Finally on the Up: 1901-1906

Quite why Harry Bradshaw, manager of a Burnley side which had just finished third in the old First Division in 1899, agreed to become manager of the ailing Woolwich Arsenal, seemingly permanently mired in the Second Division, is anyone’s guess. Yet Bradshaw’s odd decision (he’d been quoted in the press as saying: “Football’s real power lives in the North of England”) proved to be the catalyst which Woolwich Arsenal required to turn them into a more robust and competitive outfit.

Bradshaw realised that the club had always struggled to hold onto talented players, and that the accounts weren’t healthy but he was a canny customer who, nevertheless, saw the Club’s potential and set about raising funds.

In November 1902, the club organised and sold tickets for an archery competition inside the Manor Ground, which doubled as a lottery. The event raised £1,200 – a tidy sum when the club’s annual income was around £5,600. Bradshaw needed to use all of his cunning and guile to steer the club forward. One of his policies was to shop around for local talent.

Possibly his most successful acquisition was goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft from Gravesend, who in time would become the club’s first England international. Reports claimed that Ashcroft had the ability to punch a ball almost half the length of the pitch – no mean feat in the days of the old fashioned football. Joining him at the club were Archie Cross from Dartford, and Percy Sands from Woolwich. As well as the local contingent, Bradshaw used his network of spies to bring in Yorkshire born Bill Gooing and Irishman Tommy Shanks. There were also the prodigious striking talents of John George “Tim” Coleman.

Woolwich Arsenal finished fourth in the 1901/02 season, their best ever league finish, and a year later, the team ended up in third place. The crowds were now also creeping up, and average gates were around the 10,000 in the 1902/03 campaign. 24,000 squeezed into the Manor Ground to watch the team lose 3-1 at home to First Division Sheffield United in 1903, and the team’s profile began to rise accordingly.

Jimmy Jackson (half Australian/half Scot) appointed himself leader of team affairs/tactics. Jackson had played as an Australian rules player, which served him well in the tough environs of English football. Bradshaw allowed Jackson to introduce zonal marking to the club, and he was ruthless in his pursuit of points. When the going got tough in a league game he told a team mate: “We’re not here to show fancy play. We’re here to get points. When we can’t get two, we can at least make sure of one.”

In the 1903/1904 campaign, Woolwich Arsenal were finally promoted to the top flight. The team made an excellent start to the campaign, winning their first eight games, and Briercliffe, Gooing and Coleman scored goals seemingly at will. Both Burton and Leicester Fosse were thrashed 8-0 at home, and throughout the season, the club’s home record was superb. Woolwich Arsenal didn’t lose a single game at the Manor Ground, and but for draws against Burslem Port Vale and Champions Preston, their home record would have been perfect.

Away from home, things weren’t quite as rosy, with just six wins, but the final goal tally was incredible: 91 for, 22 against. Tommy Shanks was the league’s leading scorer with 25 goals. Of the 20 players who appeared for the team that season, only two of them had been at the club since before the arrival of Harry Bradshaw. His impact on the club couldn’t be under estimated but apart from 20,000 plus crowds turning up to the Manchester United and Preston games, average gates were still relatively modest, tending to average out around the 12,000 mark.

Bafflingly, with the club’s supporters looking forward to their first top flight campaign, Harry Bradshaw abruptly resigned in June 1904, and announced that he’d accepted an offer from Southern League Fulham to take up the managerial reins. Bradshaw once again proved his mettle at Fulham, taking them into the Football League three years later, but it was disappointing for Woolwich Arsenal to lose a manager – their first great manager – at such a crucial juncture in their history.

Hibernian boss Phil Kelso was chosen by the board to succeed Bradshaw, and he trawled around the north of England and Scotland to bring fresh talent to the newly promoted outfit. The mercurial Scottish left-back Bobby Templeton arrived in time for the 1904/05 season, and he immediately became a crowd favourite. A hairdresser by trade, he had the ability to swerve the ball in a virtual semi circle.

Moody, inconsistent and prone to miss training, a journalist wrote of him: “When he’s good, he’s very good. When he’s bad, he’s horrid.” There was also the phenomenal shooting power of 16 stone Charlie Sattherthwaite, whose ferocious shooting once smashed the stanchion. The gates for Woolwich Arsenal’s inaugural season in the top flight were excellent, surging up to the 20,000 mark, and now the club could make around £1,000 in gate money every home game. The team finished tenth that season, but the big problem was their inconsistency.

It’s no exaggeration to claim that if Bradshaw had still been at the club, then he would have been able to inject more new talent into the team, in truth, Kelso struggling to recruit players of the level required. He kept the team which had gained promotion largely intact, and players like Gooing and Coleman found the step up in class difficult, and their goal tallies fell accordingly.

Only Charlie Sattherthwaite reached double figures in the 1904/1905 season, and it was clear that if the club wished to progress to the next step, they needed to invest more keenly in players. Nonetheless, Kelso deserves a huge amount of credit for steering the club safely into mid-table in their first season in the top flight.

Woolwich Arsenal may not have been reaching for the stars, but were making steady progress nonetheless.

HISTORY IN BRIEF

1. The winner of Arsenal’s archery lottery was a Mr Grubb of 190 Plumstead Road, who won £50 (around £3000 in today’s money).

2. Centre half Percy Sands was the club’s first truly great servant, playing 327 games between 1902 and 1919.

3. The short, fast passing style which Bradshaw encouraged at Woolwich Arsenal drew plaudits from around the world. Even Canada’s coach came to Woolwich to see the team in action in 1903.

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 6 Dec 2011