On 10th March 1919 the Football League held a special meeting to agree the expansion of the league and also which teams would make up the First Division. They held an election, the result of which still rankles supporters today. Something which especially concerns Arsenal and Tottenham.
Thereâ€™s a common misconception about Arsenalâ€™s record in English footballâ€™s top tier. Some supporters get confused in believing theyâ€™ve never been relegated. The truth is they have.
Arsenalâ€™s unbroken residence in the Premier League/First Division stretches back to 1919, more than any other club. But the circumstances surrounding how they came to win a place in the division back then still causes much discussion.
The Football League was formed in 1888. There were 12 original members competing in one division. Three years later this had expanded to 14, then in 1892 to 16 as a Second Division was also added.
Arsenal began life as Woolwich Arsenal and were a Second Division side until they won promotion along with Preston North End in 1903. The 1912-13 season saw them finish bottom of the table, winning just three of its 38 matches.
In 1908 Tottenham Hotspur was elected to the Second Division, having competed in the Southern League. It was during that time they won the FA Cup, remaining the only non-league club to win the competition. They won promotion to the First Division in their first season, finishing second to Bolton Wanderers.
In 1913-14 Arsenal missed out on promotion by goal average, to Bradford Park Avenue. This was the method used before goal difference to split teams on the same points.
The 1914-15 season was played under the constant cloud of the First World War. Britain declared War on Germany a month before the season started. To begin with the professional army was sent to France and Belgium to repel the German advance towards Paris. They headed them off at Mons, just over the French border into Belgium. The Germans retreated and then began to dig themselves in. A series of trench systems were built from the Channel in Belgium down through France to the Swiss border.
In Britain national fervour grew to encourage more men to enlist to bolster the troops in Europe. This resulted in some footballers joining up leaving their clubs at a disadvantage to those whose players stayed. Added to that, there was increasing pressure on fit young men to give up the game and go abroad to fight for their country.
To begin with many expected this to be a short conflict, and â€˜all over by Christmasâ€™ as the common phrase went. But it wasnâ€™t over by Christmas and so by Easter 1915 with war still going on, there were further concerns the season would be suspended.
It wasnâ€™t but when it was completed Chelsea and Tottenham finished as the bottom two who were expecting to be relegated.
By the season end evidence had emerged of a match fixed between Manchester United and Liverpool on Good Friday. United won the game and the two points gave them the necessary advantage over both relegated clubs. They finished a point above Chelsea and two above Tottenham.
The top two in the Second Division were Derby County and Preston North End and ordinarily they would just swap places with the bottom two in the First Division. But the league was suspended and no one knew when it would re-commence.
The war didnâ€™t end until November 1918. There had been football played during the war but this was confined to regional leagues. As their 1918-19 seasons were already underway, arrangements were made to start the new season after summer 1919. By this time the authorities were keen to attract more public to the game, to boost morale.
One suggestion was to expand the league again and include more clubs. Throughout its existence the Football League had been predominantly occupied by northern clubs. There was a suggestion of amalgamating the Southern League to make it truly a national league. It was Blackpool who proposed a change from two divisions of 20 to 22 teams.
Blackpoolâ€™s proposal included an election to determine who would be in the First Division. With an increase of two extra clubs, should four go up from the Second Division or just two and keep the two clubs who wouldâ€™ve been relegated, where they were?
Either way there were going to be some disappointed clubs. An election was considered the fairest way.
The Athletic News (a Manchester based weekly sports paper) reported this and suggested Arsenal would have a strong claim to be in the First Division. The wording is interesting and gives a clue to the general mood around the nation immediately after the war.
â€œOn sentimental grounds The Arsenal has a strong claim for inclusion among the top-hole teams. When the headquarters of the club was in Woolwich, the Arsenal was the pioneer First Division team in the south having gained promotion in the season of 1903-04.
It steadfastly remained loyal to The League, and in spite of a boycott by the Southern League, whose clubs refused fixtures to Woolwich Arsenal because the Plumstead people would not join that body, the â€˜Gunnersâ€™ flourished.
By and by the enterprise of the club was restricted. When the manufacture of guns and shells was at its height, everything went smoothly at Plumstead. The ill-fated day arrived when short-sighted politicians considered there was no necessity to pile up arms and there was a big exodus from Woolwich. Krupps got the brains of our designers and skilled mechanics, while Plumstead lost it football club.
No professional club can exist in a village. Population is essential for its support. So the Arsenal dropped Woolwich from its title, and settled in a densely populated district of Highbury, convenient to the principal railway stations.
There its old fortunes have been revived thanks to the financial support of men like Colonel Sir H.G. Norris, M.P., and Mr. W. Hall. The club can fight its own battles. It is led by sportsmen who never show the white feather.â€
The case for Arsenal could be seen as a strange one. They finished fifth in Division Two in 1914-15. Barnsley and Wolves had finished immediately above them, just below the promotion places and so had a greater claim, surely?
