The Norris Factor: 1916-1920
As World War One dragged on, Sir Henry Norris’s hopes of Second Division Arsenal becoming a major force appeared dashed. Between 1915 and 1918, he had to fork out a further £50,000 to keep the ground up to scratch, without any significant gate receipts coming in to offset the expenditure. David Yates regularly went to Combination games during the war years, after the normal league programme was suspended at the end of the 1914 – 1915 season.
He recalls: “It’s hard to say if you were watching a football match, or a propaganda exercise designed to get blokes to join up. Posters around the perimeter of the ground were very bold about it – asking ‘Why don’t you and your football pals go to Highbury or Haringey recruitment Centre and join up?”
"Lots of people my family knew did just that. You could visit either centre on any day and sign on the dotted line. Rumour had it that Kitchener himself visited Highbury once to shake up the supporters to get them to enlist. You can see why- where else in our area would you get such a huge number of blokes together in one place? Really – watching the football at that time was secondary.”
When League football resumed four years later at the beginning of the 1919 – 1920 campaign, Arsenal found themselves back in the top flight, after Norris engineered what has always been viewed as one of the murkiest deals ever brokered in English football. Norris had recently been knighted for his work as a recruitment officer during the war.
He’d manage to assemble three artillery brigades from the Fulham area that played a prominent role in the Battle of the Somme. He’d also been recently re elected as Tory MP for Fulham East. In short, he was at the height of his powers, and his famed networking skills were about to come to the fore.
An FA Management Committee, anxious to get football back on its feet, and headed by John McKenna, proposed that Division One be expanded from 20 to 22 clubs. On the face of it, this was irrelevant news to Arsenal and Norris, as the team had finished fifth in Division Two in the last season before the fighting stopped League Football. Barnsley and Wolves had tailed in third and fourth behind promoted Derby and Preston, and it was widely believed that Division One’s relegated clubs Chelsea and Spurs would obtain a reprieve. But Norris knew from football history that such decisions rarely hinged purely on the respective teams’ football ability.
The experiences of Chelsea and Tottenham in the early years of the 20th century proved that politics was at the heart of many of the League’s decisions. In 1905, Chelsea had been selected to join Division Two because they had a new ground – Stamford Bridge – to play in. They had no playing record at that time though. That was in marked contrast with Tottenham who won the FA Cup while playing in the Southern League, but weren’t actually selected to join Division Two until 1908. It was a clear example of how at that time, Midlands and Northern teams had a tendency to “block vote” in order to protect their own, and ostracise Southern teams.
Ironically, it was a match between Liverpool and Manchester United in 1915 which gave Norris his chance. An FA probe discovered that the two sides rigged a match in order that United claimed both points, and ultimately ended up with one more point than Chelsea, thus avoiding relegation. Chelsea FC argued that both North Western sides should be thrown out of the Football League. At that point, Sir Henry Norris hove into view, and pointed out forcibly how London sides had contributed strongly to the sport in the previous thirty years, and that Woolwich Arsenal had been the South’s first professional outfit.
Then as now, United and Liverpool were big hitters, with huge fan bases, and the Football League was opposed to expelling them for match corruption. At some point Norris convinced John McKenna to rearrange the promotion and relegation issues. The League agreed that promoted Derby and Preston should take their place, re elected Chelsea back into Division One, on the grounds that had the United – Liverpool game not been rigged, they would have stayed up anyway. Tottenham gained no such reprieve as, match rigging scandal or not, they would have gone down. They were furious. That still left Division One short of one team, and somehow, at this point, Norris used his iron fist, and his contacts.
Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton claimed in Behind The Scenes In Big Football that his chairman “corresponded with a few financiers here and there.” (The question remains – how did Knighton know this?). Arsenal historian Tony Attwood claims that Norris told McKenna (who was also Liverpool chairman) that if Liverpool and United remained in Division One, he would instigate a Government enquiry into match fixing in football.
A few days later, one of football’s shadiest ever deals was struck. Arsenal were awarded the final place in Division One, where they have remained ever since, and West Ham also benefitted, entering Division Two at the start of the 1919 – 1920 season. Norris never did instigate that “root and branch” corruption enquiry.
The die was cast, and Tottenham never forgave Norris for the events of 1919, or their North London rivals – who they already described as “the interlopers.” Tottenham’s parrot, presented to the club on a voyage home from the 1908 South American tour, was said to have dropped dead on receiving the news, giving rise to the football cliché “sick as a parrot.”
Norris always remained tight lipped about exactly how he brokered the deal which took Arsenal into Division One, although it certainly wasn’t the first such “affair” in football. Although it was good news for his club, it meant that the spectre of match fixing was never really expunged. Norris enjoyed his day of triumph (although the team finished a mediocre tenth in 1920) but his enemies would gain their revenge in time. First though, Sir Henry would appoint the manger that turned Arsenal into the most famous football club in the world.
1. In 1919, Stanley Baldwin described the House of Commons as “a lot of hard faced men who have done well out of the war.” Rumours persist that a meeting with Norris prompted this outburst.
2. Thanks to his work during the war, Norris was also granted the title: “Colonel.”
3. As late as 1915, the Tottenham Herald continued to run adverts pleading with its fans “not to go and watch the Woolwich interlopers.”