Arsenal edge towards relegation and bankruptcy.

Arsenal edge towards relegation and bankruptcy – by Tony Attwood

In 1908/9 Arsenal under George Morrell had achieved their highest ever position in the league – 6th.  Yet the following season, under the same manager they slipped to 18th – a near disaster since clubs ending up 19th and 20th were relegated.

The danger signs were there from the start, as the results show…

Date Opposition Venue Result Pos
01.09.1909 Aston Villa away L1-5 12
04.09.1909 Sheffield United home D0-0 14
11.09.1909 Middlesbrough away L2-5 19
18.09.1909 Bolton Wanderers away L0-3 20
25.09.1909 Chelsea home W3-2 18
02.10.1909 Blackburn Rovers away L0-7 19
07.10.1909 Notts County away L1-5 19
09.10.1909 Nottingham Forest home L0-1 20
16.10.1909 Sunderland away L2-6 20
23.10.1909 Everton home W1-0 19
30.10.1909 Manchester United away L0-1 20
06.11.1909 Bradford City home L0-1 20
13.11.1909 Sheffield Wednesday away D1-1 20
20.11.1909 Bristol City home D2-2 20

You’ll see from the final column just how low Arsenal were sinking, and by 20 November the situation in the league was looking dire:


    P W D L F A G.A. Pts
1 Blackburn Rovers 13 10 1 2 33 14 2.36 21
2 Sheffield United 14 7 5 2 26 15 1.73 19
3 Liverpool 13 9 1 3 27 18 1.50 19
3 Manchester United 14 8 3 3 24 16 1.50 19
5 Aston Villa 13 8 2 3 28 16 1.75 18
6 Notts County 16 7 4 5 31 24 1.29 18
7 Bradford City 13 8 1 4 25 15 1.67 17
8 Newcastle United 15 8 1 6 23 20 1.15 17
9 Nottingham Forest 14 7 2 5 18 20 0.90 16
10 Sunderland 13 6 3 4 26 18 1.44 15
11 Everton 15 7 1 7 22 22 1.00 15
12 Sheffield Wednesday 13 3 5 5 20 28 0.71 11
13 Middlesbrough 13 5 0 8 23 24 0.96 10
14 Bristol City 14 3 4 7 17 25 0.68 10
15 Chelsea 14 4 2 8 15 26 0.58 10
16 Bury 14 3 3 8 21 27 0.78 9
17 Preston North End 13 3 2 8 15 21 0.71 8
18 Tottenham Hotspur 12 3 2 7 15 24 0.62 8
19 Bolton Wanderers 14 3 1 10 17 27 0.63 7
20 Arsenal 14 2 3 9 13 39 0.33 7

These were the days of two points for a win, one for a draw, and Arsenal clearly needed to start winning soon to climb above Bolton and Tottenham or Preston.

Worse, attendances had already started to drop before this season, due to a combination of an increase in the number of London clubs entering the Football League and financial difficulties for the local support.

The following table shows the situation vis a vis the crowds.

Season League FA Cup Average attendance
1903/04 Promoted from Division 2 2nd Round 14,294
1904/05 10th in Division 1 1st Round 22,882
1905/06 12th in Division 1 Semi-final 15,895
1906/07 7th in Division 1 Semi-final 17,184
1907/08 14th in Division 1 1st Round 13,789
1908/09 6th in Division 1 2nd Round 13,421
1909/10 18th in Division 1 2nd Round 10,158

Two books have been produced which cover what went wrong with Woolwich Arsenal at this time.   Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football is by far the most detailed analysis of the whole history of Woolwich Arsenal FC, and I shall quote from it a little below.

On a lighter note there is also Making the Arsenal – a fictionalised account of how one Fleet Street journalist covered the crisis of the club, and the growing involvement of Henry Norris.

