The formative years of professional football in England were a turbulent time, a period in which the rules – both written and unwritten – which underpin our notions of how a football club should be formed and what its reasonable constituency should be were effectively non-existent. Although football clubs in the Midlands and the North of the country tended to follow very similar lines in their formation, this was not the case in the capital city, London.
There were no clubs from London amongst the original twelve that formed the Football League in 1888 and the non-league game – both in the forms of the amateur Isthmian League and the then-professional Southern League contained names that would be familar to many these days.
One figure would come to dominate football in London during its formative years, a man who was involved in the histories of two clubs but ended up banned for life from further involvement in the game by the Football Association: Sir Henry Norris. Norris, originally an estate agent and property developer, attempted a merger of two of London’s clubs which was blocked by the Football Association, moved a club from South London to the north of the city and played a hugely sgnificant role in the creation of a dynasty that still exists to this day. Yet he would end up in football’s equivalent of exile with a libel case against a national newspaper which ended in defeat. So how did all of this come to pass, and what are the truths and myths of one of the game’s more controversial founding fathers.
The northern roots of the Football League started to become a problem for the league as it started to expand at the end of the nineteenth century. It was becoming apparent that this new leisure craze of watching football was here to stay, but the biggest population centre in the country was under-represented at the top level of the professional game. He first became in football with Fulham at the turn of the century and it was here that signs of what were to come became apparent. At this time, the Southern League promotion places were decided through what were called “test matches” (that we would call play-offs), and in 1903 Fulham were beaten 7-2 by Brentford in the test match for promotion to the First Division of the league. Brentford, then, should have been promoted but following an intervention by Norris and a vote – that had to be retaken, such was the level of protest at what was going on – Fulham were promoted instead.
Two years later, Norris was offered the opportunity to buy the lease for Stamford Bridge, an athletics stadium that had been opened in 1877. Two brothers, Gus and Joseph Mears, bought the lease in 1904 and wished to use the stadium for top-level football. They offered it to Norris, but he baulked at paying the £1,500 per year that they wanted and turned it down. The Mears brothers instead decided to form their own club, Chelsea FC, to play there and this club was formed in 1905, being elected immediately into the Football League. Norris protested against this, but to no avail. Fulham themselves followed Chelsea into the Football League two years later.
By 1910, however, Norris’ attentions were beginning to turn elsewhere. Woolwich Arsenal had been formed in 1886 as Dial Square FC by workers at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory. They had moved to the Manor Ground in Plumstead in 1893 to coincide with their election into the Football League, but found life there to be difficult, with crowds particularly falling after the formation of Chelsea in 1905. By the end of that decade, the club faced bankruptcy but it was bailed out and rescued by Sir Henry Norris. Norris’ reasons for doing so were hardly altruistic, though. He attempted to merge Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham, but this was blocked by the Football League. Instead, he relinquished his position at Fulham and turned his attention to moving his new club to a new stadium.
A site identified was in North London, and Arsenal moved to Highbury in 1913. The outbreak of war the following year didn’t stop the football programme, and the Football League lasted a full season before suspending. When the war came to an end and life returned to something approaching normal in 1918, the time was right for further expansion of the Football League, and part of the plans was for the First Division to be expanded from twenty to twenty-two clubs for the start of the 1919/20 season. But how was this to be decided? The last pre-war season had ended with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in the bottom two positions in the table, and with Derby County and Preston North End in the top two places in Division Two. It was obvious that Derby and Preston should be promoted, but what to do about those other two places?
Barnsley and Wolverhampton Wanderers had finshed in third and fourth places in the Second Division respectively, while Arsenal had finished in fifth place. A meeting was called to decide how to resolve all of this. It had already been decided that Chelsea would not be relegated (on account of the match that consigned Chelsea to second from bottom place – a 2-0 win for Manchester United against Liverpool – having been fixed, a story that ended in seven players being banned for life), which left one place in the newly-expanded division, so the question was – or probably should have been – one of should Tottenham Hotspur be spared relegation or should Barnsley replace them. What specifically happened next is shrouded in mystery. It is known that Norris requested a closed meeting with the decision-makers, but what was said in that closed meeting is not known. What we know for certain is that by the end of that meeting, Arsenal were promoted and Tottenham Hotspur were relegated.
