Once again my thanks to one of ours, North Bank Ned, for a guest piece on something of an overlooked anniversary. A hundred years ago our last season outside the top flight had drawn to a close, and the first enforced interruption of the Football League by a world conflict had begun. Ned looks at that last match and what happened to some of the Gunners thereafter. Thank you Ned, for a wonderful reflection.
If we feel bereft of league football during its summer break, feel a moment of sympathy for Gooners of a century ago. Though they didn’t know it at the time, there would be no competitive games for four years. The Football League would be suspended for the rest of the duration of World War One, graver matters were to hand than football.
The unbeknownst last game had been played on April 24th, 1915. Playing on even that long after the outbreak of hostilities had been controversial. The Second Battle of Ypres, which saw the first use of poison gas, had started two days before that game. The ill-fated Allied landing at Gallipoli was the day after. The public was fast losing any appetite for men in shorts kicking a ball for money.
London had seen the first German Zeppelin attacks by then but at Highbury centre-forward-turned-inside-right-for-the-day Harry King scored four as The Arsenal put Nottingham Forest to the sword 7-0. Contemporary reports suggest the total could have run into double figures. A series of ‘magnificent’ saves by Forest keeper Albert Iremonger, the 6’5’’ brother of England Test cricketer, James, and reckoned to be the finest keeper in the country, kept the score down to 2-0 at the half.
Bob Benson, hard-tackling full back and occasional centre forward (he was playing there against Forest with King switching position in an experimental line-up), scored a brace. Jock Rutherford, playing in his regular position of outside right, got the other goal. Benson was also the team’s penalty taker. His style was unique. Another member of the team would place the ball on the spot while Benson jogged up the pitch from his customary full back’s position. He would pick up the pace as he approached the ball, arriving at full speed to blast it in the direction of the net without breaking stride. It is said that he had developed the technique at his previous club, Sheffield United. There, he reputedly sprinted the whole way.
The season had gone a bit pear-shaped in February and March. We lost seven of our final 13 league games (end of season collapse? surely not!) However, the size of the win over Forest lifted us to a final position of fifth on goal difference. Birmingham and Hull City also ended up on 43 points, seven off promotion. The original table listed The Arsenal as sixth. Remarkably, it wasn’t until the 1980 that a mistake in the official goal average calculation was spotted and the record set straight.
King played only one season for us, but what a prolific season. He hit 26 goals in 37 league games (despite a nine-game drought before the Forest game) and another three in two FA Cup ties. Those 29 goals set a club record for the most goals in a season. They included the first hat-trick scored at Highbury (against Grimsby) and another four-goal haul against Wolves. Small for a centre-forward at 5’9”, King had played league football for Birmingham several years previously with no great distinction. He then dropped into non-league football for four seasons before being signed by Arsenal from Southern League side Northampton Town when in his late 20s. He turned out 30 times for the club in wartime matches, but he was 33 years old when league football resumed in 1919 and was released. His career drifted to a close at Leicester and then Brentford, for whom he collectively scored 17 goals in 41 games.
In contrast, Benson’s story is a tragic one. The England international collapsed on the pitch during the second half of a wartime fixture against Reading in 1916 having burst a blood vessel. He died in the dressing room at Highbury. He was buried, it is reported, in his Arsenal shirt.
Rutherford, a flying winger who had won titles and cup medals galore during a 300-plus-game career with Newcastle before falling out with the management, would survive the war. In 1926, he became the oldest player to represent Arsenal. He was 41 years and 159 days old when he played in the 1-0 win over Manchester City at Highbury on March 20th. That still stands as a club record, though Jens Lehmann came within nine days of breaking it when he was drafted in as emergency cover at Blackpool in 2011. Rutherford played 232 games in an Arsenal career that bizarrely included four weeks as player-manager of Stoke. By the time he had moved on (to Clapton Orient following the arrival of Joe Hulme, Rutherford wouldn’t finally hang up his boots until 1928), Arsenal were well established as a Division One club, and no longer Woolwich or even The Arsenal.
The club was re-elected to the First Division when the Football League resumed in 1919 despite its fifth-placed finish in Division Two in 1914-15. That last game of the 1914-15 season against Forest is also the last league game we ever played outside the top flight.
We replaced some relegated club from Middlesex that had come bottom of the First Division in 1914-15. It still rankles with them — but that is a long story for another day.