Enter The Autocrat: 1906-1911
Under Phil Kelso, Woolwich Arsenal didn’t exactly pull up any trees in the league in 1906 and 1907, but their supporters at least got a whiff of glamour as the team reached the FA Cup Semi-Final two years on the trot. The Club had never progressed beyond the second round before, and those exciting cup runs certainly increased the thrill factor of supporting Woolwich Arsenal, a club which despite the welcome profits generated from the cup runs, continued to struggle to hold onto its best players.
In 1906, the team cruised past Watford and West Ham, before thumping Sunderland – who’d won the League title four times – 5-0 in front of 30,000 fans at the Manor Ground. The result sent shock waves through the football world, and then the side travelled to Manchester and edged out United 3-2 in a thriller, with Bert Freeman (2) and Tim Coleman on the score sheet.
The Woolwich Arsenal players were now set for the biggest match of their lives, and headed for Stoke to play FA Cup experts Newcastle United. It was easy for the Toon in the end, and they cruised through, winning 2-0. It was a disappointingly flat end to a great cup run, and the club’s forward line of Garbutt, Templeton and Freeman, although they drew a blank that afternoon, gave notice of their talent as they troubled the Geordies’ defence throughout. Ultimately though, it wasn’t quite good enough.
In the following season, after defeating Grimsby, Bristol City and Barnsley, Woolwich Arsenal squared up to Sheffield Wednesday in Birmingham for the semi-final. If the previous year had been a damp squib, the clash with the mighty Wednesday was a classic case of “What if?” for the Club. Woolwich went 1-0 up within ten minutes, as Garbutt nodded in Charlie Satterthwaite’s cross.
With the team settling into their rhythm, disaster struck, as the goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft crashed into the onrushing Wednesday attacker David Wilson. The referee deemed that Ashcroft had fouled the Sheffield man, and Wilson picked himself up and scored from the free kick. That incident completely changed the face of the game, and Wednesday grew in confidence and reached Crystal Palace for the final with a 3-1 win.
Despite the major disappointment, things still looked promising for Woolwich Arsenal, on the face of it at least. In 1907, they’d finished seventh in the league, reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, Tim Coleman was selected to play for England, and highly rated full-back Jimmy Sharp was picked for Scotland.
Crucially, the club’s gates began to tumble during the 1907/1908 season. It’s a matter of conjecture why. The Woolwich Arsenal had begun to lay off some of its workers by then, and a few gripes to the local newspapers suggested that fans were none too impressed with the dour style of play which Kelso oversaw. If the team had won that semi-final, perhaps it would have acted as a jolt of electricity through the Club.
But there is a truism that losing an FA Cup Semi Final is akin to a serious smash in the solar plexus for many emerging teams, and this was certainly the case for Woolwich Arsenal. They avoided relegation by just three points in 1908, at which point Phil Kelso resigned. George Morrell took over the reins in the close season, aware that he would most likely be forced to sell to survive. Out went Coleman, Ashcroft, Freeman, Garbutt and Kyle. Remarkably, the team finished sixth in 1909, its highest ever league position. But the initial novelty of the club playing in Division One without a realistic crack at winning the title, had long since faded.
Crowd averages remained mired at around the 12,000 mark. As a salutary reminder of the Club’s financial limitations Chelsea, with its Archibald Leitch inspired Stamford Bridge, were now members of Division One. In a first London derby between the two clubs at the Bridge, a gargantuan 65,000 crowd rolled in to see the West Londoners win 2-1. It was a stark reminder that Woolwich Arsenal’s financial options at its down at heel stadium in Kent were seriously limited, and after he steered the team to that high placing in 1909, Morrell saw his team dodge relegation by just two points a year later.
But then, the entire history of the club changed, as Sir Henry Norris hove into view. In time, he’d become the game’s first ‘football Tsar’, and a creature of myth. His influence on the club is equal to, if not greater than Herbert Chapman’s or Arsène Wenger’s. Norris, after buying a majority stake in Woolwich Arsenal in 1910, immediately controlled the club like a medieval fiefdom. Already a director at Fulham, he was a self made man who’d accumulated his fortune through the property market. His company, Allen & Norris was responsible for transforming Fulham from a semi rural area into an urban jungle.
In the process of constructing, renovating and selling houses, he’d built up a formidable network of contacts in London. As a member of the Junior Carlton Club, Mayor of Fulham, leading light in the local Conservative Party and eminent Freemason, his name was well known throughout the capital. He also had a strong social conscience, and worked closely with Battersea vestry and his local orphanage. The Arsenal board welcomed him with open arms, and were understandably impressed with the way he’d helped Fulham negotiate their rise from the Southern League up to Division Two.
On buying his majority stake, he immediately proposed a merger with Fulham, in order to create a London “super club,” and a permanent move to Craven Cottage. He was blocked by the Football League on this occasion, but the fact that he remained as Director at Fulham meant that he continued to exercise considerable power in football in the capital, much to the consternation of his detractors who claimed that Norris was well versed in sharp practice in his business activities. Within a few years, Norris’s desire to turn Woolwich Arsenal into a genuine power in the game would make him the most controversial figure in football.
1. Who’s Who from 1910 lists Norris’s interests as “wine societies,” “dining clubs,” and “vintage car rallies.”
2. After the 1905 FA Cup Semi-Final, Woolwich Arsenal and Wednesday players claimed that due to a mound like pitch, neither goalkeeper could actually see each other, and neither could the linesmen.
3. According to records from the time, by 1906 Arsenal had more season ticket holders than any other club in the country.