Many fans will know that Arsenal's top flight status in English Football is unbroken since the 1919-20 season, but many more may not be aware of the highly unusual circumstances that prompted this achievement.
When the terrible conflict known as "The War To End All Wars" reached its exhausted conclusion, top-class football had effectively ceased to exist, three quarters of a million young British men had been killed, and of those, no small number had been professional footballers.
Amid all this, The Arsenal's problems were clearly small ones but, to Sir Henry Norris, they were real enough. When the war began, the club had been fielding a side which should have quickly fought its way back to the First Division, hence helping with the £60,000 standing debt, and Norris's £125,000 investment. But those players who had survived the war were all 5 years older, and there was absolutely no telling how any club would perform in the season that was to begin in September 1919.
It was at this point that Henry Norris set out the single most outrageous enterprise ever to be conceived in the history of English football. His remarkable earlier political success in obtaining Fulham entry into the Football League, and Woolwich Arsenal entry to North London, were minnows compared to the audacious 'Whale' he was about to float.
More than 100 years later, there is still no convincing explanation of how Norris achieved his object, and it's almost inconceivable that any other individual, before or since, could have carried it off at all. Norris's aim, very simply, was to take Arsenal back into the First Division.
In 1914-15, the team had finished 5th in the Second Division. (For 60 years that League table was invariably copied, showing Arsenal finishing 6th, but in actual fact, they finished just above Birmingham on goal average by virtue of a 7-0 win over Nottingham Forest in their final game.) Above Arsenal were Derby County, Preston North End, Barnsley, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The Football League was suspended after the 1914-15 season, for the duration of the Great War. In 1919, it was decided to extend the First Division from 20 to 22 clubs. Extensions of the Divisions had happened on several occasions since the Football League was founded in 1888. The almost invariable procedure when extending the First Division was to re-elect automatically the bottom clubs from the previous season, and promote the top clubs from the Second Division.
Given the unfortunate intervention of the war, there seemed every reason to suppose, and little cause to even discuss it, and this was indeed what almost everyone assumed and were told would happen. By chance, two other London clubs, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, had finished 19th and 20th in the First Division.
Showing remarkable stealth and political judgement, Norris used the 8 months between the end of the war and the Annual General Meeting of the Football League, to canvass the other major clubs and various influential friends in the game. He had received his Knighthood in 1917 and became a Tory MP in 1918, and one must assume that many were flattered by the attention of this successful luminary in a game which had few figures of note outside of its own confines.
Norris seemed to have little to work on, but there was one small chink of hope. At the end of the 1914-15 season, it had become obvious that the Football League would have to be abandoned for the duration of the war. There had been allegations of some match-fixing by one or two players who had bet on results and, in one instance, this was proven after lengthy court cases; that particular game was Manchester United versus Liverpool, and United had won 2-0 to finish 18th, just one point ahead of Chelsea. Though United would have dropped below Chelsea if Liverpool had beaten them, they would still have finished ahead of last-placed Tottenham Hotspur.
But the whole business did serve to create an understandable uneasiness that the 1914-15 season was not quite all it should have been. It should be said that there was not the slightest suggestion that Tottenham or Chelsea were ever involved in any wrongdoing at the time, and none has ever been suggested since.
What Norris said to the other chairmen has never been revealed, but his desperation for First Division status, plus the size of his investment at risk, clearly persuaded enough of them that he had a worthwhile case. Leslie Knighton described his chairman's technique at the time thus: "His influence was enormous, he would speak to an important person there suggesting a favour, to remind a certain financier, that he had once done him a good turn, and been promised something in return."
When the AGM was convened, Norris's strategy became clear, it must have been agreed in advance with League President, "Honest John McKenna", a close friend of Norris, and the owner of Liverpool FC. Firstly, Chelsea were detached from Spurs and their position taken separately. There was no vote, and the fact that Chelsea would have finished third from bottom in 1915 had Liverpool beaten Manchester United in the fixed match undoubtedly influenced the meeting.
McKenna proposed they be re-elected to the First Division on the 'nod' and this was accepted. Derby County, and Preston North End, 1st and 2nd in the Second Division in 1914-15, were elected to the First Division without debate.
McKenna, who might have been more reticent given he was the force behind Liverpool FC, made a brief speech recommending that Arsenal be given the remaining First Division place because of their service to the League, and their longevity, particularly pointing out that Arsenal had been in the Football League 15 years longer than Spurs.
