Arsenal’s great rivals (before we moved north of the river)


Arsenal’s greatest local rivals (until 1913)

Arsenal’s first game, as we know (although for a long time I doubted it) was on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames, at, or very close to, the original ground used by Millwall.

By the time Arsenal started playing Millwall they were playing in their second ground in East Ferry Road, but they moved twice more before then making the six mile journey across the Thames to Cold Blow Lane in 1910. (The distance Millwall moved is far less if you are a crow, or indeed if you have your own boat and landing stages, but the actual route by road is more or less six miles).

Curiously the journey from Millwall’s grounds on the Isle of Dogs, and from the Den to Plumstead, was much the same distance – about 7 miles, so throughout the whole of Arsenal’s existence in Plumstead, Millwall was the big local rival.

While Arsenal moved from being Royal Arsenal to Woolwich Arsenal, during this south London period, Millwall too changed their name.  In April 1889 they changed from Millwall Rovers to Millwall Athletic.  Later they became Millwall – but I am not sure when as the eternally reliable fixture lists from Andy Kelly, have them being Millwall and Millwall Athletic at different times.  I’ve taken a punt on when I think the change came – however since Arsenal’s programmes never quite reflected the change of the name from The Arsenal to Arsenal correctly there may be some confusion with Millwall too.

Arsenal moved into the Football League in 1893, and around the same era Millwall were founder members and champions of the Southern League in 1894/5, winning it again in 1985/6 and being second in the third season of the league.  However thereafter they became more of a mid-table club, only once reaching third in the league.  However they did reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup in both 1900 and 1903, but did not enter the Football League until 1920, by which time Arsenal were packing in the crowds at Highbury in the First Division.

Most of the games played between the two clubs while Arsenal were based in Plumstead were friendlies, over time competitive games crept in.   The most notable were of course the FA Cup matches (FAC in the table below) but additionally there were these other, more minor competitions:

  • UL United League
  • London League Premier Division (LLPD)
  • Southern Professional Charity Cup (SPCC)
  • Southern District Combination (SDC)

Arsenal against Millwall Rovers

Date Venue Score Crowd
5 Feb 87 away 0-4 600
12 Mar 87 home 3-0
26 Nov 87 away 0-3
11 Feb 88 home 3-3
30 Mar 88 home 3-0 600
16 Feb 89 Home won
13 April 89 Home 3-0

It seems “de rigueur” for teams to score three goals most of the time.  Sadly only two crowds are recorded, but it seems likely that for much of the time this was the sort of numbers that turned up.

Against Millwall Athletic

In 1891 Royal Arsenal became a professional club, and that, combined with the great interest that the FA Cup held at this time, explains the sudden explosion of interest on 19 November 1992.   But even this was nothing compared with the game one season later, again in the FA Cup when 20000 turned up.

That the friendlies of the mid 1890s could get 10,000 crowds was perhaps not surprising with Millwall at the top of the Southern League and Arsenal in the Football League.

There was clearly a huge rivalry by this time, with even United League matches getting big crowds.   Arsenal’s crowds in the UL were generally small, since the prime interest was in seeing Football League games but against Millwall it was a different matter.

We can of course see crowds greatly varying – for example on 10 September 1896 when only 2500 turn up.  However the explanation appears, as far as I have investigated to be related to the day of the week and the weather.  10 September 96 was a Thursday, with the game being played in the late afternoon.

The very low crowd on 30 Jan 1899 is explained by the fact that this was a Monday, two days after Arsenal had been beaten 0-6 at home in the FA Cup by Derby.

