by Tony Attwood
The United League was a 19th century league set up for clubs to get a few more matches out of the season, in addition to their commitments to the Football League, Southern League or other similar Leagues in which they played.
Clubs played their first team players in the United League games, and Arsenal played their first game in the United League against Rushden on 7 September 1896 at home. Woolwich Arsenal won 3-2. That season Arsenal played14 games in the league, winning six, drawing three and losing five. They came third out of the eight teams in the league.
There is no record of the attendance at this first game, but the second United League game of the season (a 2-2 home draw with Luton Town on October 3) was recorded as having 8000 in the crowd – which was high compared with most of the games.
Other teams in the league were Wellingborough, Kettering, Tottenham, Loughborough Town, and Millwall Athletic. It is interesting to note that the Tottenham games only drew crowds of 2,000. The derby against Millwall A. however 15,000 in attendance for the home game. Tottenham was clearly seen as being of as much interest as the further afield clubs.
Also of interest (at least from my point of view as a resident of Northants) is that this is one of the earliest connections between Arsenal and Northamptonshire clubs. Rushden, Wellingborough and Kettering were all in that county, and it is perhaps a sad moment to record this since Rushden, having risen to the third division as Rushden and Diamonds, collapsed and play as AFC Rushden and Diamonds in the United Counties League. Kettering have sunk to the Southern League Division One Central and have moved homes repeatedly in recent years, and have a winding up order against them as I write.
Only Luton, of the non-local teams, gained high attendances for matches against Arsenal – and this trend continued through all the seasons covered here. The top crowd was 12,000 against Millwall (for both the home and away games), and 14,500 against Tottenham away.
In the second season of the United League Southampton joined the league and Arsenal once again came third.
By the third season there were 11 clubs in the league, with Reading and Brighton United now in the league. Arsenal this time came 4th.
And that was about it. The final match for Woolwich Arsenal in the United League was a 2-3 defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur on 29 April 1899 in front of 7000 spectators. The following season Arsenal entered the Southern District Combination, a competition that lasted for just one season.
This competition also ended with a game against Tottenham on 24 April 1900 at Plumstead. The match was abandoned after 65 minutes due to abusive language from the crowd. The club was ordered to post notices instructing the crowd to behave properly, but the referee was also criticised for his handling of the game. The game was not replayed.
Following that one season of the Southern District Combination, the London League was formed, but I’ll leave that story for another time.