By Tony Atwood
Season five of the Royal Arsenal was an utterly momentus season in every way. Indeed it is quite amazing that it is not written more fully about in every Arsenal history book, for the events of 1890/91 defined the entire future of the club. Had they happened differently there might never have been Woolwich Arsenal FC, and from there, no Arsenal – or at least not an Arsenal as we know today.
I have written already about the Invicta Ground, and the conclusion I reached was that it must have been built during the last days of the previous season and the summer of 1890. Certainly we know that on 6 September 1890 Royal Arsenal played their first match at the ground – a friendly against the 3rd Highlanders at the Invicta and drew 1-1 in front of a crowd of 7,000.
But I wonder – with a new ground with new facilities, were the club expecting more support? What Arsenal did achieve in 1980/91 was a higher average gate than the previous season – with many games attracting between 5,000 and 8,000. But there was no breakthrough above the 10,000 mark which had been previously reached.
The landmark 10,000 was achieved twice:
- 11 October 1890 v 3rd Highlanders (again) won 4-1
- 30 March 1891 v Heart of Midlothian, lost 1-5.
Although the latter match is reported elsewhere as having a crowd of 12,000. The Invicta did indeed once attact 12,000 (against Millwall) but most commonly got crowds of around the 7000 to 8000 mark.
Arsenal played 27 friendlies this season, plus 10 cup games in the London Senior Cup, the London Charity Cup and the FA Cup. After the arguments about the London Senior Cup and the Kent Senior Cup being played on the same day, Arsenal withdrew from the Kent Senior Cup.
Only four of the friendies were played away, and one of these (against Chiswick Park on 4 October 1890), attracted only 200 visitors. Although the other away games had more decent crowds, the implication is that Arsenal at the Invicta would get bigger crowds for a friendly than any other ground.
And certainly the home crowds got some good entertainment
- 13 September 1890: Arsenal 5 Casuals 4 (crowd of 7000)
- 20 September 1890: Arsenal 6 Iford 0 (crowd of 6000)
- 1 December 1890: Arsenal 5 Cambridge University 1 (6000)
But, lest everyone got too carried away, there were defeats, 26 January 1891: Arsenal 0 Everton 5 (7000)
and of course the aforementioned game against Hearts. Arsenal also started to play some other more famous names from further afield:
- Derby County (FA Cup, 17 January 1891)
- Nottingham Forest (31 March 1891)
- Sunderland (25 April 1891)
Arsenal lost all these games, as they lost against Everton and Hearts, but it shows how the club was expanding its thoughts, and (in terms of the FA Cup, competing at a higher level.
"It is highly unlikely that any scouts from northern teams would have ever come to the Invicta to check up on Arsenal’s players"
Interestingly Arsenal did not play Tottenham this season. Possibly the 10-1 thrashing the season before had made both clubs realise the gulf between the two was too great to make a re-match worthwile.
That then was the season – pretty much as the previous but with more crowds measured in the 5,000 to 8,000 bracket, and a new ground.
Except for something else, and here I quote from Andy Kelly’s earlier article on this site about this era:
“The club held its 4th annual dinner at the Freemason’s Hall, Mount-pleasant on 25 April 1891. At this point, the club was still amateur and had not stated any intention to turn professional. The club secretary, George Osborne, stated that the following clubs had agreed to play Arsenal during the 1891-92 season: St Bartholowmew’s Hospital, Old Carthusians, Casuals, Crusaders, Cambridge University, Chriswick Park, London Caledonians, Clapton and Chatham.”
There’s nothing particular in that list, as they are much the same sort of clubs that Arsenal had played in the 1890/91 season. (No Tottenham again, we may note!)
But the list became important in what follows. To return to Andy’s commentary…
“On 2 May 1891, the club’s committee held an Extraordinary General Meeting where they voted by 250 to 10 to turn professional. The club knew that the London FA and Kent FA cup competitions were open only to amateur teams so they resigned from the two associations. The club was not expelled from the London FA or the Kent FA.” (Andy makes this last point because earlier histories of the club suggested that the FAs threw Arsenal out, and indeed the official handbook in earlier years reported that Arsenal were reduced to near bankruptcy by having to play away friendlies in the far north.)
So now we ask why. Why did Arsenal turn pro, and if they were not thrown out of the FAs, what happened?
One obvious reason for turning pro is that Arsenal were getting good results against other local amateur teams, but were not doing well against the northern professional teams. If Arsenal wanted to continue its growth, professionalism was a way forwards.
Second, this was a working men’s club – not a club with a middle class benefactor running the show. The players deserved reward for their work – so the idea was that they should be paid. The gentlemen of leisure could afford to play for nothing, but the working men needed a proper wage.
Third there is the story that after the Derby County FA Cup game Derby tapped up at least one if not two Arsenal players. The reports of this story are wrong in detail (Buist for example is mentioned as one of the tapped up players, and yet he wasn’t even at Arsenal at the time), but the story in essence was probably true. (See here for the story of Buist)
It is highly unlikely that any scouts from northern teams would have ever come to the Invicta to check up on Arsenal’s players, and Arsenal, as we have seen, played mostly at home. But it is possible that the word would be passed around that this or that player at Arsenal was particularly good, was playing as an amateur and might be open to an approach.
"The gentlemen of leisure could afford to play for nothing, but the working men needed a proper wage"
Given that there were no tapping up rules at the time, there was nothing against FA regulations in doing this. What makes 17 January 1891 special was Arsenal’s first game against a Football League team (Derby County, FA Cup first round), so maybe this was the first time tapping up happened at Arsenal. (The Football League consisted of just one division at the time, made up of 14 clubs. Derby came 10th in that season).
Clearly Arsenal had a dilemma. If they continued to improve so they could beat the professional teams from the north they had to keep their best players, not lose them to the northern teams Arsenal wanted to emulate.
And if Arsenal paid their players, then Arsenal would be able to do the tapping up themselves – attracting the very best amateur players from all over their own region in which Royal Arsenal would be the only serious professional team,
(The only club that has made any claim to being professional before Arsenal is Luton Town, who seemingly did pay a couple of players prior to Arsenal’s move, but this was very much a matter of paying individuals, rather than turning the whole club into a professional side.
Andy takes up the tale here:
“On 16 May 1891, the club held its Annual General Meeting. It voted against forming a limited liability company [this did not happen until Arsenal won its place in the league two years later]. It was reported in the local press that the club had tendered its resignation from the London FA and the Kent FA after the Extraordinary General Meeting on 9 May but had not yet had a response from either association.”
In fact the members of the FAs voted against a boycott of professional teams. And to prove it, during 1891-92, Royal Arsenal played against eight out of the nine amateur teams that they had originally announced prior to the professional players decision. Many more amateur teams were added to the list as the 1890/91 season drew to a close, as we will see in the article on Season 6. 35 Southern clubs that Royal Arsenal played during 1891-92. They played a further 16 Southern clubs during 1892-93. Allison got this wrong.
Most histories of Arsenal have got all these details wrong, including
- The fact that Buist played against Derby and was transported away
- That Arsenal were thrown out of the FAs (the voting was 76 to 67 AGAINST throwing them out).
- That Arsenal had to play against teams from the north because no one in the south would play them.
That Arsenal played most of its games away (an interesting point given all that we have seen in relation to the building of the Invicta Ground. Arsenal would never have been able to pay its rent!)
So there we have it, Arsenal turned professional, but not in the way, and not really for the reasons, that the books say.