But let’s stick to the facts here, and some of what I state below does come from the first of the two books listed above Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football

Given what we now know about Arsenal’s history in the early years of the 20th century it is interesting and ironic that when Arthur Kennedy wrote a history of the club for The Book Of Football in December 1905. He concluded the history with these words:

“This article would not be complete without a list of those gentlemen who are at present responsible for the welfare of the club. They are Messrs. John Humble (chairman), Arthur E. Kennedy (vice-chairman), J. Grant, E. Mercer, R. Clark, C. Hithersay, W. Craib, E. Radford, and W. Lamley (directors), W.T. Weeks (financial secretary) and Phil Kelso (secretary and manager). From what I know of these gentlemen, the future of the club may be safely left in their hands.”

In fact Kennedy couldn’t have got it more wrong if he had tried. For while Woolwich Arsenal’s entry into the league had been a success, with the departure of Jack Humble for family reasons at the end of the 1905/6 season and with the decline in support noted above, within four years Woolwich Arsenal was in administration and close to bankruptcy.

It is difficult from this time, over 100 years on, to realize the impact that the departure of Jack Humble must have had and it took a full two years after Humble left the club for the remainder of the board to change the approach of the club in relation to its financial situation.  The new approach from 1908 onwards was to try to balance the books by selling star players in the hope that (although it had not happened in the past) local talent could be found as cheap replacements.

This view was based in part on the fact that Woolwich Arsenal was the only professional club in the area, and so regularly received applications for places in the team from young players across the south east of the country, and the fact that for some years the transfer value of players had been escalating at many times the rate of inflation.   Sadly however Woolwich Arsenal chose to make their move just as the transfer market stalled, and as can be seen from what happened in the coming years, the amount of high quality young talent in the neighbourhood was less than might have been hoped for.

Effectively the only two players of any quality who could be sold were Percy Sands and Andy Ducat, whose sale eventually proved disastrous to the club.

We might also note that Kennedy was somewhat disingenuous within his article in that he failed to mention George Leavey, who had first become involved with the club in 1898 and had served as Director, Chairman and President. During the lean times he had been known to pay the players’ wages and he was in fact Woolwich Arsenal’s second serial benefactor.

In 1901 Leavey was both President and a director but he relinquished his role on the  board stating that he didn’t have enough time to run the club and his chain of gentlemen’s outfitters. He remained President of the club and via this mechanism continued to put money into the club and guaranteed the mortgages on the ground for a few more years. But all good things must come to an end and Leavey did eventually stop supporting the club financially in order to avoid putting his own business in jeopardy, quite probably also wanting to protect his family from what had been both a useful advertising mechanism and his hobby.

The combination of the decline in attendances, reduction in the growth of the transfer market, the introduction of the selling policy and the uncertainty of the club’s long term benefactor finally hit home as inevitably it must during 1909-10, when relegation was avoided only in the last couple of games.

In addition to the various problems already noted, it is quite likely that the club suffered from the psychological position of having reached a certain level, but then been unable to go further.  They had won promotion to the first division, and had twice reached the cup semi-finals. But then…nothing, in short the fans wanted more success, but they didn’t get it.

Instead, what the fans could see was cost-cutting measures and, when in an effort of its own cost reductions. the government decided to close the ageing Woolwich torpedo factory and then move it to Greenock in 1910 it must have seemed like the final nail in the coffin. An indication of the importance of the torpedo factory to the local area and the club was that the Kentish Independent reported on news from Greenock for a considerable time after the move.

Following the 1910 half-yearly AGM a meeting was held to set up the “Reds Revival Fund.” The driving force behind the fund was Edwin Radford, cousin of former chairman John Radford. The aim was to raise £1000 to keep the club afloat during the summer. A number of events such as whist drives were organised and local theatres held special performances in aid of the fund. It was relatively successful but events behind the scenes overtook the need for the fund.

An Emergency General Meeting was called on 18 March where Leavey and the board of directors aimed to obtain agreement from the shareholders to place Woolwich Arsenal into liquidation. The club’s liabilities amounted to £12,000; taking the assets, the Manor Ground and transfer value of the players, into account the club still had debts of £2,000. In addition to this, there had not been enough money to pay the players for the previous two weeks and the following week.

It was not quite Arsenal’s lowest position on the pitch – that was still three years away – but financially it was the lowest the club got.   And yet out of such disasters, something extraordinary was later built.

The books…





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