Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday March 27 2011
There are a number of things we take for granted as Arsenal fans. We take the difficulty and bravery of moving to a new stadium as a fait accomplit. We take the fact that we are competitive in the title race with 9 games left, not only for granted, but as some kind of cataclysmic failure. We take our illustrious history as part of the club`s very DNA- which it is. But with the club now completely unrecognisable from its modest Woolwich origins, many of us probably aren`t aware of what a titanic struggle it was just to keep the club solvent in its earliest years. Most football clubs formed in the Darwinian jungle of Victorian football did not survive. That our club did is down to the boldness of the club`s forefathers. Ours has always been a club that has taken quantum leaps in the pursuit of excellence- leaps propelled on by the vision and forbearance of great men. This is the story of how Woolwich Arsenal stood toe to toe with the authorities to become Southern England`s first professional football club.
By 1891 Royal Arsenal had been in existence for five years and were becoming settled in the Serengeti of amateur football. The club aspired to improve itself and, as such, had moved from their cabbage patch on the Manor Ground and into the more salubrious surrounds of the Invicta Ground. The 1891 Factory Act liberated arms workers a little more, reducing the hours they were expected to work. This meant the club`s leading lights and players had more Saturday afternoons free to try and develop the club. (Trade unions did not really exist at this time and the Labour party had yet to fully form, but worker activities were becoming more commonplace). Jack Humble, one of Arsenal`s founding fathers, hardly needed to be given more headroom to promote worker initiatives being the fervent and active socialist he was. But Humble was becoming troubled by advances for Royal Arsenal`s players from professional Northern clubs that were able to lure the best players away with the twin promises of better financial terms and less arduous manual work.
Humble became frustrated at seeing carrots dangled in front of his best players. In the 1891 Annual General Meeting at Windsor Castle Music Hall, Humble forwarded his controversial motion. He balloted his members as to whether Royal Arsenal should go professional. The proposal was a lot more complex and daring than it sounds. No club south of Birmingham had shed its amateur status, largely because the London and Kent F.As took a very hostile stance towards clubs that turned professional, threatening them with expulsion from all competitions under their tutelage. Nevertheless, the proposal carried the majority it required to go through and Royal Arsenal were to turn professional. (It is suggested that the name change to Woolwich Arsenal in 1893 was with a nod towards professional status, as any suggested royal patronage would be looked upon as an affront to the Queen Victoria). However, Humble`s socialist leanings could not reconcile with a further motion from the floor at that AGM, that a limited liability company also be formed. "The club has been carried by working men and it is my ambition to see it carried on by them."
That`s not to say the proposal was universally supported and that a great debate did not rage that evening- it did. Many felt, not incorrectly, that the move was a threat to the powerbase of working men at the club. Association football was still very much a working class game in Britain at the time; rugby and cricket were the preserves of the middle and upper classes. The move to professionalism looked to forsake the dirt under football`s fingernails, which its supporters and participants regarded fiercely as a badge of honour. But Humble and his Directors were given over to pragmatism- they knew the club`s chances of surviving would be slim without making a grab for the vine of professionalism. However, nobody was under any illusions that this was a path flanked with bouquets. Humble knew that costs associated with the move would rise and that Royal Arsenal`s ability to play competitive matches would be compromised overnight.
Accounts of how it happened differ, but Royal Arsenal were predictably barred from entering any competition under the tutelage of the London or Kent F.As. The official potted history shows that the London F.A. held a meeting and voted to expel Royal Arsenal from Kent and London football with a vote of 76-67 amongst their committee. (The official minutes show that one panel member commended the club for being upfront about the amount it paid to players in travel expenses, whilst another praised the press for their anti-professional stance in covering the matter). However, some offer that Royal Arsenal actually pre empted the move and resigned from both associations once they made the decision to go professional. The Kent F.A. had earned the club`s opprobrium in the 1890-91 season as Royal Arsenal had been scheduled to play a Kent Cup match and an F.A. Cup match on the same day. The Kent F.A. refused the Reds` request to reschedule, forcing them to field a scratch side that lost their fixture 0-4.
