Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday June 22 2009
Last week we Iooked at the exact beginnings of the club, as a group of munitions workers in Kent decided to begin a football club to occupy their leisure time. This week, I will be looking into the next phase of Arsenal Football Club`s evolution. This would be the boldest and most audacious move in the history of our club- it is highly doubtful anything the club does in the rest of its natural life will compare to the scandal and determination of Henry Norris` brainchild. With the club nowadays considered the byword for prudent self sustaining management, it is impossible to imagine a more risky venture. It`s also impossible to imagine one that has enjoyed quite as much long term success.
Woolwich Arsenal scrapped and struggled their way through into the early twentieth century- both on and off the pitch. An unremarkable team did not so much flirt with mediocrity as indulge it in wedlock. The Gunners were cursed by location, their boggy, flooded and almost entirely inaccessible Manor Ground enjoyed an average gate of around 10,000, whilst London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur attracted four times that amount. The Manor Ground was set in the South East London backwater of Woolwich, with poor local transport links meaning automobile traffic was too ungodly to contemplate. Those hardy souls that did make it to the match were often treated to a quagmire of a pitch, playing host to poor football, whilst the pervading smell was of the sewer pipe that ran around the back of the stadium. Arsenal left the Manor Ground once in 1897 for the nearby Invicta Ground, but the rent was too great for the club`s shrinking coffers and they were forced to move back to their quagmire again. The prevailing feeling from the club`s board towards the Manor Ground was, as Otis Redding would sing some half a century later, 'I Can`t Turn You Loose.`
Meanwhile, an upwardly mobile, self made property entrepreneur named Henry Norris was looking to increase his social standing by buying a football club. Already a director at Fulham Football Club, having also served as Mayor of Fulham, Norris` eye turned to the popular, successful and sexy Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. However, always a man for the opportune, Norris surprisingly plumped to invest in the ailing Woolwich Arsenal. Norris saw in Woolwich Arsenal a club that was desperate and therefore more wilfully manipulated to swerve to his charm and vision. Norris` original plan was to merge Arsenal and Fulham and create a super club at Craven Cottage, but the F.A. opposed the merger and insisted Norris could only be fiscally involved with one football club. It would be the only time anyone would successfully get in his way as his plans took shape.
Norris had made his fortune in South West London, having left school at 14 to become an estate agent, Norris quickly learned the intricacies of the property market and eventually, his company, Allen & Norris Property, would become responsible for one of the biggest regeneration projects the city of London has ever seen, transforming the area from a quiet semi rural backwater into the thriving bed of aristocracy we see today. Norris was something of a socialite too, he included wine societies, dining clubs and vintage car rallies amongst his plethora of leisure time activities. Multiplied by the fact that Norris was a Freemason, a prominent member of the Tory party, a highly involved member of his local parish, a property tycoon who served as Mayor of Fulham and you have a man with a lot of friends in high places. He would use the full arsenal of his contacts diary to execute the Gunners` next daring plan. Henry was reputed to be a physically frightening man, standing at well over six feet tall, with bowler hat, starched shirt and a monocle that distorted his gaze. He would often bawl at terrifying volumes in board meetings, fixing an intense stare that would hypnotise and intimidate his subjects. Yet he was also a keen socialite who had served his apprenticeship sweet talking prospective clients as an estate agent. Norris was the perfectly symbiotic mix of charm and intimidation, together with his bulging diary and address book, he was equipped for the biggest act of chicanery in Arsenal`s history when Arsenal were relegated in 1913.
A poor football team, at a shambles of a stadium watched by paltry crowds. Norris had had enough. He took out an advert in the Kentish Gazette announcing that Woolwich Arsenal would be moving to North London. He argued that the club`s poor crowds left him with little choice but to relocate the club to a larger catchment area that was more accessible by public transport in order to get more bums on seats (or hobnailed boots on terracing as it were). In North London, Norris saw potential in the areas of Finsbury Park, Islington, Hackney and Holborn to tap into a new fan base and revive the club`s sagging fortunes. Through his contacts in the church, he had indentified six acres of land at St. John`s College of Divinity on Avenell Road in Highbury, whilst Woolwich based Arsenal fans raged at their Chairman "gambling away the club`s soul" as one indignant correspondent in the Kentish Gazette put it. The local populace, upon whose back the club had been built, were now being eschewed in the grand manner, Norris simply argued the people of Woolwich had been too apathetic to sustain a football club to any degree and Woolwich Arsenal in its contemporary guise was doomed to fail sportingly and fiscally. But the opposition from the club`s own supporters was small change compared to what awaited Norris. Literally.
