years before – these were bad enough. To start losing your resident population at the same time, that was the killer blow.
It sounds almost like modern times!
The book “Making the Arsenal” will be published in about two weeks time, and will be available from our on line shop. Full details will appear here and on www.blog.emiratesstadium.info – which carries daily news about Arsenal and football matters in the present era
(c) Tony Attwood 2009