By Tony Attwood
In 1913 there was a bit of a rumpus. If you are a regular on this site, or indeed if you know your footballing history, you’ll know what it was: Woolwich Arsenal, after two years under the ownership of Henry Norris, decided they had had enough of Kent, and started looking for a new ground in London.
When Woolwich Arsenal finally found a site they liked, during the 1912/13 season and the word got out, Tottenham H, who were then, as now, at the site rather oddly known as White Hart Lane (oddly because it is not actually in White Hart Lane) raised a torrent of objections to the move, centring their comments on the fact that the proposed ground at what was to become known as “Highbury” was too close to the Tinies own ground at 748 High Road.
The route between the two ground is something around 2 miles long.
Tottenham’s plea to the Football League was an interesting one. As they well knew there was nothing in the FA or League rules about where clubs played. Grounds were not licensed in those days, and were not even inspected by the league.
What’s more there was a second ground in White Hart Lane itself, (a meandering little road which ends more or less opposite the Tottenham ground). True this other ground was very small indeed, housing an amateur club at the time, but Wood Green Town were there (founded in the 1880s), and the club were known as the local amateur side of the area.
Which raised the issue – what was the claim Tottenham could raise with the League against the move of Woolwich Arsenal? It could not be that there could not be another club in the area – Wood Green were already there. So they had to construct an argument that there could not be another professional team, or another Football League team in the area.
Given that there were no regulations on the subject, Tottenham were forced to look for precedents. The could find only one – and it was a very weak case indeed. They looked at the the arrival of Chelsea as next door neighbours to Fulham in 1905.
This was a poor move by Tottenham and showed the paucity of their case. It was true that Fulham and Tottenham had both objected to the arrival of a club within 1.5 miles of their own long established ground, but the essence of their objection to Chelsea’s arrival was not that the grounds were so close, (Tottenham could hardly argue that since Chelsea’s ground was on the opposite side of the capital) but rather that Chelsea were being allowed into the league at all. And not the Football League. Fulham and Tottenham had objected to Chelsea going into the Southern League.
Prior to 1905 there was no Chelsea FC. No club, no ground, no team, no support. What had happened was that there was an old ramshackle athletics ground at what we now know as Stamford Bridge, but it was losing money. The owners fancied turning it into a coal dump and marshalling yard for trains, but at the last minute decided to accept the offer of the men who wanted to turn it into a football ground.
Chelsea applied to join the Southern League, but there were objections from… well…. Tottenham H and Fulham who were members of the Southern League at the time. The Southern League, which had quite different regulations from the Football League, listened, and turned Chelsea down.
So Chelsea applied for membership of the Football League and got in – much to the annoyance of Fulham who stayed in the Southern League.
Clearly Tottenham H knew all this historic event (since they were at the heart of it), as did Henry Norris at Woolwich Arsenal. But still Tottenham tried to make a case against Woolwich in the Football League, just as they had tried against Chelsea in the Southern League, and it was a most curious case.
Knowing that there were no regulations in the Football League concerning clubs’ grounds, and knowing that they themselves were within a mile of another ground in White Hart Lane (which would preclude any attempt to go to the FA), Tottenham came up with an ingenious plan. They claimed that they had the “rights” to football in the area – they had the “franchise”. (Franchise it is interesting to note is a word dating from around the 14th century – even though it may seem a modern word. Indeed the notion of “franchise” as meaning the district over which a privilege extends goes back to 1774, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles – and by and large I go by that.
So Tottenham claimed it had the football rights in the area. It did this by ignoring Leyton Orient, who at that time were playing in the Football League at Millfields Road, which is about the same distance from Tottenham’s ground as Tottenham’s ground is from Highbury.
What in fact it claimed was it had was the franchise for north London, that Woolwich Arsenal had the franchise for north Kent, and that the Orient had the franchise for north east London. Only if a team dropped out of the league would the franchise for each district become available again.
It was all nonsense of course, and the league threw it out, because it had no franchise regulations. But it is, as far as I know, the first ever attempt to establish that football clubs had the right to be the professional football club for their region – with that right remaining with them until the club left the Football League.
Strangely, some Arsenal supporters have actually joined in the attempt to try to re-establish the notion of franchising by objecting to the movement of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes in September 2003. Yet the approach was pretty much the same as Woolwich Arsenal. The current location was not conducive to the continuation of the club, and a move needed to happen to allow the club to continue.
I’m not arguing for or against such a ruling, but I would say that if the League were to be involved in some form of restriction of movement as Tottenham H wanted in 1913 then it would have to come with all sorts of caveats and regulations. How far, for example, is too far? When Manchester City moved from Maine Road in central Manchester to the Commonwealth Games stadium (now the City of Manchester Stadium) in East Manchester. Was that too far? Or what of Bolton’s move? Or Liverpool and Everton’s proposed move out of the city?
The fact is that this would be impossible to judge, because each area has its own issues. Woolwich Arsenal had problems because in 1910 the decision had been taken to shut the torpedo factory and that at a stroke removed a lot of the local workforce, who made up the support for Woolwich Arsenal. Tottenham H might have tried to implement the franchise rule for the first time, but had they done so, the league would have had to rule on how far Arsenal could move, and that they felt they couldn’t do.
The Woolwich Arsenal issue was singularly difficult to judge. At the time it was certainly in Kent, as I have often noted here, but it was connected to central London by tramlines. And the local population certainly saw a connection between Woolwich Arsenal in Kent, and Tottenham H in Middlesex (as they then were). Arsenal’s two highest attendances for the 1909/10 season were against Tottenham and Chelsea.
So Tottenham played the franchise card, and lost, and the league has mostly stayed out of the issue of regulating moves. But we should remember (just for the sake of historic accuracy of course) that Tottenham were the first to play the franchise card.