Arsenal’s second season: what really happened in 1887/8?

By Tony Attwood

As we saw in the previous article looking at the earliest seasons of Arsenal, the club started out with a ten game campaign playing home and away against five teams between December 1886 and March 1887.

There was no Football League at the time, so if the season is to be defined in dates, one might take the FA Cup final as defining the end, or nearly the end, of the season.  The 1887 Cup Final was played on 2 April 1887 and the 1888 final was played on 24 March 1888 – which if nothing else gave a psychological end to the season.

The start of the season looks like being defined as October 1, although it is interesting that the following season, the first for the Football League, kicked off on Saturday, 8 September 1888.  and the league season finished in March after which the FA Cup kicked in.    By the time Woolwich Arsenal joined the league the season started on 1 September (or the 2nd if that were a Sunday).

So for this season of 1887/8, starting in October and ending the season in early April would have been seen as the norm, not least to make way for cricket – although as County Cricket only had eight teams in it in 1888 they didn’t really need that long to play the season!

Thus we have the 1887/8 season: Arsenal greatly expanded their series of games, playing 24 games in all.  23 were friendlies and one was their first ever cup game in the London Senior Cup.

However when we come to look at the fixture list for the season we can see that the previous season’s exact home/away balance was abandoned.  17 games were played at home, and only seven away.    This suggests that Royal Arsenal had got themselves a ground (or perhaps we should say a pitch) which surpassed those of other clubs.

Indeed we know that the first match was played in 1886 on the Isle of Dogs, on what might be called a “borrowed” pitch of very poor quality, so if Arsenal were able to provide better facilities that would certainly have been an attraction for coming to Plumstead.

So, to look at the season…  These details that follow have been compiled by Andy Kelly (who else could have done it?) and appear in the stats section of this site, which Andy has compiled.

But before the details it is worth noting that two of the teams we played in the first season, dropped off the horizon for the second expanded season.  There were no games against either Eastern Wanderers or 2nd Rifle Brigade.  Erith, Alexander U and Millwall R did however return to the fixture list.  (2nd Rifle Brigade did not vanish however, for they played in the Army Cup Final in 1930 and there is even a film of the event).

Back with Arsenal, Andy also tells us that “Royal Arsenal formed a reserve team during the 1887-88 season. The team was distinguished from the first team by being known as Royal Arsenal Athletic. The reserve team played three games during 1887-88, all of which were friendlies.”

Overall this second season was certainly successful in terms of facing the local opposition.  The summary of results shows…

  • Won: 13
  • Drew: 4
  • Lost: 5
  • Unknown results: 2
Date Against H/A Score Crowd Note
1 Oct 87 Alexandra Utd H 5-1 300
8 Oct 87 Grove House H 3-1 600 1
15 Oct 87 Clapham Pilgrims H 2-2
22 Oct 87 St Lukes H
29 Oct 87 Barnes H 0-4 500 2
5 Nov 87 Grange Institute H 4-0
12 Nov 87 Iona Deptford H 1-1
19 Nov 87 Tottenham Hotspur A 1-2 3
26 Nov 87 Millwall Rovers A 0-3 4
3 Dec 87 Grange Park H
10 Dec 87 Brixton Rangers H 1-2
17 Dec 87 Shrewsbury Park A 4-0
31 Dec 87 Forest Gate Alliance A 1-2
14 Jan 88 Deptford A 3-2
28 Jan 88 Champion Hill H 6-0
4 Feb 88 Tottenham Hotspur H 6-2 5
11 Feb 88 Millwall Rovers H 3-3
18 Feb 88 Erith H 2-1
25 Feb 88 Forest Gate Alliance H 1-1
3 Mar 88 Grange Institute H 2-1 6
10 Mar 88 Brixton Rangers A 9-3
17 Mar 88 Ascham H 5-0
30 Mar 88 Millwall Rovers H 3-0 600 7
7 April 88 Alexandra Utd A 3-0

The Notes…   (again the facts are taken from Andy’s stats section on this site with some additional thoughts added by me.)

Note 1:

This was scheduled as a London Senior Cup game, but Grove House withdrew from the competition and the match was played a friendly.

Note 2:

28 October was an incredibly important day in the history of the club – Arsenal’s first ever competitive game.  The match was in the London Senior Cup against Barnes, who are said in many reports to be the oldest club to have played football throughout its history (although naturally with such claims others also claim the title).  Barnes were indeed in the first FA Cup beating Civil Service in the first round on 11 November 1871.   So this was very much the new kids on the block playing the old hands.

Note 3:

Our first game ever against Tottenham Hotspur!   The match was abandoned 15 minutes before it was due to end “owing to darkness” with Tottenham leading 2–1.

Tottenham pre-dated Arsenal by four years, being formed on 5 September 1882 as the Hotspur Football Club.   They played their home games in the 1887/8 season on Tottenham Marshes.

It is interesting (to me at least) that while Arsenal was very much the working men’s club made up of men who worked in the munitions factories, Tottenham was formed (at least according to Wiki) by grammar-school boys from the Bible class at a local church.  I wonder if they saw Arsenal as a bunch of roughs, and Arsenal saw them as dilettantes.   Just speculation of course.

Note 4:

This is the first of three games this season against Millwall Rovers.  Millwall Rovers were formed by the workers of a canning and preserve factory on the Isle of Dogs, and although it is not certain, it is possible that their ground was the one used in 1886 for the Eastern Wanderers away game.

If this is so then it is possible that given that Arsenal played Eastern Wanderers and Millwall Rovers in the first season, that with Millwall having a greater claim on the local ground, Eastern Wanderers were eased out of the scene, and Millwall Rovers became the main local rival – which they certainly were in later years.

Millwall Rovers changed their name in 1889 to Millwall Athletic, when they moved to the Athletic Grounds, and went on to become founder members of the Southern League, and, the same as Woolwich Arsenal, twice were cup semi-finalists in the early 20th century.

Note 5:

The first ever home match against Tottenham

Note 6:

Andy’s comments tell us Arsenal played with only nine players – although we don’t know why.  Maybe two guys overslept.

Note 7:

This match on 30 March 1888 was played at Mr Cavey’s Field which later became known as the Manor Field, and was the home of Woolwich Arsenal until 1913.

Which brings us neatly onto the location of these games.

Arsenal played initially on Plumstead Common Football pitch – bordered by Waverley Crescent and Heavitree Close.  There is a map showing the area here.

However for this second season they played at the Sportsman Ground on Griffin Manor Way London SE28 0AA.   The location is shown on this map.

As ever I am indebted to Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews for the update on this, and their revelation that The Sportsman Ground is now a Prison next to Belmarsh called HMP Thameside Prison run by Serco.   The story of Andy and Mark’s exploration of the area and discovery of this and other early Arsenal sites is here.

This series will continue over the coming weeks.


The Anniversary Files now contain over 2500 entries





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *