As those of you that have been keeping up to date with this series will already be aware, there was probably no golden age for football in England when the game was completely free of corruption and malign influence. We have already looked at the controversial promotion of Arsenal into Division One of the Football League in 1919, but that year also saw the expulsion of a club that had been members of the League since a year after its formation in 1904. The tale of Leeds City AFC would come to be regarded as one of the most notable cases of corruption within the game for many years, and this was a story of circumstance that involved a man that would go on to become one of the most important managers in the history of the world game.
Football in the city had started in 1885 with the formation of Leeds FC, but this club struggled to establish itself and folded shortly afterwards. After a couple of other attempts to form a club in the city, in 1904 Leeds City AFC was formed, playing its home matches at Elland Road – which had been used for football matches since 1898 – and in 1905, as the Football League sought to expand into other areas – the club joined the Football League, finishing in sixth place in Division Two in its first season. In 1912, having finished the previous season in second from bottom place in the table, the club appointed one Herbert Chapman as its manager. Chapman managed to turn the fortunes of the club around, taking it to sixth place in the table the following season and then to a highest ever league position of fourth place in 1914. The outbreak of war curtailed the Football League programme – although the Football League did get to the end of the 1914/15 season – but it would be the goings-on at Elland Road during and immediately after war that would pique the interest of the Football Association and the Football League.
Chapman had signed the defender Charlie Copeland in 1912 and the player had made his debut for the club in November of that year and it would be the breakdown of negotiations between this player and the club that would start the chain of events that would prove to be a decisive to the demise of the club. The seeds of what would ultimately kill Leeds City came in 1916, though, when Chapman quit his job with the club to take over a managerial position at the new Barnbow munitions factory on the outskirts of the city. He recommended his assistant, George Cripps, to take over the administrative running of the club but this was not a popular decision with the players. Chairman Joseph Connor became extremely unhappy with the way in which Cripps was managing the clubs books and the club fell into financial difficulties. Cripps was relieved of his accounting duties but was kept on at the club to manage the team.
Connor notified the Football League of the financial problems that had been brought about by Cripps’ book-keeping, but the club was urged to continue by the League’s John McKenna. Meanwhile, though, he remained at the club in spite of the fact his relationship with Connor had deteriorated and he was so unpopular with the team that they threatened to strike before one away match unless he traveled separately to the team. At the end of the war, Chapman returned to the club and was reinstated into his position as manager of the club with Cripps being demoted back to work as his assistant. Cripps was furious with this, and contacted his solicitor, one James Bromley (a former director of the club), with regard to suing the club for wrongful dismissal. Cripps’ papers relating to his period in charge of the administration of the clubs finance were handed over to Connor in January 1919 as part of a deal that saw the former manager receive £55 in settlement of his claim.
None of this might have mattered very much had it not been for Charlie Copeland. Copeland had been at Elland Road for seven years but had barely played one hundred games for the first team in this time. At the end of the war, the club offered him a contract worth £3 10s per week, but Copeland stated that unless the club paid him £6 per week, he would blow the whistle on illegal payments that the club had been making to players during the war. Copeland, however, was being represented by James Bromley, the same solicitor that had represented George Cripps in his dealings with the club over severance. The club was outraged. Cripps had agreed complete confidentiality over the paperwork that he had returned to the club, and the club assumed that he had somehow been behind Copeland’s bold move.
The player was released on a free transfer to Coventry City, but in July 1919 he went through with his threat and informed the FA and the Football League. With the new season, the two bodies had little choice but to investigate and at the first meeting of the inquiry on the 26th of September 1919 the club was ordered to produce its books for examination. The club’s solicitor, Alderman Clarke, told the inquiry that he was not in a position to be able to and the club was given until the 6th of October to produce them or face the consequences. The deadline came and went, and on the 13th of October 1919 Leeds City FC was expelled from the Football League and wound up. The playing staff was sold at an auction at the Metropole Hotel in Leeds a month later, with sixteen players being sold for £9,250 to nine different clubs. Five people were banned for life from involvement in football including chairman Joseph Connor and – somewhat bizarrely, since he wasn’t even at the club while George Cripps was keeping its books – Herbert Chapman, although Chapman did successfully appeal his sentence.
The reasons why the club didn’t hand over the books when requested have never been satisfactorily explained. It has been suggested that Alderman Clarke had never checked that the paperwork received from Cripps was complete and that the club may – honorably but perhaps misguidedly – have been protecting the players that had been receiving the illegal payments. On the parts of the FA and the Football League, it was commonly assumed that Leeds’ expulsion had come about because of their refusal to hand the books over at a time when anything that utter deference to the authorities was a cardinal sin that couldn’t be forgiven. An alternative theory, however, has been suggested. The summer of 1919 had seen the Football League begin the expansion that would end with the league having four divisions. One club – Port Vale – had resigned their Football League place in 1907 but were seeking a return and had only missed out on a League place by one vote that summer. The Lord Mayor of Leeds, Joseph Henry, stated that he felt that Vale had placed undue pressure on the inquiry to force the club out, and certainly when Leeds City were expelled Port Vale were invited into the League, taking over City’s results so far that season.
As soon as the 31st of October 1919, a new club, Leeds United, had taken over the fixture of the Leeds City reserve team in the Midland League, but this new club almost led to the effective extinction of another. Shortly after its formation, the club was approached by J. Hilton Crowther, the chairman of the then financially troubled Huddersfield Town, with a view to merging the two clubs to play under the Leeds United name at Elland Road. A small protest by supporters at Huddersfield’s next game led to a public meeting at which supporters were given until the 8th of December to raise £25,000 – an astronomical sum at the time – to buy the club. They failed to achieve this but received an extension to New Years Eve to find the money. This proposal eventually fell through, but Crowther did end up as the chairman of Leeds United and this new club was elected to enter the Football League on the 31st of May 1920.
As with so many of these stories, retelling it asks as many questions as it answers. What was in this paperwork which meant that Alderman Clarke wouldn’t – or couldn’t – release it to the FA and the Football League? Might the authorities really have been swayed by a club that was desperate to get back into the Football League itself? No matter what the truth of it all was, this story certainly shines a further light on a football world that was far more corrupt than the history books would perhaps like us to believe it to be. It might well be that everybody concerned in it was only bothered with looking after their own backs. It wouldn’t, as we will find out later in this series, the last time that a football club from this city would be involved in murky financial dealings.
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