Another Ned classic, for which I am enormously grateful. The one reason why I wish I was around, and a Gooner, three years prior to the arrival of ‘holicdad. My Pop must have been spitting feathers. Thanks Ned, you are a star.
Regular sufferers of these histories may remember that I said at the tail end of the previous one that an account of how Arsenal got promoted to the First Division in 1919 was a story for another day. The Guv’nor’s holidays have brought that day to pass.
The piquancy of this tale for all good folk from the Elysian end of the Seven Sisters Road is that it was those who dwell at the swampy end who got shafted.
As 1918 turned into 1919, football was already looking forward to an August resumption of regular league competition after its World War One hiatus. There was much talk of mergers and expansions as the various professional leagues vied for the best clubs. Expanding the Football League to 44 clubs from 40 with two equally sized divisions was just one of several proposals.
In the League’s expansions of 1898 and 1905, the clubs otherwise relegated from the First Division simply stayed up and were joined by those promoted from DivisionTwo.
But 1919 would prove to be different — to Arsenal’s great advantage.
For the circumstances, cast your mind back to the pre-suspension 1914-15 season. That ended, as it should, with Tottenham bottom of Division One and Chelsea occupying the other relegation place. Derby County pipped Preston North End for the Division Two title.
However, a match-rigging scandal had blighted the season. Manchester United and Liverpool players colluded to fix their Good Friday game at Old Trafford. United won 2-0 with a suspiciously lethargic Liverpool also fluffing a penalty. A ‘Holic pound of that vintage could have found 7/1 odds on that scoreline. Seven players across both teams and their friends pocketed some hefty winnings.
A subsequent FA investigation imposed lifetime bans from English football for all seven players, including Liverpool’s splendidly named half-back Tom Fairfoul.
However, neither club was penalised. Come the end of the season, United would escape relegation by a point. Chelsea cried foul, even though United had won 3-1 at Stamford Bridge late in the season. (Chavs and Mancs in a relegation four-pointer, as it would have been then, in the penultimate week of the season; we can only dream). Nonetheless, as matters stood at the end of 1914-15, Chelsea and Tottenham were going down.
Fast-forward four years. Arsenal (and Fulham’s) chairman, the newly knighted and recently elected MP, Henry Norris, was well placed to see that the Football League would most likely expand in some form for the 1919-20 season, promote Derby and Preston to its First Division and re-elect Chelsea to right the wrong done in 1914-15.
He would also have had good reason to suspect that Tottenham weren’t a shoe-in for re-election to the First Division in the event the League decided to expand it to 22 clubs. Even in those days, there were misgivings about the parvenu Lilywhites.
Tottenham’s chairman, Charles Roberts, was sufficiently concerned about his club’s re-election prospects to write to all his fellow chairmen exhorting them to adhere to precedent and maintain Tottenham’s First Division status. He also played the patriotic card, claiming that the club had finished bottom in 1914-15 because voluntary enlistments had weakened its playing strength.
The letter, not surprisingly, found its way into the public prints, which had started to play up the ‘election’ campaign.
Norris was canvassing hard, too. He had taken over insolvent Woolwich Arsenal in 1910 and moved it to Highbury in 1913 at great risk to his fortune. A property developer, politician, and Freemason, he knew how to work behind the scenes to accumulate votes and public support.
Like Roberts, Norris petitioned his fellow chairmen. But he also had other friends in the right places. Jimmy Catton, the short, tubby but hugely influential editor of the sports weekly, Athletic News, was a critical one.
Catton’s publication had a circulation of 170,000 in 1919 and was considered ‘the voice of football’. It threw its weight behind Arsenal’s candidacy for the top flight on “the sentimental grounds” that we were the pioneer First Division club from the south — we’d first gained promotion in 1903-04 — and had shown loyalty to the northern-dominated Football League in its rivalry with the Southern League.
“The Arsenal have a case for consideration as the oldest League club in London, and one of the most enterprising in the face of difficulties which would have appalled most directors,” Catton wrote under his pen name, Tityrus.
He brushed aside Tottenham’s plea for following precedent: “Fortunately for League Football there has never been such a situation as now obtains.” Roberts’ enlistment nonsense got short shrift, too. Just one Tottenham player had joined up during the 1914-15 season, Tityrus reported. Meanwhile, the club had bought four newcomers in what proved to be a futile effort to strengthen the side (nothing new there, then).
In this febrile atmosphere, the Football League convened a special general meeting on the afternoon of Monday, March 10th, 1919 in the Grand Hotel, Manchester to consider expansion. Norris was there, even though it was the day before he was due to make his maiden speech in the House of Commons. His fellow Arsenal director, William Hall, a quiet but influential figure who sat on the Football League’s committee, was also present.
After dismissing various alternatives, the League agreed to expand to two divisions of 22 clubs. It confirmed the promotion of Derby and Preston. Chelsea was re-elected unanimously in recognition of the consequences of the 1915 match-fixing.
The vote for the final place in Division One — yes, it’s always about fourth place — would be first past the post, but it was no two-horse race.
Seven clubs had put themselves forward for election: Tottenham; the five clubs that had finished in positions three to seven in Division Two in 1914-15 separated by just four points — Barnsley, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham, Hull City and us; and Nottingham Forest, who had finished three from bottom (cheeky buggers more than half a century before Brian Clough got there.)
Contemporaneous reports of the debate that preceded the vote are scant. It is not known if anyone asked the League (and Liverpool’s) long-serving chairman, ‘Honest’ John McKenna what he thought of Tottenham, but, by repute, McKenna did advocate Arsenal’s cause on the basis of our 15 years longer League membership than Tottenham.
The minutes of the meeting record only the hard facts of the vote:
Arsenal 18, Tottenham Hotspur 8, Barnsley 5, Wolverhampton Wanderers 4, Nottingham Forest 3, Birmingham 2, Hull City 1.
We were up, and Tottenham were down.
Tottenham fans still maintain that Norris bought the vote. There were no such allegations at the time, however, and no evidence emerged that he did — at least none that has survived to this day. And if it did ever exist, Norris took its secrets with him to his grave in 1934.
The probable truth is that Norris and Hall simply ran rings round Roberts and Tottenham, collaring the committee, a plurality of chairman and, most importantly, the Athletic News.
Afterward, Norris sent Catton a hand-written note of thanks for his support. We have no way now to measure how influential that had been, especially among the northern clubs as the paper was published in Manchester, but one gauge is that future Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman would call Catton “the man who got Arsenal into the First Division”.
Tottenham slunk off to Division Two, if only for a season. A new blot on the game would soon eclipse the re-election excitement, the Leeds City Scandal of 1919 — the one that would lead to a lifetime ban from football being imposed on Herbert Chapman.
But that is a story for another ‘Holic holiday.