Tottenham Hotspur, Clapton Orient and Chelsea all lobbied the Football Association to protest the move and the F.A. dutifully set up an enquiry. But coincidentally, the committee investigating the move was backed with some of Norris` old buddies. Having negotiated Fulham`s meteoric rise up the divisions in the early twentieth century, he did not find familiar faces and old acquaintances hard to come by. The F.A. ruled the move legitimate and told the aforementioned clubs they had no right to interfere. The Tottenham Herald, fearing the competition of another local football club, took out an advert pleading with residents, "not to go and support the Woolwich interlopers. They do not belong here." But Norris had some very good friends in the media and this visceral opposition soon disappeared from print and the most outspoken of journalists mysteriously found their articles were no longer published- as was the case for a journalist named Henry Waller. Norris also faced opposition from the local residents of Highbury who feared the big crowds and the threat of mass alcohol consumption and blasphemy a football crowd would likely bring. Norris would again hide the iron fist inside the velvet glove; he talked to local residents about the business opportunities a football crowd would bring with a silvery tongue, whilst those that took to the streets in protest found themselves the victims of draconian policing. That one of Norris` good friends in the Freemasons included the Police Constable for Islington was surely pure coincidence. Through his days in the property development business, Norris had extensive experience of dealing with NIMBYs; first he talked around the local businesses and then simply starved the residents of publicity, suffocating their futile attempts to engage in debate. Sir Henry Norris was no proprietor of foot in the door tactics; he was more interested in breaking the lock and taking the lot.
Norris had one final opponent to overcome, the local church, who did not take kindly to the ungodly activity of football taking place on their premises at the College of Divinity. Norris found that a cheque for £20,000 often averts a crisis of fate and, in typical Norris style; it was his conveniently placed friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who signed the deeds for Norris to rent the property. He did so on the condition that no games be played on holy days and intoxicating liquors not be sold in the stadium walls. Norris, ever the upwardly mobile man of honour kept his word. For precisely one season. However, Sir Henry knew fear and an ivory chequebook would not be the only tools necessary to make the move work, to borrow an old military phrase, he would need to win the hearts and the minds of the people. Norris asked players to begin showing their faces at local functions and drinking in the local establishments in order to sew the seeds of kinship and forge a bond with within the local community. When the stadium came to be erected, Norris did not sublet contracts out to big central London businesses, he advertised for local tradesmen and labourers in order to instil a sense of communal pride in the new stadium.
Once the deeds had been signed and Norris had obtained all of the necessary permissions to build the ground in March 1913, he knew he had only six months to build a stadium in time for the beginning of the 1913-14 season. Eat your heart out Wembley Stadium! Norris would once more reach for the contacts book when searching for an architect. Archibald Leitch had built Manchester United's Old Trafford, the only stadium in England with a perimeter retaining wall. Norris just happened to be chummy with fellow vintage car enthusiast, James Whiting, Mayor of Manchester and contact was made. Ironically given Arsenal`s current incarnation, Leitch spent a good deal of time in France and was inspired by their grandiose, art deco buildings and was minded to recreate that sense of Gaelic je ne sais quoi in the now famous Marble Halls and in the architecture that would become synonymous with Highbury for generations. Norris concocted a further act of sycophancy with locals as he asked readers of the Islington Gazette to suggest names for the new arena that was about to adorn their doorstep. Despite a plethora of suggestions, Norris liked his own idea best and 'Highbury Stadium` was born. But the construction was beset with difficulties as tradesmen had only six months to make Leitch`s design reality. The Laundry End (later the North Bank) stood about six feet higher than the College End, so workers had to flatten the pitch out using clay and their own boots. A high brick retaining wall around the back of the College End earned the consternation of the council, yet their concerns mysteriously disappeared without explanation with the wall intact. Years later, Leitch`s assistant architect A.G. Kearney would tell the Arsenal programme that the council "didn`t know the difference between a retaining wall and a retaining fee." Norris made sure all of the workers were well looked after, food and travel expenses were provided for them as he knew worker morale would aid the immense productivity he would need to build a stadium in six months.
On the morning of the first ever match at the stadium against Leicester Fosse, the ground had no running water, rubble ridden dressing rooms and no medical equipment. Yet the necessary work was completed at the eleventh hour and the game was given the go ahead. Norris took all of the construction workers to a plush lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant in recognition of their efforts. 20,000 people paid the 6pence entry fee to watch Arsenal (now bereft of the prefix 'Woolwich`) defeat Leicester Fosse 2-1. Norris would later take out an advert in the local press thanking all of those who attended. With the rent for the land three times higher than at Stamford Bridge and twice as high as at White Hart Lane, Norris knew he would need to retain these sort of numbers coming through the turnstiles to keep the club solvent and so continued to wage his charm offensive. But for now he had almost single handedly manufactured one of the most infamous hostile takeovers English football had ever seen as Arsenal became England`s first franchise team. As a result of his vision, charm, determination, intimidation, contacts book and chequebook, Norris lay down the groundwork for the football club we know today. One can only speculate, but it is highly unlikely Woolwich Arsenal would have existed as anything other than a distinctly unglamorous side meandering through the lower leagues, competing for support with Charlton Athletic had they stayed in South London. 93 years after Norris` master plan had come to fruition, Highbury closed its doors for the final time with the Gunners a club and a brand of global significance, regulars on the lips of the continent`s elite, and moving to a plush new digs just a mile away. The nomads would be on the move again to a luxury penthouse. It simply would not have been possible had Norris not upped sticks and moved us out of our Woolwich caravan park back in 1913.LD.
Date:Monday June 22 2009
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