Arsenal:A clubs history draped in folklore 

By Sunit Thakurta

   Ask anyone who is football mad about Arsenal football club and you will readily find people of all nationalities and castes speaking of a team that has a world renowned style of playing football. Not as popular as the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan or Real Madrid in terms of history and popularity, yet the club from Holloway, North London, has taken the world by surprise with a brand of football that only the Gunners can play. Gaining popularity around the world only over the past decade under Arsene Wenger, this club has a rich history that dates back to 1886 when a group of Scotsmen decided to save some of their financial resources to start a new social activity in the form of buying a football in a region dominated by cricket and rugby but did they know at that time what seeds they were sowing that in years to come would turn into a football cathedral on the forefront of English and European football glory?

The formation of Royal Arsenal

What we call a club by the name of Arsenal today owes its very name to a group of Scots who decided to form a social recreational activity in the hard days of industrial upheaval back in 1886. David Danskin, a Scot working in the munitions factory in Woolwich set up a small football team with the help of three friends, Elijah Watkins, John Humble and Richard Pearce. Mr.Danskin and company had no football, kit, no club name nor any place to play but these matters were solved with the arrival of a couple of Nottingham Forest players at Woolwich, Fred Beardsley and Morris Bates. This sprung David Danskin to action and he made 15 men available to play a game of football and the kit problem was solved courtesy of Beardsley and Bates as the two Nottingham Forest players used their contacts at the club to acquire red shirts. Danskin and company named their newly formed team as Dial Square after one of the factory’s workshops. The first ever match was arranged against Eastern Wanderers and Dial Square team members crossed the Thames to play at the Isle of Dogs. Dial Square won 6-0 and the victorious players sat at the Royal Oak pub next to Woolwich Arsenal station on Christmas Day, 1886 and though of a new name for the football team. As they discussed, the founding fathers of Arsenal football club thought of a name by combining the names of the pub where they were gathered and their place of work, Woolwich Arsenal. A formal name was adopted and that was ‘Royal Arsenal’ and this name remained until 1891 when Woolwich Arsenal was formally formed.

Woolwich Arsenal’s first game

1891 saw the club turn professional and the team name was changed to Woolwich Arsenal. Other London clubs such as Millwall, Tottenham and Queen’s Park Rangers were asked to form a Southern League but these clubs rejected the proposal as Woolwich Arsenal turned professional and following the rejection the club was elected into the Football Second League in 1893. Arsenal became London’s only professional club and the first club south of Birmingham to be elected to the league. One interesting fact provided by Arsenal Football Club themselves and by trusted historians is that Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground had the original Kop(Liverpool fans might not agree). The ground’s large steeply banked terrace became known as the Spion Kop, a name given by the returning soldiers of the Boer War. The club finished a creditable ninth out of fifteen teams in their first season, massing 28 points from 28 games. The highlight of the season came in October 14, 1893, when Woolwich Arsenal scored a massive 12-0 FA Cup win against Ashford United, the club’s biggest ever win in the famous domestic competition. From 1893 to 1904 Woolwich Arsenal played in the Second Division of the Football League. They were promoted to the first division in 1904.

Shift from Woolwich to Highbury

At the end of the 1912/1913 season, Woolwich Arsenal’s finances were unstable and the club got relegated and so Sir Henry Norris, the new head of the club, had only one thing in his mind- change the venue or ground to revive Woolwich Arsenal’s financial fortunes. After intensive surveys at various places, Highbury-north of river Thames-attracted Norris’ watchful eyes and he quickly figured out the financial gains of a club based at the area with the underground station a reason to attract crowds to the stadium but one thing made him circumspect about moving from Woolwich to Highbury. Tottenham, a club based in the Highbury sector, openly opposed Arsenal’s prospective move and local residents too sided in forcing the issue but Arsenal were allowed to settle at Highbury after the League Management Committee turned down an appeal by local residents and nearby clubs. This decision of the league sowed the seeds of an eternal football rivalry that today we call the ‘North London Derby’ between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. The bad blood infact started when Spurs along with other Southern clubs rejected the creation of the Southern League along with Arsenal just because the latter was the only professional club in London and south of Birmingham City. The club’s last match at Manor Ground finished 1-1 against Middlesborough on April 26, 1913. Afterwards Woolwich Arsenal was renamed as ‘The Arsenal’, although officially people addressed the club as Arsenal. As Arsenal moved away from South London to North London much to the dismay of Tottenham fans, the void left by the Gunners were filled up by Charlton Athletic, then an amateur club but turned professional taking advantage of the vacuum left by Arsenal. The first game at Highbury on September 6, 1913, finished 2-1 for the home side as they beat Leicester Fosse with Scottish international Andy Devine scoring Arsenal’s first goal. The next target for the club was a promotion to the First Division.


