Rewind to 1919

Audacious Arsenal supplant Spurs

November 11, 2010
By Tom Adams
(Archive)

On Saturday, Arsenal and Tottenham meet at Emirates Stadium in the latest instalment of one of English football's fiercest rivalries. But what lies at the root of this bitter North London dispute? The answer can be found in a sequence of events in the 1910s, and in a shadowy, legendary figure found deep in Arsenal's history.

Sir Henry Norris (centre) poses with the Arsenal team in 1921
PA PhotosSir Henry Norris (centre) poses with the Arsenal team in 1921

As totemic figures in the history of Arsenal Football Club go, the enigmatic and mysterious Sir Henry Norris is surely hugely underappreciated. Before Arsene Wenger constructed his invincible team, before Michael Thomas scored that goal at Anfield in 1989, before Bertie Mee's side won the Double in 1971 and before even Herbert Chapman established his lasting legacy of success at the club, there was Norris.

Though he remains an obscure figure, this was the man whose Machiavellian machinations transported Arsenal to North London and secured their place in the top flight at Tottenham's expense. In short, Norris was the man who inadvertently gave birth to the North London derby, and helped lay the foundations for the modern Arsenal. Spurs fans will never forgive him.

A property developer responsible for building 2,000 homes in Wimbledon and Fulham between 1909 and the end of the First World War in 1918, Norris enjoyed a fearsome reputation, so much so that one of his managers, Leslie Knighton, would write of his chairman: "I have never met his equal for logic, invective and ruthlessness against all who opposed him. When I disagreed with him at board meetings and had to stand up for what I knew as best for the club and boys, he used to flay me with words until I was reduced to fuming, helpless silence."

Norris - described by one Arsenal chronicler as "nothing less than a dictator" - certainly had a singular vision for the future of Woolwich Arsenal, as they were then known, after becoming chairman and it didn't involve the South London district of Plumstead. Norris attempted to merge Fulham and Arsenal before coming to the conclusion in 1913 that if the Gunners were to address their disastrous financial position, they would have to relocate. What became known as the "great Arsenal gamble" was underway.

Sites in Battersea and Haringey were considered but space was found in Highbury next to Gillespie Road tube station (later renamed Arsenal) and the Gunners moved into the Borough of Islington. Tottenham, located down Seven Sisters Road, were hugely unimpressed as Arsenal laid claim to a large portion of their catchment area. A grudge was forged that would grow into a deep-seated rivalry and a full 83 years before Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes, the original 'Franchise FC' were born.

But if Tottenham fans and officials were unhappy to see Arsenal encroaching on their territory in 1913, they would be further angered six years later when - with the Football League resuming following the conclusion of the First World War - the Gunners expatriated them from the First Division.

Four months after Armistice Day brought a halt to battle on the Western Front in November 1918, the authorities sought to revitalise football and the First Division was to be resurrected and expanded to 22 clubs from 20. Tradition dictated the bottom two clubs from the previous season - Chelsea and Tottenham - would be handed a reprieve, and that the top two clubs in the Second Division - Derby and Preston - would be promoted.

Certainly Chelsea were in a strong position, as the club had only fallen into the relegation zone in 1914-15 due to a notorious match-fixing scandal involving Manchester United and Liverpool. As events transpired, they retained their place without a vote being taken by the Football League at the crucial meeting because, as reports at the time stated, "the manner in which they lost their position before war interfered with the game is generally regarded as unsatisfactory".

Sir Henry Norris recruited Herbert Chapman from Huddersfield in 1925, and he would go on to revolutionise the club, and English football
PA PhotosSir Henry Norris recruited Herbert Chapman from Huddersfield in 1925, and he would go on to revolutionise the club, and English football

Tottenham were fully expected to join Chelsea in the top flight, but then Arsenal, led by Norris, made an audacious move. Based partially on their longer service in the Football League (Arsenal were the first southern side to join in 1893), Norris argued that the Gunners were more deserving of a place than Tottenham, let along Barnsley and Wolves, who had both finished above them in the final Second Division season before the war. Following Arsenal's lead, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham and Hull all submitted their own applications and, with the promoted Derby and Preston ushered into the top flight, a seven-way tussle was underway for the final place in the expanded 22-team division.

