With Arsenal failing to finish in the top half of the Division One table, and failing to progress beyond the FA Cup Quarter-Finals, the history of the Club between 1921 and 1925 appears to be one of honest plodding, and little more.
Yet beneath the surface, a hard-fought battle of wills was raging between the despotic Henry Norris, and his put upon manager Leslie Knighton. Knighton, appointed Gunners boss in 1919, and whose profile within the game was increasing thanks to his excellent ability to spot and nurture local talent at Manchester City, is arguably the most unfortunate manager in Arsenal history.
Tasked with turning the Gunners into a genuine First Division force in the aftermath of World War One, he was ordered to keep transfer fees down to the bare minimum, at a time when Norris was still paying for the construction of Highbury out of his own pocket. Talent spotter extraordinaire though he may have been, it was always going to be a struggle for the affable Knighton to transform Arsenal into anything else than top flight also-rans. Inevitably, he will always be judged against the achievements of his successor, Herbert Chapman, but it’s worth remembering that Knighton sowed several seeds at Highbury.
It was a battle of wills which helped Chapman enormously. Norris had long rated Knighton highly, given the fact that Man City (where Knighton was assistant) were regarded as one of the most attractive teams in the country, and reliant on Manchester-born lads. After Norris set out his long-term vision for the Club, Knighton was easily persuaded to move south, and met the challenge of snapping up affordable talent with gusto.
In the early 1920s, he raided South Wales to lure Bob John and Jimmy Brain to the Club, and Chapman later personally thanked Knighton on several occasions for signing players who would go onto win medals under him.
Final league positions of 9th, 17th, 11th, 19th and 20th (Arsenal narrowly avoided relegation on two occasions) between 1921 and 1925 tell a meandering tale of under achievement at a time when the expanding Highbury’s crowds regularly topped 50,000. Knighton’s frustration grew, and the relationship between him and Henry Norris was one of the most corrosive in the Club’s history. Much of the story would have remained untold, were it not for the fact that in 1949, Knighton took the almost unprecedented step – in those far off days – of writing a warts and all autobiography, entitled Behind The Scenes In Big Football.
His recollections of his time at Arsenal are laced with black humour, weariness and laid bare the idiosyncrasies of Norris. The autobiography suggests that Norris and Knighton enjoyed a General Melchett/ Captain Blackadder type relationship, in which the walrus moustached chairman conjured up all sorts of imaginative ways for his manager to endanger himself for the Club’s cause. It’s impossible to corroborate many of Knighton’s claims about Norris, but the beleaguered Arsenal manager had a reputation for being scrupulously honest in his dealings within the game, so they are highly likely to be true.
In the early 1920s, Knighton tells how he was dispatched to civil war-torn Belfast, where he checked on the potential of young starlet Alec Mackie, who plied his trade in a run down part of the city. Knighton recalls tip toeing through segregated parts of town, and even tripped over a corpse on his way to watch Mackie, whom eventually he signed. Knighton also had an army of spies in Wales, and during one of his missions to South Wales, he was able to snap up Caerphilly’s Bob John, whilst wearing a ridiculous false moustache and glasses. The reason for the disguise? Welsh fans, objecting to seeing their best players depart, physically threatened English scouts and managers who dared to try to lure players east.
Knighton also confirms that Sir Henry constantly bullied him in board meetings, for which very few minutes survive. As his petrified manager and directors wisely kept quiet during a Norris verbal tirade, the Arsenal owner would suddenly turn on him and bawl: “Well man. We pay you a great deal of money to advise us, and all you do is sit there as if you were dumb. Can’t you talk?” With Knighton shaking with rage and fear, Norris would quickly rebuild bridges, and inform his manager that he’d stop at nothing to further Arsenal’s cause.
As Arsenal struggled to avoid relegation during the 1924/25 season, Norris, convinced that Arsenal lacked sufficient backbone to compete for trophies, further turned the screw on his manager by informing him: “We must sign no more small players. We must have only big men.”
As a result, the Club missed out on the mercurial Harry ‘Midget’ Moffatt, who at just 5ft 4in was dubbed unwelcome by the Club owner. Knighton, warned by Norris that the FA Cup of 1925 represented his final chance of glory, was approached by a Harley Street specialist armed with a box of ‘courage pills’, and Knighton decided to see what the effects would have on his players.
During the ensuing third round FA Cup clash with West Ham at Upton Park, his players tore around “like Olympic sprinters,” developed a raging thirst into the bargain, and made their hearts beat at over 160 beats per minute. Doubters have suggested that the story may actually be apocryphal, but it does highlight the pressure Knighton was under regardless. After two replays, Arsenal lost to the Hammers, and on the face of it, that defeat, coupled with Knighton’s complaints about being unable to sign Moffatt, cost him his job during the 1925 close season.
In ‘Behind The Scenes In Big Football’, Knighton alleged that he was fired because Norris didn’t want to pay him a promised £4,000 bonus for his length of service at Arsenal, due in the following September. Knighton informed the Daily Mail that “Norris’s eccentricities have cost the Club dear,” (it’s worth noting that he received £100 in Norris’s will – nowhere near the money he was promised but evidence that Norris valued Knighton’s contribution) before departing for calmer waters at Bournemouth.
By then, he would have seen Norris’s advertisement for a new manager in the press, which read: “Those who pay exorbitant fees in players’ transfers need not apply.” The irony is that in order to achieve success at Arsenal, Norris was forced to dramatically U-turn on that statement. Highbury’s slumbering giant was finally about to stir
1. Alec Mackie demanded a pet monkey as a novel alternative to a signing on fee when he joined the Gunners
2. As well as all the other revelations, Knighton claimed in his autobiography that Norris’s deals in football were “a mere bagatelle compared to his other business activities.”
3. In September 1922, Reg Boreham grabbed a double for Arsenal in a fiery victory over Spurs. A Telegraph reporter claimed the ensuing brawls were “the most disgusting I have witnessed.”Copyright 2015 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