A Professional Outfit: 1891-1896

With success on the pitch in 1890 and 1891, Royal Arsenal’s counterparts heard rumours that the club was already describing itself as “the Champions of the South.” Yet within just four years of Dial Square playing its first match, and despite founding fathers Jack Humble and David Danskin trying to push the club forward at every opportunity, the future of the club, out on something of a geographical limb in Kent, appeared uncertain.

The FA Cup was the one chance the Royals had to raise their national profile, yet they invariably fell short. In 1891, Derby visited the team’s new home – the Manor Ground – and eeked out a 2-1 win in front of a then record 8000 crowd. Every single club history written since the turn of the 20th century has claimed that the Derby match had a seismic impact on the club’s future. That may well be the case, but it didn’t entirely happen in the manner which so many tomes have suggested.

In the 1914 – 1915 handbook, editor George Allison (who of course went on to manage the Gunners and was a high profile journalist) claimed that after the Derby clash Royal Arsenal stars Peter Connolly and Bob Buist were approached by the East Midlands club’s boss John Goodall with a view to offering them professional terms at Derby.

The handbook piece was based on an article he’d written for the Athletic News some years before. This version of events was subsequently repeated by Bernard Joy in Forward Arsenal! – suggesting that he took Allison’s account as gospel, and has been repeated many times since.

The truth is that Bob Buist didn’t actually play in the game, and didn’t join Arsenal until September 1891 – around 8 months later. However, it is entirely possible that Connolly (who turned down Goodall’s approach because he was against the idea of professionalism in football and had a steady job in the Woolwich Arsenal) was offered professional terms by Derby, and that the club, alarmed by the turn of events, and determined to retain the services of its best players, decided that turning professional was its only viable course of action.

At the club’s1891 AGM, held in the Windsor Castle Music Hall, Humble suggested that Royal Arsenal join the Football League as a working man’s collective (he opposed the other board members’ plan that the club become a limited liability company, although that came to pass in 1893) , and the board unanimously voted to turn the club professional.

“The club has been carried on by working men and it is my ambition to see it carried on by them,” Humble explained. A succession of Arsenal histories claim that the London FA, apoplectic about professionalism in any guise, immediately banned Royal Arsenal, their previous Cup winners from all competitions apart from the FA Cup, effectively casting them out into the wilderness.

Unwilling to do battle with the South’s first professional outfit, lest they incur the wrath of their respective leagues, the club’s near neighbours effectively boycotted the rebels from Kent. Certainly, there was a hostile mood displayed toward the newly professional club at an extraordinary general meeting of the London FA, held in Fleet Street’s Anderson’s Hotel. Mr A. Jackson who chaired the meeting admitted he “despised the little tricks of the game” which non amateurs picked up. The Kentish Mercury reported Jackson’s comment: “I wish to pay a high compliment to the press generally for the stand they have taken against the football club,” and so southern football in general appeared to have condemned and castrated the new professional outfit from the outset.

According to new research by Tony Attwood and Andy Kelly, George Allison’s talk of “boycotts” and “ostracism” may well be sensationalist. Writing his handbook piece some twenty five years after the event, his version would have been based on the views of others, in an era when it was notoriously tricky to corroborate stories and evidence.

Attwood and Kelly honed in on the Woolwich Gazette’s report on the Royal Arsenal’s AGM that took place on 23rd May 1891 in order to disprove Allison’c claims. One section of the report says: “In accordance with the resolution adopting professionalism, the Club had resigned from the Kent and London associations, but they had not yet received letters accepting their resignations.”

Two weeks earlier, the club, aware that the competitions run by the Kent and London FAs were only open to amateur clubs, resigned. A fortnight on, the club had still heard nothing, suggesting that neither “furious” FA was that keen to confirm the “banishment” of the club after all. In any case, it was never the case the club was expelled from either association. The truth was they resigned before the “apoplectic” London FA even met in Fleet Street.

The “boycott” by Southern clubs simply never happened. During the 1891 – 92 season, the Royals’ opponents in friendlies included Clapton, Chatham and Cambridge University and the following season, Royal Arsenal played a further 16 sides from the South of England. Of the 35 Southern opponents Royal Arsenal faced during the 1891 – 92 season, several teams, including St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Chiswick Park were those whom Arsenal had faced in the London FA and Kent FA Cup competitions in the previous seasons as an amateur side.

So although behind the scenes there may well have been lingering mistrust and suspicion of the club from their rivals, there was no boycott on the pitch, despite what a raft of Arsenal historians – me included in Rebels For The Cause – have claimed. Time for a spot of revisionism, perhaps.

That said, the friendly games attracted low crowds; the only truly competitive matches the team played were in the FA Cup, and so the board suggested the idea of forming a professional ten team strong Southern League which in time could grow to be as powerful as the Northern dominated First Division.

Initially, the idea was met with a large amount of support, but the League didn’t take off at that time due to a lack of cash. Then, in 1893, the club received an offer to join the Second Division. For Jack Humble and David Danskin, it was a calculated risk. If the south’s first professional southern club struggled, there would likely be no way back, and funding the cost of trips up to outposts like Liverpool, Nottingham and Nottingham would be costly, but it was a necessary move, and in three consecutive seasons, the club made slow but steady progress, finishing 9th, 8th and 7th.

Slowly, “the Champions of the South” were making their mark.

Killer facts...

1.    In an 1891 poll to create a Southern League, Tottenham came bottom, with just one vote, behind clubs which included Chatham and Chiswick.
2.    At the Invicta Ground in Plumstead, the landlord upped the rent from £200 to £350 per annum in 1893, hoping to exploit the club’s new found professional status. The  club moved on.
3.    In the Summer of 1893, club supporters worked around the clock to ensure that the newly purchased Manor Ground was ready for the Second Division. 

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 5 Dec 2011