‘Underhand deals’ in Arsenal securing promotion at the expense of Tottenham

Arsenal’s rivalry with Tottenham is as much to do with geographical location as football history, one such fact being Arsenal’s promotion to the first division immediately after the conclusion of the First World War in 1918. Arsenal, having finished just fifth in the second division in the final season before the first great war, were expected to remain in that division when the league resumed in 1919 but unusual chain of events ensured the club get promoted at the expense of old enemy Tottenham.

It is widely believed among football historians that Sir Henry Norris, the then chairman of Arsenal, influenced the league chairman and owner of Liverpool John McKenna to gain the Gunners’ unexpected promotion. Till today no one can confirm whether Sir Norris used underhand deals behind closed doors to influence Mr.McKenna but the truth is unusual circumstances did take precedence in 1919. Tradition had it that as the league would be extended by two teams to 22, the two bottom clubs from the First division would be re-elected and would be joined by the top two sides of the second division from the last season, that is 1914/1915. If this was the case, there would have been no place for the fifth ranked second division side Arsenal in the new league. Yet, surprisingly the league decided to promote Arsenal ahead of their bitter rivals citing the club’s association with the Football League from 1893, 15 years more than Tottenham Hotspur’s. The Tottenham supporters may cry foul but whatever the truth might be, one thing for sure, Arsenal are the only club to remain at the top flight for the last 88 years and the only side not to have been promoted on playing merit.


Herbert Chapman and Arsenal

Former Huddersfield Town manager Herbert Chapman took over the reins at Highbury and the impact was immediate and stunning. Chapman came with a very high reputation to take Arsenal to the top of the league. He won two Division One titles and one FA cup in the early twenties and Sir Henry Norris made it his personal decision to bring Herbert Chapman to North London in the summer of 1925. In his first season at the club, the new boss created history as the Gunners came second in the division, the highest league position they had achieved in their history at that time. It was just the tip of the iceberg as Herbert Chapman, within a year, took the club to the FA Cup final only to lose to Cardiff City at Wembley on April 23, 1927 in front of more than 90,000 spectators. This day is still remembered as the first and last time the FA Cup left the English shores as it remained in the Welsh capital for a year. The Gunners did not have to wait for success for a long time though as Chapman’s boys tasted success as the North London ironically beat Huddersfield Town in 1930 to bring back the FA Cup to London kicking off a prolonged dominance of English football with the legendary Herbert Chapman at the helm and the team boasted of players like Alex James, Cliff Bastin and Ted Drake that took English and world football by storm till the start of second world war.

It is widely regarded that under the instructions of Chapman the club abolished the article at the start of the club’s name and ‘The Arsenal’ came to be known as only ‘Arsenal’. Many believe that this was deliberately done to keep Arsenal at the top of the Football League’s alphabetical list and they remained at the top of the 92 club list until 2006 when Conference side Accrington Stanley gained promotion to League Two. The club won its first ever league title in 1931 with a record breaking 66 points. The year 1932 brought only the FA Charity Shield at Highbury yet the Gunners came close to winning both the league and the FA Cup-lost out to Everton in the league by two points and edged by Newcastle 1-0 at the FA Cup final at Wembley-but with Herbert Chapman success never stays far behind and the club won their second league under him the following season wearing for the first time the famous red kit with white sleeves.

All these overwhelming successes achieved over the past decade paled into insignificance as disaster struck the club on January 6, 1934 when beloved manager Herbert Chapman died suddenly after being diagnosed with pneumonia aged 55. The whole club was in a state of shock at the unexpected demise of Mr.Chapman but the club’s success never took a backseat as George Allison carried forward the club keeping in mind the strong foundations laid by the late Herbert Chapman. The Gunners landed a second successive title the following May and the club became the envy of the football world. The England squad had seven of the first eleven players from Arsenal as the Three Lions beat world champions Italy 3-2 in 1934. Before the outbreak of second world war, Arsenal had won five league titles in eight seasons and two FA Cups, the second coming on April 25, 1936 courtesy of 1-0 win over Sheffield United.