Whether it was a case of chickens or eggs is a case for club historians more distinguished than I to debate, but the bottom line was that Arsenal no longer had a solid calendar of competitive fixtures, with only national F.A. Cup matches and friendlies to play. Most of these friendlies had to be played against Northern sides as the London F.A. took a dim view to anyone associating with the rebels from Woolwich. Royal Arsenal played a total of 57 friendlies in their wilderness season of 1891-92, 51 of which were played at the Invicta Ground. But the games were poorly attended without the attraction of the competitive element and the club were beginning to haemorrhage cash. Royal Arsenal also lost one of their forefathers in 1892, who became disillusioned with the move to professionalism. David Danskin, who had formed the club in coalition with Humble, did put himself up for election to the club`s committees in 1892, but failed. Rather like another Arsenal board member bearing the initials DD a century later, he was at loggerheads with the direction the club was taking and ended his official association with the side in 1892. Records show he started another works team, which folded in 1896- probably vindicating Humble`s reluctant view that football was evolving in such a way that amateurism would not be able to keep pace with. Danskin continued to attend home matches, but moved to Coventry to build and sell bicycles. He died in 1948 but was present at Wembley to see Arsenal land their first trophy in 1930.
By the time of the 1892-93 season, starved of competitive football, Royal Arsenal grew tired of routinely taking beatings from the professional Northern clubs. Following a 6-0 defeat to Sunderland played out in front of just 4,500, Humble and the board realised something needed to be done. The club needed income they were insulated from attaining in lieu of competitive football. The club were to make their boldest suggestion yet; to stand toe to toe with the authorities that forsook them and form a breakaway Southern Football League. This would give the club a regular, competitive schedule again. At a meeting in Fleet Street on 24th February, 1892 Royal Arsenal called a meeting for potential members. 12 sides were elected at the meeting (Chatham, Chiswick Park, Crouch End, Ilford, Luton Town, Marlow, Millwall Athletic, Old St. Marks, Reading, Swindon and West Herts- who would later become Watford). Spurs finished last in the poll and were not elected. (They gained only 1 vote, which was probably their own). However, the London F.A. were none too impressed with the idea, threatening to expel the 11 other sides that had agreed to this breakaway axis and they cowed to the pressure, leaving the idea floundering. Millwall Athletic did resurrect the idea a year later and successfully so.
The club were totally isolated and left desperate. At this stage it would have been easy for them to go the way of most Victorian clubs and drift into the abyss. A look at the itinerary of Southern breakaway clubs listed above shows you how many shuffled off into obscurity. But Humble had one last ace up his sleeve. Shirtless and desperate, Humble took one last turn on the pitch and toss and took the gamble to apply for membership of the Football League. The chances of the now named Woolwich Arsenal being granted entry were not good as they had never played league competition before and their performances on the pitch hardly spoke of the potential to do so. But a chain of events took place that gave Woolwich Arsenal light at the end of the tunnel. Whether they were anticipated as a canny move on the part of the club or whether they arrived unexpectedly by pure serendipity is not truthfully known. But the Football League decided to expand the Second Division for 1893-94 season, adding a further three clubs to its repertoire.
But further space was still to be freed up, Accrington had been relegated from the First Division and rejected their invitation to join the Second Division, whilst a grave fiscal crisis meant Bootle failed to win re-election. Both clubs would tumble out of existence before the turn of the century. (This Accrington side bears no relation to Accrington Stanley). This meant that, in real terms, five new places had opened up. Rotherham Town and Newcastle United were awarded places without a vote taking place, whilst Liverpool (18 votes), Woolwich Arsenal (13) and Middlesbrough Ironopolis (4) won through the democratic process. Loughborough Town and Doncaster Rovers missed out. Woolwich Arsenal had pulled off their amazing coup, but they were still a long way from the safety of the shore. For a start, there were escalating costs attached to becoming a Football League side. Landlord at the Invicta Ground, George Weaver, immediately doubled the rent on the lease. Weaver wanted to charge Arsenal £350 at a time when their contemporaries Sunderland were paying £45 to their more Corinthian land barren. (This phenomenon is nowadays known as 'London weighting,` friends).