Chelsea made an appeal to be considered for First Division status on the basis of the Manchester United/Liverpool match. At the end of January it was being reported in the press that Tottenham had written to all the clubs putting forward their case. One point they emphasised was how they suffered in 1914-15 from men enlisting.
The meeting was held in Manchester on 10th March 1919. A number of different proposals were suggested. As well as Blackpoolâ€™s, Everton proposed the league shouldnâ€™t be expanded and that Chelsea and Tottenham remain with Manchester United going down after their fix. This was rejected on account it wasnâ€™t just Manchester United who fixed the match, and it was players who arranged it not officials of either club. West Brom proposed an expansion to 21 teams and Chelsea remain, but again this was rejected.
Finally, they settled on two divisions of 22 teams. Preston and Derby would be promoted and Chelsea would remain in the First Division.
Seven teams had applied to be elected into the First Division. Tottenham, whoâ€™d finished bottom of the First Division in the last completed season. Then the clubs who occupied the next five places below the Preston and Derby in Division Two. The biggest surprise was Nottingham Forest. They finished 18th of 20 teams in the Second Division, yet they were considered worthy of inclusion.
The minutes of the meeting confirm how the voting went.
Arsenal was therefore elected. Much to the disappointment of Tottenham although it was reported their representative at the meeting stated â€œwe shall take our defeat like sportsmen!â€
Ever since then stories of the events of March 1919 have included accusations of bribery by Arsenal officials, particularly Norris.
Norris paid Â£125,000 for the club to move to Highbury and it was suggested the club still owed him Â£60,000 after the end of the war. First Division status would attract bigger crowds to allow the debt to be paid off quicker.
Norris was a controversial figure. Many reports at the time paint him as a bit of a tyrant, a man not to be messed with. Once he bought a majority stake at Arsenal he immediately suggested a merger with Fulham, where he was also a director, and a permanent move to Craven Cottage. This was blocked by the Football League.
Once heâ€™d organised Arsenalâ€™s move from Woolwich to Highbury, he angered Tottenham and Orient who didnâ€™t welcome the competition.
Many of the accusation laid at his door on the election was Arsenal must have bribed officials of the other clubs to vote for them, otherwise Tottenham would surely have won.
But thereâ€™s no evidence of this, merely suspicions. Itâ€™s over 100 years now and still no one has corroborated this. No one has said they received any payments, no one has said they saw money change hands.
During the 1920s there were plenty of examples of inappropriate payments made by Norris as Arsenal Chairman. He was accused a paying Charlie Buchan, a forward they bought from Sunderland. The Daily Mail ran a story alleging Norris made illegal payments to the player to compensate him for a drop in income when moving south. This was the age of the maximum wage and there were strict rules relating to payments made by clubs to players. It happened, of course and there is evidence of this in confessions made after careers had ended. He allegedly sold the team bus in 1927 and the money went into his wifeâ€™s account rather than the clubâ€™s. He also allegedly used the clubâ€™s expense account to pay for a chauffeur to drive him around.
In 1928 he was accused of telling the Arsenal team to take it easy against fellow strugglers Portsmouth and Manchester United. Nothing was proved but an FA committee decided theyâ€™d had enough of his skulduggery and banned him from the game â€˜indefinitelyâ€™.
Norris died from a heart attack in 1934. His estate was valued to the equivalent of Â£4m today. Not only did he make sure his family were taken care of, but many of the Arsenal staff were looked after financially too. His will made provisions for payments to former manager, Leslie Knighton as well as the trainer and groundsman. Former employees of his building firm also benefited.
Whilst making good any wrongdoing in his past would it not have been a good time to sort out an irregularities from 1919?
He was obviously a rogue, as the evidence suggests but it is strange this evidence doesnâ€™t extend to the election in 1919. There have been investigations into his conduct and most of the accusations have found to be fact.
An argument was made he hoodwinked the Tottenham officials at the meeting, in that they werenâ€™t aware there was going to be an election. However, newspaper reports leading up to the meeting made it clear that was what was to happen.
Of course itâ€™s just possible the Arsenal â€˜bidâ€™ was more appealing than the Tottenham one. Norris may well have had â€˜credit in the bankâ€™ with other officials due to his service during the war. He worked as a recruitment office as well as serving. In 1917 he was knighted and given the honorary rank of Colonel for services to the country.
Supporters of the two clubs still hate each other, itâ€™s a fierce rivalry and for many Tottenham fans they still feel they were cheated by Arsenal all those years ago.
In the end Tottenham only had to wait one season to play First Division football as they won the Second Division in 1919-20. A year later they finished above Arsenal in the league and won the FA Cup for the second time in their history.
Perhaps it didnâ€™t really matter that much?
Yet still this gets under the skin of rival fans over 100 years later.