Wartime Arsenal

During the second world war, the club and its venue Highbury were at the forefronts of the hostilities yet the club tried to cheer up the local residents and the supporters in those days of gloom and hardship. During the war, the club kept the ball rolling by honouring their fixtures by drafting in guest players as some of the regular Arsenal players were on the war fronts. Yet football was played regularly and guest players such as Stanley Matthews and Bill Shankly graced the fields of Arsenal’s temporary home White Hart Lane. Sworn enemy Tottenham returned a world war one favour to Arsenal when the former allowed the Gunners to use the Lane as their temporary home as Highbury was closed to the public and used as an Air Raid Precautions Centre(ARP). At the time of the first great war Arsenal allowed Tottenham to use Highbury as a temporary base. During the ‘Blitz’ of the Battle for Britain, Highbury suffered extensive damage as the German Luftwaffer tormented the British capital.



Post war Arsenal

The league resumed in post war England and as expected after five years of fierce war that changed the outlook of Europe and the world completely, it was not the same Arsenal team that graced the fields of England under Herbert Chapman and later on George Allison. Allison resumed his managerial duties after the war but struggled to restore the magic of the 1930s. In the 1946/47 season, the club finished a disappointing 13th having scraped past relegation. George Allison decided to retire after that campaign. His assistant, Tom Whitaker, took up the reigns and had an immediate effect.In the 1947/48 season, Arsenal won the League by seven points from Manchester United. Two years later, a brace by Reg Lewis against Liverpool would see them win the FA Cup.

Arsenal won the league title again in 1953, one of the closest in history, pipping Preston Northend on goal difference(by 0.099 of a goal on goal average). This success was to be the last for a while as the Gunners failed to win a silverware for the next seventeen years. One of the highlights of the late 1950s was the visit of the Busby Babes to Highbury for a league game on February 1, 1958. The match turned out to be one of the finest in English football history and also one of the most significant because what followed after the match turned English football upside down. Matt Busby’s Manchester United were the talk of the Kingdom given their attacking brand of football that led the Red Devils to two consecutive league titles. Famous faces such as Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Eddie Coleman did not disappoint as United won 5-4 against a fighting home side. Highbury was enthralled by the Busby Babes but the match was to be the last in English soil for the Babes as the plane carrying the Manchester United side back from Munich after an European game perished in snow killing many of United players. A tragic remembrance for those who last saw the Busby Babes gracing the fields of Highbury for the very last time.

Appointment of Bertie Mee(The sixties and seventies)

Physiotherapist Bertie Mee was appointed new Arsenal manager, surprising many, replacing Billy Wright to change the club’s fortunes. England legend Billy Wright managed the club between 1962 and 1966 with little success and it was time to look elesewhere to land trophies at Highbury. The highlight of this period was the success of the Arsenal youth team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1966 and this new crop of future players gave hope to a lot of people involved with Arsenal football club at that time. Players such as Charlie George, Ray Kennedy and John Radford graduated to the first team from the victorious youth team and formed the nucleus of a new Arsenal that under the management of Bertie Mee appeared in successive league cup finals in 1968 and 1969. Although the Gunners lost both the finals, hope sprung back into North London and it was a matter of time before the club landed some sort of silverware to a starved Highbury. When it came, it was a memorable moment. Arsenal won their first trophy of any kind in seventeen years as Bertie Mee plotted the club’s first success in Europe. Trailing Belgian side Anderlecht 3-0 in the European Fairs Cup Final first leg, the Gunners were thrown a lifeline by Ray Kennedy’s late away goal in Belgium and the English side completed a memorable night at Highbury by winning 4-3 on aggregate to lift the Fairs Cup, their very first taste of continental glory. This victory turned around the club’s fortunes briefly as Bertie Mee tasted more success as a year later Arsenal won the fabled double in 1971 by claiming the league title at sworn enemy Tottenham’s White Hart Lane to pip Leeds United by winning 1-0 courtesy of a late Ray Kennedy header. Five days later, the Gunners beat Liverpool to claim the FA Cup at Wembley courtesy of Charlie George’s extra time goal to complete a double thus becoming only the fourth team in history at that time to win a double and only the second in the twentieth century. Following this success another barren spell appeared and Bertie Mee stepped aside for Terry Neill to take charge in 1976 after three seasons of sheer disappointment having finished 10th, 16th and 17th respectively. Terry Neill tried to bring back the glory days by signing some high profile and expensive names. He brought in Pat Jennings from Spurs and then followed that up with a record club transfer fee to bring Malcolm McDonald from Newcastle. The arrivals of talents like Irishman Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton made Arsenal a top half club again. Success briefly came but all in cups as Arsenal appeared in three successive cup finals in the years 1978, 1979, 1980. Of the three, the Gunners managed to win one in 1979. Dubbed the ‘Five-Minute Final’, Arsenal beat Manchester United after a thrilling finish to the game. Comfortably placed at 2-0, Arsenal let slip the two goal lead as United scored two late goals in the closing stages only for Arsenal’s Alan Sunderland to slide home the winner in injury time and break United hearts, all in the space of five minutes. The other two FA Cup finals ended in shock 1-0 defeats to Ipswich in 1978 and West Ham in 1980. Four days after losing the 1980 FA Cup final to the Hammers, Arsenal lost the European Cup Winners Cup final to Spain’s Valencia on penalties heralding another short barren spell.