The arguments were of course complete nonsense, the Football League is not run on the basis of the most experienced clubs being given the higher places and, in any event, Wolves had finished 4th and had been members of the Football League 4 years longer than Arsenal.
To this day, it is impossible to explain what went on at that AGM; the most plausible explanation is actually the most irrational, that being, the individual representatives assumed that, if McKenna was prepared to support so unlikely a cause, then he must have some very good if well-hidden reason for doing so. If there was such a reason, it has remained very well hidden indeed, though it would clearly have been assumed to be something to do with the results at the end of the 1914-15 season.
The corollary of lasting concern to fans of Tottenham Hotspur was that, despite the expansion of the First Division to 22 teams, which should have seen them safely re-elected, despite finishing 20th in 1914-15, this highly dubious election of Arsenal allowed the other north London club to leapfrog over them, into the First Division, while they sank down to the Second Division; however, they immediately returned to the First Division as Second Division Champions of the 1919–20 season.
For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that, for many years, there were rumours of the involvement of significant sums of money. Nothing has ever been discovered in writing, of course, and there has never been any other documentary proof, so it must remain a mystery how Arsenal were promoted after finishing in 5th place in the Second Division. And since that time, they have never suffered relegation back to the Second Division.
Acknowledgement. Arsenal 1886-1986. Phil Soar & Martin Tyler.
Reader Comments (23)
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1 Posted 29/05/2022 at 21:42:04
I like to think it gives Spurs a firm sense of historic injustice that still pervades their relationship with their local rivals, and in this woke era where the wrongs of the past are being so sensitively reinterpreted, it would be nice to see an official investigation implemented by the Premier League, followed by the relegation of Arsenal to the Championship, by means of fair retribution.
2 Posted 29/05/2022 at 22:17:30
At first on seeing the title, I thought it was an article about Alex”Sandy” Young, an Everton hero, from the last Century.
It certainly is another story of corruptness in the game, and I shall take this story up with Arsenal supporters, whom are good football people.
Thats some scam.
4 Posted 29/05/2022 at 22:30:11
I knew there were some shenanigans associated with Arsenal's longevity in the topflight but never knew the detail.
Thank god such behaviour wouldn't be tolerated today.😊
5 Posted 29/05/2022 at 23:31:49
6 Posted 30/05/2022 at 07:29:19
I think it's fair to say more than 1 sizable 'consideration' changed hands along the way.
7 Posted 30/05/2022 at 07:34:54
Then Henry Norris persuaded the chairman of Liverpool FC to allow a team 5th in Division 2 into Division 1 on spurious grounds.
One has to wonder how rich was John McKenna when he died.
8 Posted 30/05/2022 at 07:46:52
When you say DNA of Liverpudlians, I assume you mean the red contingent.
Surely no fun and games has ever taken place involving the Everton Liverpudlians. :)
It should also be noted that Everton won the last league title before the war suspension and retained it for a number of years.
10 Posted 30/05/2022 at 08:18:53
11 Posted 30/05/2022 at 09:11:49
I would be curious to see how many professional footballers would sign up to go to war these days :-|
Almost reassuring to see that the seam of corruption runs deep and long throughout the history of football - and LFC in particular.
Oh, and well done to Real on Saturday :-)
12 Posted 30/05/2022 at 09:14:30
Had no idea of this story. Thank you for sharing.
13 Posted 30/05/2022 at 09:24:14
Like others, I'd been aware Arsenal were promoted on dubious grounds but didn't know the nitti gritti.
Like England playing all their1966 World Cup games in London, when their semi was scheduled for Goodison Park, the powers that be just wouldn't get away with this, today.
14 Posted 30/05/2022 at 12:02:07
Hi Ian J.  as a pre-war baby, I was born and reared in the district of Everton, Mill Road hospital and 75 Everton Road to be precise. I have never regarded myself as being Liverpudlian in any form, and following one or two distasteful episodes I'm not about to become one at this time in my life.
Hi Ian H.  as Jack  says, where there's money you'll find corruption
Hi Bill  I echo your sentiment regarding the World Cup fiasco, we were scheduled to host that game from the outset, I suppose that the FA considered that it would be profitable to change venues. I hope to see you at the next get-together whenever that may be.
15 Posted 30/05/2022 at 12:28:30
John Senior. My youngest brother was born in Mill Road, I was born in Sefton General on Smithdown Road. I think it's now the site of an Asda.
I have never and would never describe myself as a Liverpudlian. I hate the phrase and don't associate with it.
