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Arsenal’s 100 years in the first division: the debate begins

by Tony Attwood

This article carries on the series of pieces looking back over the events that led to Arsenal’s election to the first division in 1919, and dispelling the many myths that surround the issue.

From January 1919 onwards there was an almost constant state of discussion going on within the Football League over every possible matter from the state of the grounds (seriously damaged through neglect during the war years, with many having been used by the military for training), the demands of the reformed Players’ Union over salaries, and the idea of amalgamating the Football League with the Southern League.

Then on 13 January there was a real step forward in what was to become a significant and pivotal moment for Arsenal.

The key opinion former in English football at the time was the magazine Athletic News, based in Manchester.  Daily newspapers carried rather straightforward descriptive accounts of matches, and had little interest in considering the politics and administration of the game; such matters were normally left to Athletic News.

(To give a feel for what the paper was like at this time, and its interest in giving background articles that could not be found anywhere else, you might care to see an article about previewing Arsenal in 1910 from Athletic News that we reprinted on the Arsenal History Society site.)

But to return to 1919, Athletic News covered football in depth every Monday under the hands-on approach of its editor James Catton (generally known as J.A.H. Catton writing first under the pen name Ubique and later Tityrus).

And on 13 January 1919 Catton published an article in Athletic News raising the issue of match fixing.  This was, as far as I can discern, the very first post-war public reminder of the scandal of 1915 and here Catton argued that one of the two teams that ought to be returned to the first division (if that league was to be expanded, as had already been proposed), should clearly be Chelsea.

He then went on to consider the argument that Tottenham, who had also been relegated with Chelsea should likewise be reinstated.  However he concluded that there was nothing to link Tottenham’s relegation with anything amiss in the final season before the cessation of the League for the duration.  They had been relegated fair and square.

The piece then went on to expand on the two reasons for considering Arsenal: the financial hardship the club had suffered as a result of the war and government policy, and the club’s loyalty to the Football League, being its first member from the south of England while others (he didn’t mention Tottenham but they were one of the obvious examples) had opted for the less challenging (in terms of financial commitment and player quality) Southern League.

This was the first mention in print of Arsenal being given a place back in the First Division, so the question now arises: where did Catton get this idea from?

Certainly he was highly knowledgeable about football across the country, and knew all about Arsenal’s near demise in 1910, and the risks Henry Norris had taken in paying off the debts and then moving the club in 1913.  And Catton had met Sir Henry and fellow director William Hall (who was on the Football League Management Committee).  For despite being based in Manchester before the war, Catton had worked in London during the war, and had been a regular visitor at London grounds, for wartime games.

What Catton was also doing was expanding the issue concerning the Arsenal, through emphasising the fact that Arsenal had shown great initiative by having moved themselves from south of the river to the north, thus transforming their fortunes in terms of attendances.

To see what happened in figures we need to look at Arsenal’s last season at the Manor Ground and compare that with their first at Highbury, remembering that football clubs at the time were utterly dependent on money raised at the gate.   There was an occasional profit from a transfer fee and minor profits from selling refreshments (although, as it happened, Arsenal were prohibited from selling alcohol at Highbury by the terms of their lease).  So the crowd figures showed the clubs’ main sense of income and were thus of great significance to all clubs:

Pos Club Div Average crowd Percentage change over previous season
1 Chelsea 1 37,105 10.6%
2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 28,020 17.4%
3 Manchester City 1 26,805 11.9%
4 Manchester United 1 25,515 8.1%
5 Aston Villa 1 25,350 -2.8%
6 Everton 1 25,250 26.6%
7 Bolton Wanderers 1 25,055 19.8%
8 Newcastle United 1 24,710 -0.9%
9 Liverpool 1 24,315 8.4%
10 Woolwich Arsenal 2 22,745 142.1%

Arsenal had an unprecedented growth in their gates of over 140%, up to 22,745 from 9,395 the previous season, and this despite going down a league.  It was a growth achieved quite simply by moving to the right place; a place surrounded on all sides by residences, well served by transport links and near rival clubs.

As a result of the move Arsenal had not “stolen” the crowds from Tottenham and Clapton Orient, as they predicted, but stimulated an interest in football in the area, as Norris had suggested.  Tottenham who had complained bitterly about the move of Arsenal into North London, had benefited enormously from the change, seeing their average crowd rise by 17% through this heightened interest created by the move of Arsenal to the region.

We’ll continue the story in the next episode, tomorrow.

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