The George Graham Era(The Eighties)

At the end of the 1985-86 season, Millwall manager George Graham-a former Arsenal player- was appointed as the club's new manager and it was a beginning of a golden era at Highbury. He led the club to victory over Liverpool in the League Cup final during his first season in charge and at the end of his third season (1988-89) the club won its first league title since 1971 in dramatic fashion. Needing two goals to secure the league championship against Liverpool, an injury time goal by midfielder Michael Thomas gave Arsenal a 2-0 win to secure the league title. Another league title came in 1991, with Arsenal losing just one out of 38 league fixtures, although they had 2 points deducted in October 1990 after ten of their players were involved in a brawl with Manchester United players in a match at Old Trafford.
By the early 1990s, Arsenal had probably the finest squad in the English league. Goalkeeper David Seaman, defender and captain Tony Adams, winger Paul Merson and striker Alan Smith were capable of competing with some of the best players in England. The £2.5million addition of Crystal Palace striker Ian Wright in October 1991 further boosted the squad. Arsenal completed a unique FA Cup and League Cup double in 1993 (beating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 in both finals) although they finished 10th in the inaugural Premier League and scored fewer goals than any other team in the division.
1994 saw the club win its second European trophy, by beating Parma 1-0 in the Cup Winners Cup final with a goal from Alan Smith. But the following February, George Graham was sacked after nearly nine years in charge after he was discovered to have accepted an illegal £425,000 payment from Swedish agent Rune Hauge following the 1992 acquisition of Danish midfielder John Jensen. Assistant manager Stewart Houston took charge until the end of the season, and although Arsenal finished a disappointing 12th in the Premiership they did reach the Cup Winners Cup final again, only to lose 2-1 to Real Zaragoza.

Bruce Rioch and Arsenal launches a coup

Bruce Rioch, who had just guided Bolton Wanderers to a League Cup final appearance and promotion to the top division after a 15-year exile, was appointed as the club's new manager for the 1995-96 season. He (briefly) broke the English transfer record by paying Internazionale of Milan a bargaining price of £7.5million for Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp, a sort of coup that the world stood up and watched and the new signing formed an impressive partnership with Ian Wright. Arsenal reached the League Cup semi final and finished fifth in the Premiership at the end of 1995-96, securing a place in the following season's UEFA Cup and giving hope for an eventual title challenge. But in August 1996, just before the start of the new season, Bruce Rioch was sacked by the club's board of directors after a dispute over transfer funds. Assistant manager Stewart Houston was put in temporary charge, remaining at the helm for a month, before resigning to take over at Queen’s Park Rangers. Youth team coach Pat Rice held the fort for several games, before making way for the 44-year-old Frenchman Arsène Wenger, who had guided AS Monaco to the French league title in 1988. The arrival of Arsene Wenger heralded a new beginning at Highbury that we are still experiencing to this day and the Frenchman brought with him a brand of football that took English football by storm and this led the Gunners to a historic league and FA Cup double in the 1997-1998 season with Dennis Bergkamp the primary beneficiary of such attacking football. Success brought with it an influx of foreign talents to Highbury that made Arsenal football club the envy of English Premier League. The likes of Thierry Henry, Marc Overmars, Robert Pires, Patrick Viera continued the great work at Arsenal football club that was started by a group of Scots in 1886 in an English pub on one Christmas Day. Let’s hope the current crop of players keep up the tradition and make Arsenal football club more that just a club.

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