100 years ago on 24th April was Arsenal’s final league game outside of the top flight in English football.
So far we are the only team in the country to reach such a milestone. Our 88 consecutive seasons in the top flight is also a record (league was suspended during the two World Wars).
Despite enjoying their best game of the season on the final day Arsenal finished the 1914/15 campaign 5th in the Second Division. Returning from the war, the club, which had invested heavily in a new stadium and new players to win promotion, would not be in the First Division.
Yet, controversially, Arsenal haven’t played outside of the top flight in England since.
La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and so on all came into being less than 100 years ago. Unified leagues across Europe generally replaced regional divisions, not a single football league for the entire country.
Arsenal, therefore, become the first club in the history of the game to complete a century without playing a game outside of the top national league.
But it never should have happened.
Introducing Sir Henry Norris.
Formerly chairman of Fulham (and still was when he started to take control of Arsenal – he once planned to merge the clubs) Henry Norris was a man with a huge reputation. An intellectual, powerful and rich autocrat, Arsenal would ultimately make unfair gains by virtue of his influence.
Not to mention his intimidating nature. Leslie Knighton, Arsenal manager 1919-1925 when Norris was chairman, said in his autobiography:
“I soon found out that everyone was afraid of Sir Henry. And no wonder! I have never met his equal for logic, invective and ruthlessness against all who opposed him.”
After being undermined and embarrassed in meetings, “Sir Henry would ask for (Knighton’s) advice, smile, wheedle and (Knighton) was falling over (himself) to help him again.
“He did it with everyone. Those board meetings took years off my life.”
It was the influence of Norris that managed to win Fulham election to the Football League after a rapid rise through unprofessional divisions, and next – once he had to choose which club to continue with – he had big plans for The Arsenal.
A self-made Londoner, Norris set out to make sure a London club could eventually compete for the top honours in football, which were always won by the bigger clubs further north.
1910 saw Norris take over at Woolwich Arsenal, and his plan to amalgamate Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham was rejected by the league. Still in the First Division he chose to pursue his mission with Woolwich Arsenal alone. But we weren’t there for long.
Three wins – a record low in English football – in the 1912/13 season saw the club, just about to move north of the river, finish bottom of Division One. Despite being equalled (while the points system still awarded two for a win) no team ever managed fewer than the 18 points won by Woolwich Arsenal that season.
By the end of the season the club was, reportedly, left with a mere £19 in the bank. In order to give the club a chance of surviving, Norris planned to move us, and the plot for Highbury was found.
A 21-year lease was taken out on the ground for a monumental £20,000 while Norris himself spent £80,000 on the construction of the stadium over the summer of 1913. By September of the same year he had somehow managed to find another £125,000 to put into the club. Arsenal were surely on the way back up.
The 1913/14 season saw Arsenal miss out on promotion by goal average, despite having the same number of points as second-placed Bradford Park Avenue.
Despite signing a number of players across the two inaugural years at Highbury – including Henry King – only a fifth place finish was managed in the 1914/15 season which, due to the war, was the last for a number of years. King managed a then club record 29 goals in his only season with Arsenal but it wasn’t enough for promotion before the Football League was put on pause during The Great War.
When professional football resumed in 1919 Arsenal were, well, somehow in the top flight again.
Sir Henry Norris is without doubt the man to thank/blame/arouse suspicion. It appears that, on the face of it, he literally managed to talk Arsenal back into the First Division.
The Football League had decided, prior to the AGM before the 1919/20 campaign, that the number of teams in First Division would now be 22, rather than the 20 it previously had been.
In the eight months between the war ending and the season beginning Norris, knighted in 1917 and elected as an MP in 1918, canvassed major clubs and his contacts in the game to allow Arsenal to take one of the extra places up for grabs.
When the league had increased before, the relegated teams from the previous season were simply re-elected back to the top-flight. London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham had finished 19th and 20th respectively at the end of 1914/15.
League President and Liverpool owner, John McKenna, maintained that Chelsea should be re-elected (there was good reason as Chelsea would have finished 18th had the result of a game between Manchester United and Liverpool not been fixed) but conducted a separate vote on which club should take the the 22nd space.
The top two sides from the previous Division Two season, Derby and Preston, were automatically promoted. So how, exactly, did fifth-placed Arsenal get the final place?
McKenna, lobbying for his friend Norris, said that The Arsenal had given great service to the Football League and, by virtue of longevity, were more deserving than Spurs. We had been in the Football League for 15 years longer than the Middlesex club, but that’s hardly any grounds for promoting/relegating teams.
Wolves, who had finished above Arsenal in fourth place in the Second Division, had been in the Football League even longer than we had.
On the spot, the Spurs chairman had no counterargument. 18 of the 41 members voted in favour of promoting Arsenal to the First Division. A comfortable margin of victory, since Spurs only received eight votes.
The way in which we gained our place back in the First Division is incredibly suspicious.
Since then the club has hardly looked back. After some struggles and near misses in the mid-1920s Herbert Chapman revolutionised Arsenal. His work was continued by George Allison, and we soon became one of the biggest and most successful teams in England.
100 years since we last played outside of the top flight is an incredible achievement.
In 100 years we have only finished outside of the top ten in English football on 16 occasions. Our 13 League titles is likely to eventually outstrip our number of seasons outside of the top 10 in the country.
Sir Henry Norris undoubtedly did something suspicious, but he did a hell of a lot for Arsenal. The man who talked us into the First Division, the man who appointed Herbert Chapman (though he later regretted that decision), Henry Norris’s leadership of the club put us on the road to success.
No other club in world football has gone an entire century without playing the game in anything but the elite national league.
The way we actually got back into the First Division may not quite be the classy way we like to think of The Arsenal, though nobody is without a tainted history.
Ours is a century back, and I can live with that.