The board offered Weaver £300 but he wouldn`t budge, the club took the decision to return to the Manor Ground, buying a short term lease. But a lot of maintenance work was required, with the old ground using ropes and wagons to perimeter the fans. This would not do for a Football League club and particularly one that was struggling to get crowds in even at the plusher Invicta Ground. The supporters mucked in over the summer of 1893, both in helping construct new stands, level the playing surface with their own boots and surrounding the terrace with galvanised iron fencing. But they also held fund raising events to generate capital for the club. Humble proffered the Woolwich Building Society in Plumstead, who took £60 out of their own till for the club to pay wages. Fans held an archery competition at the ground that July which fetched an improbable sum of £1,200. Humble had to give way to further pragmatic measures, reluctantly agreeing that a limited liability company be set up (Woolwich Arsenal and Athletic Company Limited). This raised 4,000 shares available for £1 each. Around 2,500 were sold, mostly to armaments workers.
The club, propped up by its supporters, was hanging on by its fingernails. But its perseverance soon paid off, again by fortune as much as fervour. The imminent Boer War meant that British Armament Policies called for a greater need for munitions workers. People poured into Woolwich from the North of England, which gave the club an even greater fan base to extract. For an F.A. Cup match against local rivals Millwall Athletic, 12,000 packed into the Manor Ground- a feat unthinkable as the team were slumping to a 6-0 friendly defeat to Sunderland in front of 4,500 less than a year earlier. In the summer of 1893, the Scottish F.A. changed their stance on professionalism and accepted it as part of the developing game- this caused the English F.A. to take a more liberal stance with it. Under these cooler conditions, in January 1894, a Southern League was successfully formed by 16 member clubs.
Professionalism began to rise in a stately fashion, it is quite astonishing to think a club as underwhelming, under supported and unattractive as Royal Arsenal could have been one of the leading lights in pushing through such reforms. It had taken Woolwich Arsenal just seven years from formation to go professional- a quite staggering pace. Particularly as the club had no on pitch success or fan base to speak of. But this sort of dynamism and pace was essential to survival in the earliest days of the game. Humble and his men had had to compromise a few of their political principles, but they had fought the good fight with the authorities and showed tremendous bravery and conviction to hoist the club above the parapet of amateurism. Without Humble`s steely resolve, Arsenal just would not exist today. The club`s triumph was based solely on his commercial foresight as the team were distinctly average. Parallels can be drawn with Arsenal`s recent move to a 60,000 capacity ground. That spirit of adventure and boldness to elevate the club to exciting new plateaus, whilst others around them remain mired in inertia prevails today. Arsenal is a club that looks to set itself apart and the first forgings of that spirit belong to Jack Humble and his men. We take the club`s existence for granted in a way that would not have been possible without their determination and intelligence. Just as 20 or 30 years from now, Arsenal fans not yet born will not fully realise the fortitude and imagination it took to move to a new stadium. Hell, why wait 20 or 30 years? We`re already taking it for granted now.LD.
Arsenal`s first ever game as a Football League club was a 2-2 draw with Newcastle United at the Manor Ground on September, 2nd 1893. The eleven professionals that lined up that day were;
1.WILLIAMS 2.POWELL 3.JEFFREY 4.DEVINE 5.BUIST 6.HOWAT 7.GEMMELL 8.HENDERSON 9.SHAW 10.ELLIOTT 11.ROOTH.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Sunday March 27 2011
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