There seem two likely explanations for what happened in this meeting to provoke the outcome that it did. If there is one thing that we know for certain about football in England during this era it should be that it was far from corinthian in its spirit. We also know that an impassioned speech by the chairman of the Football League and the owner of Liverpool, John McKenna, had recommended that Arsenal be promoted on the somewhat spurious grounds – especially spurious, when we consider that Wolverhampton Wanderers had finished one place above Arsenal in 1915 and were founder members of the Football League – that they had been members of the Football League for longer than Spurs. But was this speech a matter of bribery or blackmail? Liverpool’s implication in the football betting scandal of 1915 makes it perfectly possible that Norris had plenty more dirt on the way that the game was being administered at the time and makes this the more likely explanation for what happened than the mere passing of a brown envelope with bank notes in it.
The outcome was unjust and did little to resolve the perception of corruption within the game at the time. Whilst players were banned for life for the 1915 match-fixing scandal, neither Manchester United or Liverpool were punished to the extent that they involved for what happened. Barnsley and Wolverhampton Wanderers missed out on promotion that either of them had reasonable cause to argue for, while Spurs found themselves relegated – a relegation that they deserved on the basis of their performance in 1915 but still left a sour taste in the mouth because of the way in which it was administered. Arsenal, as we all know, have never been relegated again since then, a fact which has perhaps come to accentuate the importance of the events of the summer of 1919.
Although Norris had won this battle, though, such confrontations with other clubs and the authorities had made Norris many very important enemies within the game and it was perhaps this that brought about his downfall. The manager of the club during this period was Leslie Knighton, a man who had to bear the brunt of the idiosyncrasies of his club’s owner. One of Norris’ more eccentric policies was that Arsenal were no allowed to sign any player under 5’8″ tall and, in an example of Norris’ autocracy, when Knighton signed the 5’0″ tall Hugh Moffatt from Workington in 1923, Norris forced the manager to sell the player to Luton Town before he had played a single game for the club. In 1925, though, Knighton was sacked and replaced by Herbert Chapman and Knighton later alleged that Norris had made this decision to avoid paying the manager the proceeds of a benefit match that was due for him. This decision was later described by Norris as the only decision that he regretted having made.
Two years later, however, his career began to unravel. The Daily Mail reported that Norris had made secret payments to Sunderland’s Charlie Buchan as an incentive to join Arsenal and, although this was probably widespread at the time as clubs sought to circumvent the strict rules in place regarding payments to players, this may have been as much of an excuse as they were looking for to look into his affairs in greater detail. The subsequent investigation found considerable irregularities in his financial dealings, including personal use of Arsenal’s expense account and keeping the proceeds of the sale of the club’s bus for himself. Norris made the mistake of suing both the Mail and the FA for libel, but in February 1929 the Lord Chief Justice found in the FAs favour and Norris was banned for life from football. He died from a heart attack in August 1934 with Herbert Chapman, who Norris had brought to the club, having made Arsenal one of the biggest clubs in the country.
The relationships and rivalies between football clubs in London that we now consider perpetual would have been radically different had it not been for the interventions of Henry Norris. In a parallel universe somewhere, Chelsea FC doesn’t exist and Fulham are preparing for tomorrow night’s Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. The big North London derby is between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United, or perhaps another North London club – a non-league club such as Hendon, or a newly-formed club whose name will forever be a mystery – was formed to fill the void between Seven Sisters Road and the centre of the city. Perhaps Woolwich Arsenal would still be struggling along in Plumstead, a lower division club with a tiny support. We’ll never know. Perhaps, just perhaps, had John McKenna not acquiesced to Norris, something approaching the full truth about corruption in the game game in the years immediately before the First World War might have come out, and the ramifications of that are possibly incalculable.
Arsenal supporters have a debt of gratitude towards Henry Norris that is not much to do with the above. One of the reasons that he appears so low on this list is that he was very much a product of an age that was considerably more corrupt than most would ever care to admit. The other significant reason for this is that so much time has passed and so much secrecy was involved. It is almost impossible to prove exactly what did go on at the meeting that promoted Arsenal into the First Division in 1919. It is also worth bearing in mind that Norris did, for those that consider him to have been corrupt, get a comeuppance eventually. Ultimately, for better or for worse, the landscape of football in London today would be very different had he opted not to get involved with it in the first place.
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