Arsenal and the London Combination Victory Cup – an untold tale
by Tony Attwood
After the end of the 1914/15 season the Football League and the Southern League in England were suspended (although league football continued in Scotland) until the end of the war with Germany.
On 11 November 1918 the ceasefire that ended the war was declared, and on 6 December 1918 there was a meeting of the London Combination – the league founded in 1915 as a regional wartime league for London clubs during the war – to decide on what to do next.
There was at the time some talk of the London clubs breaking away from the Football League, and of the League dividing into regional leagues, given the disruption to the coal industry (which of course powered the trains and industry) caused by four years of war and the pre-war and postwar industrial unrest.
Despite these broader issues the 6 December meeting confined itself to football over the next few months – as no one was quite ready for the big step into a new organisation of football.
During the war the payment of players’ salaries had been ruled illegal by the league (a matter that caused the life time ban on Herbert Chapman, which fortunately for Arsenal was subsequently rescinded), and the (not rescinded) demise of Leeds City FC.
This was the main issue of the day, and the first step taken was to agree that players could be paid from 7 December 1918 – albeit with a maximum wage installed once again (something Arsenal chairman Henry Norris was against). The first match for Arsenal at which this could happen was the first match at Highbury since the end of the 1914/15 season: it ended Arsenal 0 Tottenham 1 on that day.
The match was notable in passing for the attendance of the Mayor of Islington – George Elliot. Notable not just because it was his first ever football match of any type, but because of the energetic way in which the borough had attempted to stop Arsenal coming to Highbury by supporting the reactionary Highbury Defence Committee. But then there were elections in the offering, and no one had a clue which way these would go, not least because of the new electoral rules about who could vote. So the Mayor probably thought showing an interest in the people’s game in general and the club in his constituency was not a bad idea.
On 1 January 1919 (a Wednesday, and not a public holiday) the London Combination’s Victory Cup (sometimes known since as the London Victory Cup) kicked off with one of the opening round matches ending Millwall 0 Arsenal 1. By chance these clubs also played a London Combination league game (that is the wartime league not the reserve league) the following Saturday, again at Highbury (4 January 1919) this one ending Arsenal 4 Millwall 1. The crowd was 8000 – which was not bad considering most of the military personnel were still either overseas or in their English military camps.
Thus the route to the resumption of football seemed to be moving ahead peacefully but there were still many, many issues to be resolved.
We’ve dealt at some length with the most famous of these – the election of Arsenal to the First Division which happened on 10 March 1919. But there was another issue which although of less long-term consequence was nevertheless of considerable interest at the time.
On Monday 31 March 1919 the second round of the London Combination Victory Cup was held. The match to be placed at Highbury was between Arsenal and Fulham – which was of interest because Henry Norris was a director of both clubs and Fulham’s manager was the ex-Arsenal man Phil Kelso.
Naturally Henry Norris was at the game only to see Fulham beat Arsenal 4-1. But Arsenal appealed, on the grounds that Fulham had knowingly played not one, but half a team’s worth of ineligible players.
(During the war eligibility to play had been withdrawn as an issue and guest players were everywhere. Now the rules of eligibility were re-introduced, and Fulham just ignored them).
There doesn’t seem to have been any sympathy for Fulham in the media, and on 4 April 1919 the complaint against Fulham was heard by the Committee of the London Combination, with Henry Norris at the meeting speaking on behalf of Arsenal and asking for Arsenal to be awarded the tie and Fulham disqualified.
But in one sense this is very odd, the outcome was very odd, given that it was perfectly clear that Fulham had used a collection of ineligible players. But the Committee ordered the game to be replayed at Highbury on 10 April 1919
However before the replay could happen Fulham quite amazingly appealed against the appeal – even though there appears to have been no process allowing this laid down in the rules of the London Combination.
Even more incredibly the London Combination allowed the appeal not only to go ahead, but they awarded the appeal on the appeal to Fulham. It looks as if Norris didn’t know about this appeal from Fulham, and he was not invited to the London Combination meeting – as he should have been given that he launched the original appeal.
Thus the replay of the game was cancelled, and Fulham went into the semi-finals of the Victory Cup.
On 11 April 1919 Norris wrote an open letter complaining about Fulham’s selection (which is interesting considering he was a director of Fulham at the time).
This letter was published in Athletic News (whose man had interviewed Norris at the game) on 14 April 1919. Norris then resigned from Fulham FC’s board of directors – although the exact date of his resignation being tendered and accepted is not clear but it was certainly sometime between the complaint being made by Norris against Fulham and the appeal appeal hearing.
And of course Norris’ position at Fulham was untenable – as a director of a company one cannot make a complaint to an outside agency about the actions of that company without resigning He absolutely had to go.
But that was not the end of the affair. On 19 April 1919, the semi final of the London Victory Cup took place and the selected venue was Highbury. The result was Chelsea 4 Crystal Palace 0. The other semi was played at Stamford Bridge and the result was Fulham 2 Tottenham 0. For this game Fulham avoided all controversy and played not their loan players but their regular team.
The committee of the London Combination then decided, perhaps as a sop to Norris, to play the final on 26 April 1919 at Highbury, and to have another committee meeting on the eve of the event.
At this committee meeting on 25 April 1919 the Combination prepared to vote itself out of existence, as per the mandate it had given itself in 1915 – being a regional league for the duration of the war. However such were the tensions that existed in football and such were the power plays that were going on, the members decided to keep the Combination not least to protect the interests of London clubs against what they perceived as the pro-northern bias of the Football League.
The next day the final went ahead and Chelsea beat Fulham 3-0 in front of 36,000.
Naturally many in the crowd were Arsenal regulars and they spent the game letting Fulham know what they thought of them. This anti-Fulham feeling was encouraged by the fact that Arsenal used the rules that the committee has reviewed to allow Fulham to continue, and loaned Jack Rutherford to Chelsea for the match and in true Rutherford style he scored two of the goals for Chelsea.
Henry Norris and his wife were at the game and Edith presented the trophy to Chelsea.
Subsequently the Combination continued, and became the reserve league for London clubs and later for clubs from other areas. It lasted until May 2012, just three years short of its 100th anniversary.