Date: 22nd April 2011 at 6:39pm
Written by:

It`s a story that has had football`s historians speculating and researching for generations, it has provided claims and counter claims. It`s a story of dusty old boardrooms, political glad-handing and whispers behind palms. It is also a tale that has fiercely divided the Northern point of England`s capital city for close to a century and cemented one of professional football`s most keenly felt rivalries. It is not by virtue of geography alone that one Kent based and one Middlesex based football club came to despise one another. This is the story of how Arsenal were promoted to England`s top flight in 1919- a position they have never relinquished.

Following the conclusion of the Great War in 1918, the Football League decided to expand the First and Second Divisions (there was no Third Division until 1958) from 20 clubs a piece to 22. The proposal was unanimously supported by clubs who wanted more fixtures as more fixtures created greater revenue. Always a desirable outcome (see friendlies, international for modern day proof), but particularly as football clubs had been deprived any sort of income whilst competitive matches were suspended between 1915-18. However, the Football League and its participating members realised this would be an arduous process. New clubs always had to be voted in by secret ballot of all league members and the last time the league had been expanded in 1905, there broke out heated negotiations. The Football League had originally been the sole preserve of Northern and Midlands sides until Woolwich Arsenal belligerently broke in in 1894.

But traditionally, the more Northern sides had block voted to keep London and Southern sides out of the division. To illustrate this point, Tottenham won the Southern League and the F.A. Cup in 1901, but still could not surmount the democratic process and become elected as a professional league club. So an uneasy kind of “hot peace” had co existed either side of the Midlands divide in the early part of the century. League expansion would inevitably lead to more political bun fighting and a reigniting of old grudges. Football League expansion had always been a matter of secret ballot vote in football`s early years, though league position was seen as a big part in that process. A club`s potential to be an attractive enterprise for the league obviously was largely contingent on how good they were. But other factors came into play- something Arsenal Chairman Henry Norris knew all too well.

In the last season of League Football prior to the First World War, Tottenham Hotspur had finished bottom of the First Division, whilst Chelsea finished second bottom- putting them both in the relegation spots. Meanwhile, Derby County and Preston North End had occupied the top two slots in the Second Division. On the face of it, with their greater presence for a blocking vote, one would have expected the Northern majority to have simply voted Derby and Preston into the Division and would have been happy for Spurs and Chelsea to disappear. Tottenham and Chelsea however, argued fiercely for their interests. For instance, Tottenham insisted that the ballot should be an open one, an unprecedented step for the Football League at the time. (Of course nobody else agreed to this, so it didn`t happen).

However, Chelsea alleged that Manchester United and Liverpool had been involved in match fixing. United finished one point ahead of Chelsea in the relegation places and a scandal was uncovered that United had bribed Liverpool to lose a crucial end of season encounter to them to ensure their safety from relegation. The practise of match fixing was widespread in these times and the Football League were well aware of it. But they fretted that if such allegations were to be made public, it would hurt the commercial viability of the sport. Chelsea ventured that both Liverpool and Manchester United be thrown out of the league. Arsenal chairman Norris- whose side had finished 6th in the Second Division, chimed in with his concurrence. Clearly, this was not a proposal that Liverpool, Manchester United or the Football League would entertain for their own reasons. It looked as though Civil War was on the cards, with the Southern and Midlands sides breaking away from the Football League. This proposal was much more dangerous to the Football League than it was when Arsenal first floated the idea in 1893, as the Southern League had become much more prosperous.

To hush the various warring factions, the League offered a compromise by rearranging promotion for two clubs for Division 1 and three for Division 2. (Glossop North End had opted out of the league, hence the extra spot). Chelsea were quietly re-elected to Division 1 as an acknowledgment that they had suffered from bribery and corruption. Tottenham were not re elected as the fixed match had no bearing on their survival. Derby County and Preston North End were elected unanimously. However, Norris was not satisfied with this arrangement, offering, not unreasonably, that the league was condoning bribery and corruption by refusing to punish Liverpool and Manchester United. As a Member of Parliament, a Freemason and a Knight of the realm, Norris threatened to use his significant political power to force action against the Football League and expose their shenanigans. Norris motioned that Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United all be kicked out of the First Division. Though the facade was noble on Norris` part, self interest was at heart. He had ploughed £175,000 of his own money into building Highbury and he knew Arsenal needed to be in the top flight lest that investment become folly.

The exact details of the lobbying and negotiations are in the grave with the perpetrators, but a fair amount of circumstantial evidence suggests that Liverpool Chairman and Football League board member John McKenna- naturally a good friend of the well connected Norris- looked to do a deal to get Arsenal voted into the Football League so long as they dropped their threat to make the match fixing public. Though it`s fair to say Norris wouldn`t have looked a gift horse in the mouth, the truth is, his skills of persuasion were legion anyway. In the arena of lobbying for votes, Norris wiped the floor with Tottenham- who were rather unpopular with the other member clubs anyway. (When Arsenal had proposed a breakaway Southern League in 1893, Tottenham only gained one vote to enter the division. Their own).

Whilst Spurs complained about the voting process, Norris got to work, pointing out the huge potential fan base Arsenal had due to their location close to the West End. This would have had League Chairmen`s ears glowing in an age where gate receipts for all league fixtures were split 50-50. Norris also whispered honeyed words to other club`s directors about the favourable option of a weekend in Central London as opposed to the outposts of Birmingham and Wolverhampton. He also mentioned Arsenal`s length of service and loyalty to the league at every opportunity (even though Wolverhampton Wanderers had been in the Football League longer than Arsenal). Norris also convinced Chelsea Chairman Claude Kirby that their place in the league would be safeguarded anyway, thereby securing Chelsea`s vote. In his autobiography, Arsenal manager at the time Leslie Knighton opined, “Norris corresponded with a few financiers here and there.”

With his hands doubtless red roar from handshakes and back slapping, Norris saw the vote emanate massively in his favour- with Arsenal securing 18 votes to Tottenham`s 8. Barnsley received 5 votes, Wolves 4, Nottingham Forest 3, Birmingham City 2 and Hull City 1. Arsenal were elected to the Football League having finished 6th in Division 2 (the position was revised to 5th some years later after an error in the goal average calculation had been uncovered). Tottenham were relegated to Division 2. Tottenham have never forgiven Norris or Arsenal, firstly for muscling in on their patch in North London, then for taking what they felt was rightfully their place in the top flight of English football. That Arsenal have never since been relegated from that position both ferments Tottenham`s anger further and proves that Norris was correct to place so much gravitas on promotion to maximise the club`s potential. Spurs have cried foul ever since, but the reality is that this is how all promotions were decided at this time, by electioneering. Tottenham themselves were elected to the Football League for the first time in 1908 having finished 8th in the Southern League the previous season. But 1919 has left a sourness in Tottenham`s disposition towards us that has lasted close to a century and shows little sign of ever abating. Allegations of bribery persist, but the only corruption that has ever been uncovered lays at the door of Liverpool and Manchester United.LD.


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With thanks to Tony Attwood and Brian Belton.