Move to Highbury (1910–25)

Norris was acutely aware of the problems associated with Woolwich Arsenal’s location, and was desperate to improve the club’s income. First, Norris tried to merge Woolwich Arsenal with his other club, Fulham. When that was blocked by the Football League, Norris abandoned the merger and looked to move the club elsewhere, eventually picking a site in Highbury, north London. Despite objections both from Woolwich-based fans and residents of Highbury, Norris tenaciously saw the move through. He reportedly spent £125,000 ( Historic Opportunity cost of that project is £12,530,000.00, Labour cost of that project is £42,450,000.00, Economic cost of that project is £88,070,000.00) on building the new stadium, designed by Archibald Leitch, on a divinity college’s playing fields. Woolwich Arsenal moved there in the 1913 close season, having finished bottom and relegated to the Second Division in 1912–13. They replaced the “Woolwich” in their name with “The” in April 1914, finally becoming plain “Arsenal” in November 1919, although the press at the time continued to refer to them as “The Arsenal” and some still do.

The club controversially rejoined the First Division in 1919, despite only finishing sixth in 1914–15, the last season of competitive football before the First World War had intervened — although an error in the calculation of goal average meant Arsenal had actually finished fifth, an error which was corrected by the Football League in 1975. The First Division was being expanded from 20 teams to 22, and the two new entrants were elected at an AGM of the Football League. One of the extra places was given to Chelsea, who had finished 19th in the First Division and thus had been already relegated. The other spot could have gone to 20th-placed Tottenham Hotspur (also relegated), or to Barnsley or Wolves, who had finished third and fourth in the Second Division respectively.

Instead, the League decided to promote sixth-placed Arsenal, for reasons of history over merit; Norris argued that Arsenal be promoted for their “long service to league football”, having been the first League club from the South. The League board agreed; they voted eighteen votes to eight to promote Arsenal ahead of their local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, which has fuelled the long-standing enmity between the two clubs. If “long service to league football” was the criterion for promoting Arsenal instead of Tottenham then Wolves, who finished two points ahead of Arsenal and were founder members of the Football League, would appear to have a stronger claim. It has been alleged that this was due to backroom deals or even outright bribery by Sir Henry Norris, colluding with his friend John McKenna, the chairman of Liverpool and the Football League, who recommended Arsenal’s promotion at the AGM.

No conclusive proof of wrongdoing has come to light, though other aspects of Norris’s financial dealings unrelated to the promotion controversy have fuelled speculation on the matter; Norris resigned as chairman and left the club in 1929, having been found guilty by the Football Association of financial irregularities; he was found to have misused his expenses account, and to have pocketed the proceeds of the sale of the Arsenal team bus. Regardless of the circumstances of their promotion in 1919, Arsenal have remained in the top division since then, and as a result hold the English record for the longest unbroken stretch of top-flight football.

There appear to be no extant records of the meetings which elected Arsenal to the First Division in 1919, however the book Making the Arsenal proposes a different reason for their election in that year. The site argues that the match fixing issues of the final year of football before the war (1914–15) were used by Norris as a weapon in his battle to get Arsenal promoted. He demanded that Liverpool and Manchester United (who had been found guilty of match fixing) be punished by relegation or expulsion, and threatened to organise a breakaway from the league by Midlands and southern clubs if nothing was done. To placate him the League offered Arsenal a place in the First Division.

Arsenal’s squad for the 1920–21season, the club’s best under Leslie Knighton, finishing ninth in the First Division.

The move to Highbury brought about much larger crowds; the average attendance in Arsenal’s first season at the new ground was 23,000 (compared to 11,000 at the Manor Ground) and rose further after promotion in 1919, finally warding off the spectre of financial ruin. However, Arsenal’s return to the First Division was not immediately successful. Under Leslie Knighton, the club never finished better than ninth, and in 1923–24 came close to returning to the Second Division, finishing 19th and only a point clear of the relegation zone. Arsenal did no better the following season, finishing 20th (although paradoxically the club were a lot safer this time, being seven points clear of the relegation places), which was the last straw for Norris; he fired Knighton in May 1925, and appointed the Huddersfield Town manager, Herbert Chapman in his place.

 

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