In the name of progress, we continue to be reminded about the dangers of franchising in football, and we continue to be right to stay vigilant against attempts to parachute teams into the Football League or senior non-league football. The fundamental principle of the entire pyramid system in England is that, subject to concerns over the health and safety of large crowds, newly-formed clubs should start at the bottom and work their way up. The history of the game is, however, littered with attempts to do exactly this. Idle dreams of fame and riches mixed with rampant egotism means that there will always be people seeking a quick route to the top of English football, from Chelsea being formed to make use of the then-vacant Stamford Bridge right through to the enforced relocation of Wimbledon FC. Ultimately, it is down to the authorities to ensure that this doesn’t happen and it is the responsibility of all football supporters to campaign against it, wherever the issue seems likely to raise its ugly head. Perhaps the strangest case of attempting to franchise, however, came in the late 1920s when a stalwart of the amateur game decided that it was about time that those confounded professionals needed to be taught a lesson and tried to get his club – which never even played a single match – voted into the Football League. His club was called Argonauts FC.
RW (Dick) Stoley was a relic from the founding years of English football, when the amateurs ran the show. He had represented Cambridge University and the England, and had latterly been involved with the amateur club Ealing AFC, whose major achievement had been beating Norwich City on the way to an appearance in the FA Amateur Cup Final in 1904. Association football as we have come to understand it had been refined in the 1850s and 1860s in the gentlemens clubs of London and the refectories of England’s universities, and the pursuit of money was seen by these people as somewhat vulgar. Professionalism came to the game in the late 1870s, when English clubs started to mass import professional players from Scotland. The amateurs broke away, forming their own leagues to play “for the love of the game”, but, while the professionals would come to dominate the headlines, the amateur game remained popular with the public. The FA Amateur Cup frequently attracted crowds of over 30,000 in the 1920s (by the 1950s it would be selling all 100,000 tickets for finals at Wembley), and the suspicion remained that the best amateur clubs were more than a match for some of their professional counterparts. Stoley looked enviously north to Scotland, where Queens Park continued to play an active role in the Scottish Football League. They were the league’s only amateur club and were even protected from being relegated into the Scottish Second Division until 1922. Even then, they were promoted straight back and stayed in the Scottish First Division until after the Second World War. They played their home matches at Hampden Park, and had even made two appearances in the English FA Cup final during the 1870s.
Stoley’s plan was simple. He wished to create a club to represent the whole of the amateur game in England and get it voted into the Football League. With a nod to the classical Greek taught in private schools that is one of the trademarks of amateur football (other examples of this trait include the Isthmian, Athenian, Spartan and Hellenic Leagues, not to mention Corinthians FC), he chose to name his club Argonauts FC, for the mythical band of men that accompanied Jason in this quest to find the Golden Fleece. The club was to be based in London, and Stoley’s original plan was to base them at the White City Stadium, which had been the venue for the 1908 Olympic Games and would go on to be a temporary home on two occasions to Queens Park Rangers, as well as hosting a match during the 1966 World Cup finals. He made no secret of the fact that, despite being based in London, they would represent the whole of the amateur game, and Stoley wrote to every existing member of the Football League to notify them of his plan. The loudest objections came from Queens Park Rangers and Brentford, into whose territory Argonauts may be parachuted. Both clubs struggled for attendances at the time, and there was a real danger that a large amateur club could seriously affect their wellbeing. In response to this, Stoley amended his plans and confirmed that the new club would instead play its home matches at Wembley Stadium.
In spite of these teething problems, however, Argonauts had one very influential supporter. In the late 1920s, “Athletic News” remained an influential publication. Founded in Manchester in 1875, it was a sporting newspaper that focussed on amateur sport, and at its peak in 1919 had a circulation of 170,000 readers. It championed the cause of Argonauts, calling upon the FA to encourage amateur clubs to release their best players to join the cause. They reasoned that increased interest in amateur football could stem the tide of public schools from switching to rugby, something which had begun in earnest with the codification of rugby union in the 1880s. With such support, the club’s committee was confident that Argonauts could take the place of one of the ailing sides at the bottom of the Football League. When the end of the season came, the clubs met to decide who should stay in the league for the following season, and Argonauts did exceptionally well. Torquay United and Merthyr Town were re-elected, but Argonauts fell just eleven votes short of replacing Merthyr. If they’d taken six more votes from Merthyr, they’d have been in.
The club re-applied the following year, but their moment had come and gone. The Third Division South teams seeking re-election, Exeter City and Gillingham, were reasonably well established clubs both having a rare bad season, and Argonauts received just six votes. Considering this collapse in support, it is perhaps surprising that they applied again in 1930, still without ever having played a single match. On this final occasion, Merthyr Town were voted out of the League, but were replaced by Thames Association rather than Argonauts, who didn’t receive a single vote. Thames then went onto have a short, disastrous spell in the Football League. Playing at the vast, 120,000 capacity West Ham Stadium in Custom House, East London, they had joined the League at just the wrong time, as the most severe effects of the Great Depression kicked in. They struggled to make any impact in the League, and their sole place in the Football League’s history books is as the holders of the record for the lowest attendance ever at a Football League match, when just 469 people turned out to see them play Luton Town in December 1930*. After two seasons (finishing third from bottom and bottom of the Third Division South), Thames Association resigned their place.
Argonauts didn’t apply again after 1930, and their name is now used by an amateur club in Bristol. Dick Stoley did, however, get to see his dream of club football at Wembley Stadium take place. During the 1930/31 season, Ealing AFC, the club that he was involved with while experimenting with the Argonauts, played eight matches there. Where, though, did Stoley go wrong? The fact that Argonauts came within a dozen votes of getting a place in the Football League would seem to indicate that professional clubs were not averse to the concept of the amateurs being involved in their competition. To an extent, the state of civil war that had existed between the amateur and professional games at the turn of the century (which came to a head with the formation of the Amateur Football Alliance in 1907) had dissipated by the end of the 1920s, though it would take almost five further decades for FA to formally end the distinction between amateurs and professionals. The brief dispute with QPR and Brentford would appear to be a red herring, too. Stoley demonstrated a desire to appease these clubs by proposing to move his club to Wembley. It’s likely that the biggest single factor was the fact that Argonauts hadn’t played a single match. Had they demonstrated on the pitch that they were a strong enough team to join the Football League, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could have taken the half a dozen votes from Merthyr Town required to win a place.
The brief history of Argonauts FC throws up some fascinating “What if?” questions. Would they have been able to muster the interest the crowds required to make the hiring of Wembley Stadium financially viable? Would they have been able to attract all of the best amateur players of the time and, if they had, how successful might have they have been? After all, the amateur game continued to be a crowd puller for a further thirty years. A successful Argonauts FC in the Football League might have had a significant effect on the perception of amateur football in England. The future development of the whole of football in England might have been quite different. Their failure to persuade the aldermen of the Football League almost eighty years ago, however, means that these questions remain unanswered and always will do now.