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The fans and the media against the Arsenal: “Nothing is ever good enough for this crowd”

by Tony Attwood

In part one of this series I pointed out that Arsenal had long history of getting harsher treatment from the authorities than other clubs, of in-fighting within the club, and Arsenal fans turning on their own players – a history that took us back to the earliest days of the club.

That article took us up to the early days of the 20th century and the next big crisis came in 1910 when a decline in Arsenal’s performances on the pitch led to ever greater requests for cash being placed on the club’s main benefactor who ran the local gentlemen’s outfitters.  When, in that year, he said he had no more money it became clear that without his financial input the club could not continue.   Henry Norris, a director of Fulham, stepped in and offered various possible solutions, including a ground share with Fulham, or as an alternative the two clubs merging to form Fulham Arsenal.

Local opposition to these plans plus the decision of the League that if Fulham and Arsenal merged they would have to play in the second division, led Norris to offer an alternative: to keep the club playing in Plumstead, so fans could show they supported the club. 

He kept his word, but the average crowd size which had been as high as 19,980 in 1904/5 sank to 9395 in 1912/13 and with finances drying up Norris, by then the leading shareholder, moved Arsenal to Highbury.  As he pointed out, the club was losing money, and there were no other plans that could make it sustainable.

And he was right in his thinking.  In the following season the average crowd was 22,745 – the club’s highest up to that point.  It was a viable solution.

In the following years there was much local newspaper commentary on discontent among Arsenal fans, and even after Chapman arrived in 1925 and the club reached an unprecedented second in the league in his first season, a subsequent combination of mid-table doldrums (finishing 11th, 10th, 9th and 14th in the following years) and spectator unrest, resulted in Chapman tendering his resignation (thankfully rejected by Chairman Norris).

There was also more tumult around the club, as a group of men from more traditionally wealthy families who seemingly saw Henry Norris’ long term plan of having the club owned by its supporters (which had been his aim since 1910) as a revolutionary step in the wrong direction, started to oppose him.

Of course there was also the fact that Norris was never “one of them”.  He had made his money from house building, rather than inheriting it and that made him a dangerous upstart.  As did his  political and social views (equal pay for women, pensions for all men who returned from the war unable to work, and that sort of thing).   In fact they seemed to want power in the hands of the “gentlemen” who “knew how to run things”.   Ultimately Norris, despite his knighthood for his work in recruiting volunteers and setting up (and paying for) three football battalions, plus his elevation from no rank in the army to Lieutenant Colonel, as he oversaw both conscription in 1917 and demobilisation in 1919,  was pushed out.

However the battle lines had been drawn because Norris had very publicly fought the FA over compensation for Tom Whittaker after his career was ended playing for England.  No one from within football had ever previously fought the FA in this way at all, let alone in public, and since then the League and FA had been out for revenge. 

The authorities were also very unhappy about Norris’ vocal campaign that the maximum pay rules for players should be abolished, (something that was thought of as revolutionary, socialist and liable to bankrupt clubs.  What Norris wanted was a maximum limit on transfer fees in order to help club finances, while rewarding the working players for their efforts on the pitch.  To the toffs who ran the game that seemed like the Soviets were trying to take over.

The opposition to Norris then used a technical accounting irregularity at Arsenal to force him out. Norris it should be noticed did not in any way profit from the irregularity which was readily corrected, but neither they nor the League nor FA worried about thatf.  The battle lines had been drawn and the FA as noted above wanted revenge.

Eventually the FA stated that if Norris was not removed from Arsenal, Arsenal would be thrown out of the League, and so Norris stepped down from his role in the club he had rescued, as the club was taken over by the Hill-Wood family dynasty, (who had summarily closed down their own league club Glossop NE, which had been making a loss.   Profit making Arsenal looked just the vehicle for their ambitions of advancement in football, and that was more important than the fans in Glossop.) 

Of course as the 1920s drew to a close Chapman’s Arsenal, financed by the huge crowds that Highbury could attract, not only won Arsenal its first two league titles and its first FA Cup victory, but Chapman also left a dynasty to follow on his good work – which was reflected both in more trophies, and in growing crowds, reaching an average before the second world war of 44,045.  

But although today Chapman is seen as the man who created the modern Arsenal, it should be remembered that he too was often angry at the continuingly negative attitude of the Arsenal crowd.

Jack Lambert, for example, a nervous player who could make mistakes, was regularly booed by sections of the the Arsenal crowd – and this for a man who scored 38 goals in 34 league matches in 1930/1.   Chapman labelled one part of the crowd “the boo boys”, but neither his admonishment nor Arsenal’s trophies could silence them.

After Arsenal lost to Walsall in the FA Cup, a section of the Highbury crowd regularly jeered every pass that didn’t reach an Arsenal man, heightening Chapman’s extreme annoyance.  Even the newspapers started to comment negatively on the crowd at the Arsenal.  The comment regularly was “nothing is good enough for this crowd”.

The series continues tomorrow.

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