Date Venue Score Crowd
10 May 90 Away 3-3 800
24 Jan 91 Away 1-0
19 Nov 92 Home FAC 3-2 12000
18 Feb 93 Home 5-0 6000
26 Mar 93 Away 1-0 6000
25 Nov 93 Home FAC 2-0 20000
17 Mar 94 home 2-2 6000
17 April 94 away 4-1 10000
25 Mar 95 Home 1-1 10000
8 Apr 95 Away 0-0 7000
27 Apr 95 Home 3-1 8000
9 Sep 95 Away 3-1 4500
28 Mar 96 Away 3-1 6000
11 Apr 96 Home 2-2 9000
10 Sep 96 Away 2-1 2500
10 Oct 96 Home 1-5 13000
16 Jan 97 Away FAC 2-4 14000
27 Feb 97 Home UL 3-1 15000
24 Apr 97 Away UL 1-3 8000
22 Jan 98 Away UL 2-2 8000
19 Feb 98 Home UL 2-2 12000
30 April 98 Away 0-2 5000
8 Oct 98 Away 1-1 12000
26 Dec 98 Home UL 0-1 14000
30 Jan 99 Home 2-4 1500
4 Apr 99 away 0-0 2500
11 Sep 99 Away SDC 0-1 5000
2 Apr 00 Home SDC 0-1 2000
1 April 01 Home 1-1 2000
30 Sep 01 Home LLPD 1-1 3000
24 Feb 02 Away LLPD 1-2 3000
26 Dec 02 Away LLPD 0-3 10000
9 Feb 03 Home 2-3 3000
18 Apr 03 Home LLPD 0-2 4000

Against Millwall

We can see here that we now move from the regular two games a season, with friendlies filling in where there are no other games to a different situation.  The final friendly had been played on 9 February 1903.  Between 28 April 1904 and 10 December 1908 there were no games, and indeed there were no matches between the two sides, despite their proximity between 10 October 2010 (the one and only match played at The Den between Woolwich Arsenal and Millwall) and Arsenal’s move north in the summer of 1913.

7 Dec 03 Home LLPD 1-3 2000
7 Mar 04 Away LLPD 0-3 1500
28 Apr 04 Away SPCC final 1-2 10000
10 Dec 08 Home SPCC 1-2 4000
6 Feb 1909 Home FAC 1-1 32000
10 Feb 09 Away FAC 0-1 16285
10 Oct 10 Away LFACC 0-1 3000

Thus the great rivalry that had seen 10,000 turn up for friendlies, and 15000 for United League matches, petered out, and in reality the clubs had gone their separate ways long before Arsenal left south London.

For Arsenal, the great local rivalries were with the other London league clubs – as can be seen from these details:

1907/8 – Chelsea 13th, Woolwich Arsenal 14th in Division I.

  • Nov 2, 1907 Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1.  Attendance: 65,000
  • Mar 7, 1908. Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0. Attendance: 30,000

1908/9 – Arsenal 6th, Chelsea 11th, Tottenham promoted from Division II

  • Nov 26 1908. Chelsea 1 Arsenal 2.  Attendance 50,000
  • April 3 1909.  Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0.  Attendance 30,000

1909/10 –  Tottenham 15th, Arsenal 18th, Chelsea 19th (relegated)

  • Sep 25 1909.  Arsenal 3 Chelsea 2.  Attendance 15,000
  • Dec 4 1909.  Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0.  Attendance 18,000
  • Mar 28 1910.  Chelsea 0 Arsenal 1.   Attendance 40,000
  • Apr 16 1910.  Tottenham 1 Arsenal 1.  Attendance 39,800

There is more on this in the earlier article about Arsenal v London clubs

3 Replies to “Arsenal’s great rivals (before we moved north of the river)”

  1. As an ex 1950’s Roan School pupil and my familial links to Woolwich – I ask why is there no mention of Charlton in your London review?

  2. Terry

    I’ll make it the next review. No one has done this sort of club by club analysis before, and it takes quite a bit of time, but I will see if I can do it


  3. Actually having thought for a moment Terry, Charlton were not formed until about 1905, and played in local leagues until the first world war. Arsenal moved to Highbury in 1913, and so would not have considered Charlton suitable opposition. Arsenal were in the first division while Charlton were in the Kent League.

    Wiki tells me that Charlton turned pro in 1920 and the Football League history says they entered the Football League in 1921 – so they were playing in the 3rd Division South while Arsenal were playing the First. Arsenal did play some friendlies but not many and I am not sure there were any against Charlton. the first league match would have been 1936.

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