13 June: The day Arsenal came within five minutes of extinction

This article is based on the more detailed approach provided in “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football”

Everyone who was involved in professional football in 1910 knew one thing: Woolwich Arsenal FC were in severe financial trouble.  The white knight who had so often ridden in and save them in the past, George Leavey, had said he could support the club no more.

Now the club was being taken over by Henry Norris and William Hall, and they in turn were being asked to stump up far more money than Leavey had ever been asked for.  The question was, would Norris and Hall really put so much money into a troubled club that had never won a major trophy?

By 18th May 1910 it had been agreed that a new Arsenal board would try (as the old board had tried) to offer shares in the club to the local supporters. It was a policy that was doomed to failure.

On Friday 10 June the Kentish Independent printed a letter from Norris explaining why he was helping Woolwich Arsenal, and expressing his willingness to hand the club over to anyone else who thought they could do a better job.  The appeal fell on deaf ears.

Thus it was that the club found itself in a state of flux with only a small percentage of the shares in the new company that would run Arsenal, being sold – and with the biggest single percentage of those going to Norris and Hall.

That then was the backdrop to the meeting on Monday 13 June 1910: the Football League’s Annual General Meeting.

Hall and Norris had already made it clear to anyone who was interested that they were acting as the absolute saviours of  Woolwich Arsenal FC.   But matters then got worse.   For during the week leading up to the AGM Archibald Leitch, the architect who was one of the old company’s biggest creditors reneged on an agreement with George Leavey (the chairman of the old company) and now submitted a bill for £1317 for his work on the Woolwich Arsenal ground.  (That would be around £140,000 in today’s money).

That meant that Norris and Hall now had to pay that bill, as well as all the others.

Now you might wonder at this point just why Leitch – a man whose name you have probably heard of as belonging to a man of some repute in relation to building football stadia – would have made a deal to do some work, and was then not paid.   The explanation was that Leitch did not actually build what he had been asked to do, namely put up new stands at the Manor Ground, all he did was refurbish the existing stands. So he used the new board as a way to claim his money.

After the Ibrox disaster in 1902 Leitch moved south, and indeed in 1905 he had been employed by Norris at Fulham, and by Chelsea, to work on their respective grounds (simultaneously!)

So this muddled and seemingly hopeless situation was the background to the AGM of the Football League on Monday 13 June 1910.   At that meeting Henry Norris gave a guarantee to the League that he would see to the survival of Woolwich Arsenal FC and pay off all the creditors.

It was an incredibly expensive and extraordinarily honourable move, and one that earned considerable favour with the League. It should have earned the heartfelt thanks of every Arsenal supporter then and since, but sadly life isn’t like that.

That commitment was amazing enough in itself but Norris (and presumably Hall) went further, because the pair also agreed to take over the registrations of all of the Arsenal players, so that they would continue to get paid, and Arsenal would have a team to put out come the start of the next season.

Naturally as in all negotiations, Norris and Hall then tried to get something in the deal for themselves and this was where we come to a proposal for a new club to be formed, Fulham Arsenal FC, which would play in the first division in 1910/11 in place of Woolwich Arsenal.

The directors of Chelsea and Bolton Wanderers spoke out in opposition.  Chelsea’s argument against an enlarged club in an area that already had two league clubs (and Queens Park Rangers in the Southern League) was somewhat bizarre given that they had secured their place in the League by taking on a ground under two miles from Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium.  Bolton’s argument was more of a desperate bid to hold on to their first division status after a dreadful season in which they had ended up seven points from safety.

It was at this point that the League officials made a historic statement in which it confirmed that the League had no control over where clubs played.  That interpretation of the League’s rules, as it turns out, was vital to Norris, when he came to move the club to Highbury in 1913.  It told Norris that he was free to move the club, and there was no regulation to stop him.  And that was what he was after.

The League also confirmed that it had no control over mergers – but it did assert that it had control over which division a club played in, and it was anxious that clubs should not merge just to get into a higher division.

Looking at the situation from a distance we can see that the notion of Fulham Arsenal was really just a kite that Norris was flying to clarify what he could and could not get away with.   The League didn’t actually reject Fulham Arsenal FC as a concept, but they did say that they would decide which division the club would play in, and that if the proposal was clearly stated could replace Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham, and to play at Craven Cottage, that was fine.   But since it would be Woolwich Arsenal that would be wound up (and not Fulham) the new club would take over Fulham’s place in the second division, and a separate vote would be had to see how the space vacated by Woolwich Arsenal would be filled.

Norris almost certainly expected this rejection, but was just interested to see how the meeting would go.  He immediately withdrew his offer, and produced Plan B – that Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham ground share.

Since the League had already agreed it did not have jurisdiction over where clubs played they did not oppose the move.   Likewise since there were no rules about co-ownership, there could be no objections on that front either and Norris and Hall could be directors of both clubs.

This time however Leavey, rather late in the day, appears to have objected to the plan – which suggests that he entered the meeting without any foreknowledge of what Norris might propose. Leavey stated that they did not want the club to leave Woolwich, although had Norris and Hall pressed on with ground sharing in Fulham, it is not at all clear what Leavey would have done.  He couldn’t continue to fund the club and no other benefactors had stepped forwards.

This left the matter at an impasse. All the League wanted to know was, could the directors of Woolwich Arsenal FC give the League a guarantee that the club would be able to complete its fixtures in the first division in 1910/11?   Leavey couldn’t, only Norris and Hall could.

Norris played hard ball – he was willing to give the guarantee to Leavey that the club would stay in Woolwich for the time being, but he wanted something back in return.

The directors of Woolwich Arsenal then met privately and the AGM was put on hold.  With just minutes to spare Norris came onto the steps of the hotel where the meeting was being held and said that Woolwich Arsenal had been saved, and would continue to play at the Manor Ground for the coming season.

Woolwich Arsenal were thus saved – probably with no more than five minutes to spare.

It is interesting in conclusion to note that Norris and Leavey had only agreed that Woolwich Arsenal would stay in Plumstead for one season.  In fact the club stayed there for three seasons, with Norris only moving the club to Highbury when all attempts at selling the club to local shareholders had utterly failed.

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