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100 years in the first division. Plans are made, but not by Arsenal.

By Tony Attwood

The story so far

Intro: Arsenal celebrate 100 years in the top division

Our story of the events of 1919 when Arsenal were elected into the 1st division, to start their extraordinary 100 years in the top league, has focussed on meetings and discussions thus far, because this was the background to Arsenal’s election.

And now, having launched their notion that Chelsea and Arsenal should be in the First Division next season in their last edition, Athletic News moved on in its next edition and approached the subject from a slightly different point of view: that if neither were elected to the expanded league for the 1919/20 season, London would have no teams in the top tier of English for the first time since 1903/4 – and that would make the league unbalanced.

Of course that might have been a cause of some rejoicing among the teams of the north east and north west, who might welcome the absence of away games at such a distance – not least because of the aforementioned lack of railway reliability and the hike in prices.   But there was a danger in pursuing this line, because the Southern League were still making noises about joining the Football League, and the wartime London Combination was also talking up the possibility of their continuing with an enlarged London and the South East league.  Given the current transport issues, this could well be an attractive idea.

League football, Athletic News was suggesting, needed the London clubs in the top division if a fully national league was to be maintained.

True, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Chelsea might be in the lower tier with Fulham, Clapton Orient and West Ham (who were not currently in the League but were thinking of joining if there was an expansion), but as we have seen, the two most supported clubs in the whole of the Football League were Tottenham and Chelsea.  What’s Arsenal were the best supported 2nd division club in the country with a better home support than half of the 20 first division sides.

As can be seen, the debate was raging far and wide – this was most certainly not a case of Henry Norris haranguing his fellow chairmen at one meeting, and convincing them to vote Arsenal back into the first division.

The fact was however that virtually everyone in football, wanted football to expand, and the inevitable conclusion was that London was currently the powerhouse for that expansion.  If football wanted to continue to develop its position as the national winter sport, it needed to nurture its position in London and having no clubs in the first division was not the most obvious way to do this.

Furthermore, if the League were not careful, the attraction of the London league clubs uniting with the Southern League (once more taking into account the current problems and costs of train travel) would rise up the agenda.   The “London problem” was suddenly taking on an importance of its own, which the multiplicity of meetings, each drawing different conclusions, was not helping to resolve.

And then, at this moment of much pondering about the future, Charles Sutcliffe wrote an article about his views concerning the future of football.

Now this was highly significant for as we have noted before, when Sutcliffe spoke, football tended to listen.  He had been a player, and a referee, and was credited with founding the Referees’ Association.  Later he became a director of Burnley, and most significantly, was a member of the Football League Management Committee, introducing, among other things, automatic promotion and relegation.

Prior to the introduction of automatic promotion there had been a series of play offs in a mini league between the two lowest clubs in the first division and two highest in the second.  However the 1898 play offs had ended in controversy with the last two teams to play both knowing that they each only needed a draw to go into next season’s first division.  As a result they played the game by knocking the ball backwards and forwards with no attempt to launch an attack.  There was a public outcry.

Two events followed.  First the League was expanded by two for the following season, thus giving all four teams involved in the play-offs a place in the first division.   Second automatic relegation and promotion was proposed by Sutcliffe for subsequent seasons, and this had duly come about.

Thus he was a man who was listened to, and very much considered a senior figure in football, and he now wrote that just as in 1898 the Football League had had a moral duty to help the clubs denied promotion by the “fixed” final game, so now the League needed to rectify Chelsea’s position forthwith.

He proposed that the two top teams from the second division in 1914/15 should be promoted as everyone naturally expected.  But in addition there should be a voting system to find two more clubs to join them in the first division.  This, he said, would allow other clubs to put right the wrong done to Chelsea, and allow the clubs to vote for one other team to join Chelsea and the two promoted clubs.

This move was instantly accepted it seems, for I can find no articles that argued for anything other than a vote.  The only question was who to vote for, aside from Chelsea.

In Athletic News Blackpool FC was reported to have formally proposed the election of two extra clubs to the first division and stated that Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal would have an interest in it. They also set their stall out by supporting Arsenal’s claim to a place in the top flight.

Shortly after this date Chelsea chairman Claude Kirby wrote to the Football League Management Committee requesting that Chelsea be re-instated to the First Division for the 1919-20 season due to the exceptional circumstances of the Manchester United v Liverpool game, which was shown to have been fixed.

On 31 January 1919, The Sportsman (a London based sports paper) reported that Tottenham had sent a letter to all the other League clubs putting forward their arguments as to why they should be elected to the First Division.

Tottenham made a strong case here, citing previous occasions when the league had enlarged.  But the argument was undermined by the special pleading of the number of players who had signed up as volunteers during 1914/15.  In fact Arsenal had many more such players, not least because it was the Arsenal chairman, Henry Norris, who organised and paid for the Footballers’ Battalion and actively encouraged Arsenal men to sign up.

The story continues

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