My father had a hard enough time making me wear a pair of jeans when I was a young child in Germany because they had a patch on them saying "proud to be a scouser". I asked what it meant and he said that I was from Liverpool. I was distraught. I thought I was from Everton.
16 Posted 30/05/2022 at 12:46:17
I understand you being distraught, but in truth an Evertonian born in Everton is no different than a true Evertonian born anywhere in the city. I just use it for boasting purposes.
17 Posted 30/05/2022 at 13:42:25
Ian #8, your point about us retaining the league trophy got me thinking. In fact, if you rank teams by number of years they have been top-flight Champions we are joint first with 20. :-)
18 Posted 30/05/2022 at 14:17:01
James, yep, agreed re top-flight champions, also possibly one of the longest undefeated runs in the First Division, must have been approx 4.5 years… although I guess most teams could claim the same.
19 Posted 30/05/2022 at 14:56:24
I was born in 1940 and I don't know what the circumstances were but I was born at home 87 Scarisbrick Road Norris Green Liverpool 11.
Became an Evertonian in 1952 after playing on Goodison for my school.
I was close to becoming a German resident as my Dad was asked after the war to stay on in Germany, I believe he was an engineer but spent most of his time driving a tank during the war.
I am the same as other supporters, when people ask me were I am from and I say Liverpool, they say oh you are a Liverpudlian and I say no I am an Evertonian.
20 Posted 30/05/2022 at 16:41:21
In 1914-15, the season Arsenal were relegated, there were in the First Division a number of derby games played. Everton vs Liverpool, Bradford City vs Bradford Park Avenue, Sheffield Wednesday vs Sheffield United, Aston Villa vs West Bromwich Albion, and Manchester City vs Manchester United. I suppose that Blackburn Rovers vs Burnley, as close neighbours, could be included, and Newcastle United vs Sunderland – despite being a fair distance away from each other and in different counties – could be added to the list.
Hi Ian ,
When we were somewhat younger, we used to annoy the Reds, by saying we held the First Division Trophy longer than any other club. 1913-1920 and 1939-1947.
Hi Bill ,
I fear that Covid-19 has put an end to my holidays abroad, and it used to aggravate me that, when people learned I was from Liverpool, they immediately assumed I was a Liverpudlian. The sad part is that, unless they were football followers, they didn't even know that there were two clubs in the city.
21 Posted 30/05/2022 at 17:04:07
22 Posted 30/05/2022 at 19:44:23
A friend of mine who is sadly no longer with us, rang me up one Saturday morning from a Pub in London, where he had moved down to in the early 80s. He was in the company of some Arsenal fans who claimed that Arsenal had never been relegated. I was able to tell him that they had suffered the drop in 1913.
I don't expect football fans to know everything about their club, but occasions such as championships and relegations are the basics. I have no doubt that there are some Evertonians who sing, "If you know your history" who fall into that category.
23 Posted 31/05/2022 at 01:11:05
On another note, I don't understand why we do not have European Super Cup finalists 1985 on our honours list. The fact that we could not fulfil the fixture was not of our doing.
You hear of Nottingham Forest making a welcome return to the top flight and people immediately reference the fact that they won the European Cup and are therefore a huge club, and likewise Aston Villa make capital from winning the trophy. It was a time when English clubs dominated, and the next club with a huge chance of being on the winners rostrum, on maybe more than one occasion, would have been our good selves.
After that season, we did not play in Europe for 10 years. Like all Evertonians of a certain age, I think of what we missed out on through no fault of our own every day. Sometimes several times a day. Some days, it never goes out of my head.
Going further back, I blame Adolf Hitler for stopping another one of our great sides from winning more trophies, with an experienced keeper, and a young spine of T G Jones, Joe Mercer and young Tommy Lawton, as you well know.
However, there was a far more important battle to be won then. Cheers, John, take care.
24 Posted 31/05/2022 at 15:28:19
The Football League was abandoned in the early stages of the 1939-40 season. Players suffered the loss of 7 years of their playing careers, and I was of the opinion that there would be examples of players also being affected by the First World war.
I have a book "Football League Players Records 1888 to1939, luckily enough, I managed to open it at a page that confirmed my suspicions it reads, George Richardson, born 12 December 1912, died 1968. Huddersfield Town 1933, Sheffield United 1935-1938, Hull City 1947 I'm certain that there are many others whose careers were shortened by both conflicts.
25 Posted 31/05/2022 at 17:06:44
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