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This season Arsenal celebrate 100 years in the top division

by Tony Attwood

100 years ago, at the start of the 1919/20 season, Arsenal started the new campaign back in the first division, after an absence of six years – that break made up of two seasons in the second division and four seasons when the league was abandoned due to the war.

100 years is the absolute record for consecutive time spent in the first division with other clubs way behind Arsenal’s achievement.  Everton have been in the league the second longest (since 1954), then Liverpool since 1962.  Tottenham last joined the top league in 1978.

100 consecutive years is a wonderful achievement, and yet it sometimes seems that celebrating much to do with the events of 100 years ago is glossed over – and this because of the successful propaganda campaign which has remorselessly suggested that there was something amiss with the election of Arsenal and Chelsea to the first division in 1919, upon its expansion after the war from 20 clubs (up to 1915) to 22 clubs.

In fact so successful has the spreading of this story been that there are even some Arsenal supporters who think that it might be best to stay quiet about the return of Arsenal and Chelsea to the first division in 1919.  If you want to read the whole story in total depth, you might want to look up

As a result, some years back, a totally detailed account of Arsenal’s election to the first division, upon its expansion in 1919 was published by the Arsenal History Society, drawing extensively on reports and documents from 1919. and what this made quite clear was that all the tales of corruption and undue influence were invented much, much later.  At the time there was no hint of anything being amiss, and no one complained at the time – not even Tottenham who as a result of the election of Arsenal lost out on a reprieve from the relegation they suffered in 1915 when football was suspended.

The tales of clubs not being prepared for the election, or undue influence, of Henry Norris suddenly making a speech to persuade other clubs, of their being no logical reason for clubs to vote for Arsenal… none of these appeared at the time.  Indeed a detailed search of newspapers across the country show no suggestion anywhere that many of these alleged incidents happened.  Indeed even the local paper in Tottenham itself expressed disappointment at Tottenham not being elected back to the first division, but accepted the result and spoke of the club’s determination to win promotion back to the top flight the following season – which they did.

This whole story has been told in detail on the Arsenal History Society site, and I don’t want to repeat the whole thing here, but over the next few days I will go through this story in slightly less detail, in the hope that it might help reduce some of the retelling of the “fake news” account of 1919.

In terms of this research I was much aided by the work of Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews, with whom I worked on the book “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed history”.  If you want to read the whole tale in fullest detail please do go to this page on the History Society site – and then scroll down to “Section 10” and start reading.

That will give you the story of Arsenal’s election in 1919, but there is one earlier issue that I will go back to in this opening article, and that relates to match fixing.  Because football before the first world war was football in the era of match fixing.  And it had a huge impact on how the various clubs thought about each other, and about what should happen in the future.

So, to begin…

In 1919, as the clubs gathered together to discuss the re-start of the Football League after it was abandoned for the duration of the war, it was decided to that the 1st division should be expanded by two clubs, in order to create more league games, and thus increase revenue.

No clubs objected to that move, but there was a problem, for the league rules said nothing about how such an expansion could be organised.   So, ideas were put forward ahead of the League’s AGM, including the most obvious thoughts of either a) having an election so the League clubs themselves could decide who would go up, or alternatively b) not relegating the bottom two clubs from the 1914/15 season of the first division or c) promoting the top four clubs from the second division, rather than the top two.

But discussions of these issues were overshadowed by another issue: the problem of a series of match fixing scandals.

The most immediate match fixing affair had come in that final season of 1914/15, and it was important because, as a result of a fixed match, Chelsea had been relegated at the end of the 1914/15 season.

Everyone (except those directly involved!) had agreed that the Manchester United v Liverpool in 1915 match had been fixed, and that had it not been fixed, there was every possibility that Manchester United and not Chelsea would have ended up in 19th place and thus gone down to the second division.   Here’s how the final season before the cessation of matches for the duration of the war, ended.

Pos Club P W D L F A G/Av Pts
16 Notts County 38 9 13 16 41 57 0.719 31
17 Bolton Wanderers 38 11 8 19 68 84 0.810 30
18 Manchester United 38 9 12 17 46 62 0.742 30
19 Chelsea 38 8 13 17 51 65 0.785 29
20 Tottenham Hotspur 38 8 12 18 57 90 0.633 28

At this time two clubs only were relegated.   The G/Av column relates to goal average, which was used to separate teams, rather than goal difference.  To work it out one divides the goals scored (F) by the goals conceded (A).

The match which was shown to be fixed was played on 2 April and the result was Manchester United 2 Liverpool 0.  That gave Manchester United two points – and as the table above shows that was enough to keep them up and send Chelsea down.

Thus as soon as the notion of expanding the league in 1919/20 came up, Chelsea argued that they should have one of the two new places in the first division, because they were only relegated because of match fixing.

And that of course was a reasonable case.  But although that was the only issue of match fixing that Chelsea raised, it was only the latest match fixing scandal in the league – despite the fact that the League had done all it could to play down previous revelations of match fixing.  And this is where Arsenal come into the equation.

I shall take up the story in tomorrow’s episode.

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