By Tony Attwood
As already noted on these pages Woolwich Arsenal did not only play in the Football League, they also played in the United League (1896-9), the Southern District Combination (1899/1900) and the London League Premier Division (1901-04).
These alternative leagues were not reserve leagues, but involved playing the first team. However they had a lower status than the Football League and the FA Cup (Arsenal’s other two competitions) but attracted lower crowds, except on rare occasions when the teams played were of specific interest or where the games were played on a public holiday.
The London League itself started in 1896 when Arnold Hills and Francis Payne of Thames Ironworks (West Ham) introduced the league with two divisions. Third Grenadier Guards won the first season.
The existence of these secondary leagues came about for several reasons. One was the need to make money by having more games, and although attendances were often poor, they were, it seems, better than nothing. Another reason was to provide a League for clubs that were not yet in a league. Thames Ironworks were formed in 1895 and did not join Southern League until 1897 – and so the London League was their first league competition.
Arsenal however at first opted for the United League as its “second” league and over time most of these lesser leagues quickly faded away as the Football League and Southern League came to dominate football. Unlike its rivals, however, the London League survived until 1964, although by then it was made up of much smaller clubs semi-pro and amateur clubs.
In 1901/2 Arsenal played 17 Football League home games and got crowds generally of between 6,000 and 10,000. The Southern District Combination of 1899/1900 had seen crowds of under 2000 for the most part, and so Woolwich Arsenal needed extra matches beyond the 17, but with higher crowds.
But there was a further reason for having a secondary league played by first team players. There was very little emphasis on tactics in these days. The players trained but in essence the main activity was seen to be the playing of the game. So more games were required.
The 1901/2 season started with a very good crowd (6000) but a poor result – Woolwich Arsenal 0 Tottenham Hotspur 2, and by the time of the fourth match on November 4 (the return fixture against Tottenham at WHL) Arsenal would have been near the bottom of the League having played three, lost 2 and drawn 1.
On Monday 4 November 1901 Tottenham beat Arsenal 5-0 in front of 3833 – not a bad crowd considering that the game was played on a working day in the afternoon.
After this the London League season stopped until the new year when Woolwich Arsenal played Queen’s Park Rangers away on 3 February drawing 2-2 with a crowd of 600.
The return of that game was on February 17 when 1000 spectators saw an Arsenal victory in the league by 3-0. Finally there were away games at Millwall which was lost 1-2 (no record of the crowd) and a second win, this against West Ham away by 2-0 with a crowd of 10,000. The explanation of the crowd size was that this was Good Friday, and so a public holiday.
In 1964, the London League merged with the Aetolian League to form the Greater London League. It later merged further into the Spartan League which (perhaps one may mention in passing) contained at one time Wood Green Town FC, the only football club ever to play in White Hart Lane.
Arsenal never won the Premier Division of the London League – the winners during Arsenal’s time in the competition being recorded as:
- 1901–1902 – West Ham United
- 1902–1903 – Tottenham Hotspur
- 1903–1904 – Millwall