Arsenal's great pre-Highbury rivals

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By Tony Attwood Arsenal’s first game, as we know (although for a long time I doubted it) was on the Isle of Dogs, north of the Thames, at, or very close to, the original ground used by Millwall.

By the time Arsenal started playing Millwall they were playing in their second ground in East Ferry Road, but they moved twice more before then making the six-mile journey across the Thames to Cold Blow Lane in 1910. (The distance Millwall moved is far less if you are a crow, or indeed if you have your own boat and landing stages, but the actual route by road is more or less six miles).

Curiously the journey from Millwall’s grounds on the Isle of Dogs, and from the Den to Plumstead, was much the same distance - about 7 miles, so throughout the whole of Arsenal’s existence in Plumstead, Millwall was the big local rival.

"That the friendlies of the mid-1890s could get 10,000 crowds was perhaps not surprising with Millwall at the top of the Southern League and Arsenal in the Football League"

While Arsenal moved from being Royal Arsenal to Woolwich Arsenal, during this south London period, Millwall too changed their name. In April 1889 they changed from Millwall Rovers to Millwall Athletic. Later they became Millwall - but I am not sure when as the eternally reliable fixture lists from Andy Kelly, have them being Millwall and Millwall Athletic at different times. I’ve taken a punt on when I think the change came - however since Arsenal’s programmes never quite reflected the change of the name from The Arsenal to Arsenal correctly there may be some confusion with Millwall too.

Arsenal moved into the Football League in 1893, and around the same era Millwall were founder members and champions of the Southern League in 1894/5, winning it again in 1985/6 and being second in the third season of the league. However thereafter they became more of a mid-table club, only once reaching third in the league. However they did reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup in both 1900 and 1903, but did not enter the Football League until 1920, by which time Arsenal were packing in the crowds at Highbury in the First Division.

Most of the games played between the two clubs while Arsenal were based in Plumstead were friendlies, over time competitive games crept in. The most notable were of course the FA Cup matches (FAC in the table below) but additionally there were these other, more minor competitions:

  • UL United League
  • London League Premier Division (LLPD)
  • Southern Professional Charity Cup (SPCC)
  • Southern District Combination (SDC)      

Arsenal against Millwall Rovers

Date  Venue Score Crowd
Feb 5, 87 Away 0-4 600
Mar 12, 87 Home  3-0  
Nov 26, 87 Away  0-3  
Feb 11, 88 Home 3-3  
Mar 30, 88 Home  3-0 600
Feb 16, 89 Home Won  
Apr, 13, 89 Home 3-0  

It seems de rigueur for teams to score three goals most of the time. Sadly only two crowds are recorded, but it seems likely that for much of the time this was the sort of number that turned up.

Against Millwall Athletic

In 1891 Royal Arsenal became a professional club, and that, combined with the great interest that the FA Cup held at this time, explains the sudden explosion of interest on 19 November 1992. But even this was nothing compared with the game one season later, again in the FA Cup when 20000 turned up.

That the friendlies of the mid-1890s could get 10,000 crowds was perhaps not surprising with Millwall at the top of the Southern League and Arsenal in the Football League.

There was clearly a huge rivalry by this time, with even United League matches getting big crowds. Arsenal’s crowds in the UL were generally small, since the prime interest was in seeing Football League games, but against Millwall it was a different matter.

We can of course see crowds greatly varying - for example on September 10, 1896 when only 2,500 turned up. However the explanation appears, as far as I have investigated, to be related to the day of the week and the weather. September 10, 1896 was a Thursday, with the game being played in the late afternoon.

The very low crowd on Jan 30, 1899 is explained by the fact that this was a Monday, two days after Arsenal had been beaten 0-6 at home in the FA Cup by Derby.

Arsenal against Millwall Athletic

Date Venue Score Crowd
May 10, 90 Away 3-3 800
Jan 25, 91  Away 1-0  
Nov 19, 92 Home FAC 3-2 12,000
Feb 18, 93 Home 5-0 6,000
Mar 26, 93 Away 1-0 6,000
Nov 25, 93  Home FAC 2-0 20,000
Mar 17, 94 Home 2-2 6,000
Apr 17, 94 Away 4-1 10,000
Mar 25, 95 Home  1-1  10,000
Apr 8, 95 Away  0-0 7,000
Apr 27, 95 Home 3-1 8,000
Sep 9, 95 Away 3-1 4,500
Mar 28, 96 Away  3-1 6,000
Apr 11, 96 Home 2-2 9,000
Sep 10, 96 Away 2-1 2,500
Oct 10, 96 Home  1-5 13,000
Jan 16, 97 Away FAC 2-4 14,000
Feb 27, 97 Home UL 3-1 15,000
Apr 24, 97 Away UL 1-3 8,000
Jan 22, 98 Away UL 2-2 8,000
Feb 19, 98 Home UL 2-2 12,000
Apr 30, 98 Away 0-2 5,000
Oct 8, 98 Away  1-1 12,000
Dec 26, 98 Home UL 0-1 48,000
Jan 30, 99 Home 2-4 1,500
Apr 4, 99 Away 0-0 2,500
Sep 11, 99 Away SDC 0-1 5,000
Apr 2, 00 Home SDC 0-1 2,000
Apr 1, 01 Home 1-1  2,000
Sep 30, 01 Home LLPD 1-1 3,000
Feb 24, 02 Away LLPD 1-2  3,000
Dec 26, 02 Away LLPD 0-3  10,000
Feb 9, 03 Home  2-3 3,000
Apr 18, 03 Home LLPD 0-2 4,000

Against Millwall

We can see here that we now move from the regular two games a season, with friendlies filling in where there are no other games to a different situation. The final friendly had been played on 9 February 1903. Between 28 April 1904 and 10 December 1908 there were no games, and indeed there were no matches between the two sides, despite their proximity between 10 October 2010 (the one and only match played at The Den between Woolwich Arsenal and Millwall) and Arsenal’s move north in the summer of 1913.

Arsenal against Millwall

Dec 7, 03 Home LLPD 1-3 2,000
Mar 7, 04 Away LLPD 0-3 1,500
Apr 28, 04 Away SPCC final 1-2 10,000
Dec 10, 08 Home SPCC 1-2 4,000
Feb 6, 09 Home FAC 1-1 32,000
Feb 16, 09 Away FAC 0-1  16,285
Oct 10, 10 Away, LFACC 0-1 3,000

Thus the great rivalry that had seen 10,000 turn up for friendlies, and 15,000 for United League matches, petered out, and in reality the clubs had gone their separate ways long before Arsenal left south London.

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