The Daily Express recorded the anticipation felt ahead of the meeting in Manchester on March 10, 1919: "London was never more intimately concerned with Football League deliberations than on this occasion... There is an understanding that Chelsea will be voted into the First Division, and when the present scheme was first mooted it was regarded as a matter of course that they would be accompanied by Tottenham Hotspur, but The Arsenal considered that they had a superior claim and issued an appeal to the clubs to vote for them in preference to the Spurs ... there is a strong body of opinion that considers Tottenham Hotspur ought to remain in the First Division."

It was almost certain that the place would go to a side from the capital - after all, an unnamed northern official told the Daily Mirror, "our boys like a visit to London once or twice a year ... they get a show at the theatres and see something of the great city. The directors also enjoy a visit to the big smoke" - but momentum swung decisively in Arsenal's favour when League chairman and Liverpool owner John McKenna, a close friend of Norris, urged clubs to vote in favour of the Gunners as they had joined the League some 15 years before Tottenham.

When the votes were counted, Arsenal had won the support of 18 clubs, Tottenham 8, Barnsley 5, Wolves 5, Forest 3, Birmingham 2 and Hull 1. Despite finishing fifth in the Second Division in the final season before the Football League was suspended, it was Arsenal who would occupy a place in the top flight, and not their neighbours Tottenham.

It would be a touch anachronistic to say the decision was a travesty - with the Southern League remaining very much a rival to the Football League, Arsenal's service to the latter was of real value and the league structure was far more fluid than we are accustomed to now - but it was very much a shock, and not a pleasant one for Tottenham fans. Arsenal had completed one of the most brazen coups in the history of football, overseen by Norris and supported by McKenna, and resentment quickly grew as they enjoyed the trappings of top-flight football and Spurs were sent down a division.

As the Daily Mirror reported: "The fact that Tottenham Hotspur, the cup winners of 1901, lose status is deplored by some but, on the other hand, Arsenal's unswerving loyalty to the league over a long period of years fully merited recognition."

Norris' great finesse had worked, though not without generating controversy that would echo through his ages. His close relationship with McKenna led to accusations that he had influenced the vote and that Arsenal had won their place in the top flight due to corruption. Certainly Norris' reputation was besmirched by the events of 1927 when the FA expelled him from football due to financial irregularities at Arsenal, but no evidence was produced regarding Arsenal's ascent in 1919 and Norris never addressed the issue prior to his death in 1934.

Arsenal take on Tottenham at Highbury in January 1921 as the two clubs' rivalry intensifies
GettyImagesArsenal take on Tottenham at Highbury in January 1921 as the two clubs' rivalry intensifies

Though Norris remains an unknown figure to the vast majority of football fans, his story is central to the evolution of the North London derby. Many famous figures passed through Highbury's marble halls, but perhaps none has been so decisive in creating Arsenal's history, and their rivalry with Tottenham.

As no less of an authority than Brian Glanville - the highly-respected journalist who ghosted Cliff Bastin's autobiography in 1950 and still attends Arsenal games to this day - writes in his exhaustive The Real Arsenal: From Chapman to Wenger: "In the pantheon of Arsenal's heroes, none surely stands higher than the supreme Herbert Chapman, rivalled as an exceptional manager only by Arsene Wenger. But in my opinion, the most influential figure in Arsenal's long and remarkable history is Sir Henry Norris. A name surely long since forgotten in the annals of English football, yet equally surely, to my mind, the man who by hook, crook, persistence and wealth made everything possible for the club which he took across the Thames in 1913."

What happened next? Norris replaced Leslie Knighton with the revolutionary Herbert Chapman in 1925 and Arsenal were transformed forever. Norris departed the club under a cloud following a financial investigation, losing a libel action against the FA in 1929, but his impact would be felt for decades more. Arsenal have never surrendered their place in the top flight since that fateful day in 1919 and are the only club to boast that distinction.