The days between 13th and 16th May, 1910 were a poker game as far as Woolwich Arsenal were concerned.
The club had gone into administration. A new club (Arsenal Football and Athletic Club) had been formed and the shares had gone on sale, but the requisite number had not been sold. As with today, shares in a new company can only be offered for a short amount of time. If they are not sold by then, then the share offer has to be withdrawn. The company can only launch if all the shares are sold – and then after that, trading in the shares can begin.
Henry Norris, canny old bird that he was, was jostling for position. He clearly wanted the club, but at his price and on his terms – and there is little doubt that in terms of negotiation he held all the cards.
He was an experienced hard man when it came to doing deals (he was after all a property developer from London, and he was up against a gentleman’s outfitters in a small town in Kent), and he had little to lose. While Leavey, owner of Woolwich Arsenal had a club to which he was devoted, and which was about to cease playing in the league, Norris had only one problem.
The previous season Fulham FC (which Norris already owned) had lost £700, which would equate to just under £1m in today’s money.
Norris’ scheme was to reduce that debt by having Woolwich Arsenal play on alternate Saturdays at Craven Cottage. Whether Arsenal, under that guise, would be able to stay in Division I for another season is difficult to say, but that was the plan.
(We should also say that Norris wanted to get one over Chelsea FC, who had just gone down to Division II. Norris’ thought that Woolwich Arsenal playing in the First Division, would draw away a fair bit of the crowd from second division Chelsea.)
So, when the Woolwich Arsenal share issue failed, Norris knew he was almost there. But… then a spanner flew into the works.
Norris’ plan was not secret. Anyone who read Athletic News or the daily papers would see the speculation. So Tottenham and Chelsea got involved. How much they really wanted to buy Arsenal, and how much they were just mucking about, we can’t tell. But there were certainly enquiries from both clubs, and it was probably this that made Norris finally make a move.
By Saturday 14th May, 100 years ago, the Times was covering the story , saying that the new Arsenal club had failed. By 16th May it was clear that Tottenham and Chelsea were trying to get involved.
It was then made clear that on 18th May 1910 Woolwich Arsenal’s board would meet the Football League, at the Imperial Hotel in central London, with a view to explaining if the club could go forward for next season. The Imperial Hotel was one of many luxury hotels in London being built at the beginning of the century. Today there are 6 Imperial London Hotels spread across prime locations in Central London. The League were anxious to know because they wanted to settle down and draw up the fixtures for the coming season. If Arsenal were going out of existence then they would have to decide if Chelsea should stay up in the First Division, and if a new club should be promoted to the Second Division from without.
18th May became the new decision day. Everyone waited to see what was going to happen, and there was feverish speculation.