A number of Spurs fans have left comments on this blog at various times (like here and here), and often they point out that, yes, Arsenal may have won 13 titles to Spurs’ 2, Arsenal may have won more FA Cups than Spurs, Arsenal may have been in the Champions League for the last 17 years, Arsenal may have done the Double three times to Spurs’ one, Arsenal may have gone a whole season unbeaten, Arsenal may have been voted Team of the Century for the period 1900-2000, Arsenal may have won the League three years in a row, Arsenal may hold the record for longest unbeaten run in the top flight, Arsenal may have gone a century without being relegated, Arsenal may be the only club to have a tube station named after them, Arsenal may have scored in a record number of consecutive top flight matches, Arsenal may – well, you get the picture. But never mind all that, say the Totts, the fact is this: ARSENAL SHOULD NOT BE IN THE TOP DIVISION AT ALL! Why not? Because THEY BRIBED THEIR WAY IN! That’s right – they were voted in at Spurs’ expense back in 1919, and (say the Totts) MONEY CHANGED HANDS and it was all JOLLY UNFAIR! There’s even a story that the Spurs parrot died of shock at the decision, which is where the phrase ‘sick as a parrot’ comes from, but that’s a bigger load of tosh than the bribery story.
It’s true Arsenal were voted into the old First Division when football restarted after World War 1, and it’s also true that Spurs were relegated at the same time. But bribery? No. And here’s where the £100 of the blog title comes in: if anyone has any proof of bribery, anything at all, then there is £100 on offer from Arsenal historian Andy Kelly for showing the proof. Andy made this offer when he wrote about these events some months ago. The money is so far unclaimed.
The situation of Arsenal’s promotion was this (warning for Spurs fans: you may need to concentrate here, as some detail is necessary): in the last season before the Football League closed down for the war the League had two divisions, both with 20 teams. When football restarted, it was decided to expand both divisions to 22 teams. Automatic promotion and relegation had been in place since 1898 for the top two of the Second Division and the bottom two of the First Division (this replaced a round-robin play-off system between the four involved clubs that had been ‘fixed’ the previous season when Stoke and Burnley colluded in the final game to make sure they both ended up in the top division).
In the last season before football was abandoned, the bottom three in the First Division were:
Man Utd 30 pts
Chelsea 29 pts
Tottenham 28 pts
Normally Chelsea and Spurs would be relegated, but Man Utd and Liverpool had fixed a match to ensure Utd finished above Chelsea. The war had prevented this being resolved, but after some public discussion in the sports press – and naturally complaints from Chelsea – the club chairmen decided without even a formal vote that Chelsea would stay up.
In the second division, the top finishing positions had been:
In fact Arsenal should have been above Birmingham on goal average, having won their last game 7-0, but the calculation error was not noticed until 1975! Either way, Derby and Preston went up automatically, as the top two had done since 1898, and with Chelsea staying up there was room for one more club in the expanded First Division.
So the chairmen all voted on who the additional club should be. The result was:
Notts Forest 3
Note that Forest had finished 18th in the Second Division before the War, and had more chance of being voted out of the League altogether than getting into Division One! Why they were in the vote at all and why they got two votes other than their own is anyone’s guess.
That aside, it’s clear that Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris had been campaigning, but so had some of the other clubs. There had been newspaper articles on the subject and it was a matter of public debate for months before the vote was actually taken.
So why did Arsenal win the vote so apparently easily, with more than twice as many votes as Spurs? The suggestion from some quarters is clear: money changed hands. But no evidence of this has ever come to light. Norris was later banned from football for financial irregularities, leading some to think that as he wasn’t always squeaky clean the events of 1919 must have been suspicious. But being guilty of one offence doesn’t automatically make you guilty of another, and however many times people (ie Spurs fans usually) say bribery must have happened in 1919, there’s no evidence.
So what other explanation is there? It was no doubt a combination of factors, and a matter of opinion as to which carried the most weight, but here are a few:
- firstly it’s very likely that many or even most of the chairmen believed Spurs should go down as they’d finished bottom; there was no precedent for the bottom club to stay up since automatic relegation had begun, and Chelsea in second-bottom only escaped without a vote because of the match fixing above them. If that is the case, and a majority decided immediately they were not voting for Spurs, then what Norris would need to do would be to come up with reasons why Arsenal should be elected ahead of their Second Division rivals
- there was a desire to raise the number of southern clubs in the First Division, so Arsenal may have been preferred to the clubs who finished above them in the Second Division
- Arsenal had – as Norris argued – long been supporters of the Football League, through a period when the Southern League (where Spurs had remained until 1908) was still a serious rival to it
- Arsenal drew relatively large crowds, and with a new rule that away teams were only to get 20 per cent of the gate money rather than 50 per cent as previously, this became more important (it’s true that Spurs also drew large crowds, but this may have meant Arsenal were preferred to others)
- Arsenal was well-served by transport links, making it easy for teams from the north to visit, and they enjoyed the chance to come to London in an era when national travel was uncommon
- related to that last point is that London wasn’t as big in 1919 as it is now, and Tottenham was at that time in Middlesex, not the County of London. It wasn’t officially in London until 1965. Now Spurs fans can bang on as long as they like about “Woolwich” and never moving home, but if people 100 years ago didn’t consider Tottenham to be part of London then it wasn’t going to be such a draw for clubs from the provinces, that is a simple fact. Arsenal was officially in London and easy to get to; Tottenham wasn’t either of those things.
In my opinion by far the most important reason for Arsenal winning the vote was simply Norris himself. He was extremely influential inside and outside football; he was knighted in 1917 and became a Tory MP in 1918, and this was at a time when football was still decidedly working class and northern-centric. No one else in football had the influence that Norris had outside the game, and this may well have swayed quite a few towards Arsenal.
There is some evidence that Norris was threatening to blow the league apart by insisting the match fixers of Man Utd and Liverpool were both relegated, but the other chairmen weren’t in favour of this as it had been the players who did the fixing rather than the clubs. However, to appease Norris enough of them were prepared to vote Arsenal in to Division One. There may well be truth in this, but there don’t appear to be any written records to verify it.
Norris was certainly not squeaky clean, and you can argue that Arsenal had little right to be voted in to the First Division when they were. But that doesn’t mean bribery was involved, it just means Norris was cleverer and bolder than his rivals.
Here’s a description of the events from Arsenal historians Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews from the Arsenal History booklet sent to members of AISA, and reproduced here with the permission of Andy and Mark.
Andy’s article on the subject for the Arsenal History Society website, complete with offer of £100, is here:
In the interests of fairness, what with me publicising the offer, in the unlikely event that someone does come up evidence of bribery by Norris, I’ll pay half the money for Andy. Generous to a fault, me. Though I think I’m probably safe.
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