Despite it being only the middle of July, Arsenal’s pre-season preparations are well under way with a tournament in Singapore already completed and the Emirates Cup and Community Shield still to come before the very early start to the Premier League season.
Arsenal’s preparations for the season ahead haven’t always been this hectic. For many years it was a case of some running around the pitch to shake off the excesses of the Summer and a couple of kickabouts.
The earliest records of the team playing prior to the start of the season are in 1888, two years after the club was founded. Two games, advertised as the Probables v Improbables, were played on 1 September and a week later. Unfortunately no records of the outcome of these two games exists, nor of the players involved. However, with the club gaining a reputation as one of the leading clubs in London, it is likely that a fair number of trialists had put their names forward to the committee that ran the team. And don’t be fooled by the dates. In the early days of the game, the season started in September with cricket, still being the more senior sport, taking precedence.
These practice matches became a regular fixture for more than 70 years. The teams that competed generally comprised of the first team and the reserves. One team would play in the home kit and were known as The Reds, whilst the other team would play in the away kit and were known as The Whites, or The Blues when that colour was adopted as the change strip.
From early on the practice matches were played in front of a paying crowd. The money that was collected at the gate would be distributed amongst local charities. In 1910 the proceeds of one of the games was given to the family of Edward Cannon. Edward was a young goalkeeper who played in Arsenal’s reserves between 1908 and 1910, and died suddenly after a brief illness in August.
Arsenal were forced to play the two public practice matches at other grounds in 1913 as they had just moved to Highbury and the ground was not ready to admit the public by the time the practice matches were due to be played. The first was played at Fulham, courtesy of the fact that Arsenal’s two major shareholders were also directors of the West London club. The second was played at Millwall. A third match was played behind closed doors at Highbury on 30 August, this being the first organised game ever played at Highbury.
Occasionally the manager and trainer would experiment by swapping the forward lines over so that the first team strike force would be pitted against the first team defence. With the reserves having a point to prove they would often give the seniors a bloody nose such as in 1934 when they won 6-3.
In their heyday the public practice matches would attract crowds of 25,000 but by the mid 1950s these had dropped to less than 7,000 before eventually being dropped in 1962.
The decline in the public practice matches coincided with the advent of more convenient air travel which resulted in Arsenal being invited to play in overseas friendlies. This benefitted the club in that the opponents provided good quality opposition to ready them for the season ahead, and they were also financially lucrative.
The first such friendly was played in 1956 when VFB Stuttgart provided the opposition in a 1-1 draw. The following season saw a game played in Sweden whilst in 1958 Arsenal became more adventurous, playing games in West Germany, Holland and Switzerland.
In 1965 they broke new ground when they were invited to play in a three-team tournament in Jamaica for the Independence Trophy, donated by local brewers Desnoes & Geddes, as well as four other friendly matches. The first game, against Trinidad, was fairly competitive with Arsenal winning 3-1. The following day a very one-sided friendly was played against a team of amateur players from the Sugar Manufacturers’ Association which saw Joe Baker score six goals and first-team coach Les Shannon score four whilst manager Billy Wright played centre-back in a 12-0 victory.
With Jamaica beating Trinidad 4-0, the deciding game between the Gunners and Jamaica was somewhat competitive and the rather fractious match erupted shortly before half-time when Ian Ure was fouled by Jamaican captain Lascelles Dunkley. A session of “handbags” ensued which resulted in Dunkley and Frank McLintock being sent off. Tempers flared on and off the pitch as Joe Baker and Frank Brown squared up to each other, and the crowd reacted by throwing bottles on to the pitch which resulted in the game being abandoned. The rest of the tour was in doubt but, after discussions with Arsenal and the local authorities, it continued without further incident. To this day, no one is exactly sure who won the tournament!
After this escapade it was decided to play closer to home for a number of years. The club also instigated a number of one-off games that were played behind closed doors, usually at the London Colney training ground. Initially games were played against Watford but later Bournemouth and Notts County provided the opposition. At least one game against Watford was played as an experiment over three 30-minute sessions. This, obviously, didn’t catch on!
The mid-1970s saw the rise in popularity of four-team tournaments, with teams from different countries invited to compete. Not doing things in half-measures, Arsenal managed to fit in two such tournaments at their first attempt in 1977: one in Singapore and one in Australia. The latter has become renowned for the incident that saw Malcolm Macdonald and Alan Hudson sent home by manager Terry Neill.
In 1979 Arsenal played their first pre-season Charity (now Community) Shield fixture. Arsenal had appeared in nine previous Shields but prior to 1974 it was played during the season rather than as a curtain raiser. This season will see Arsenal compete in their 12th pre-season Charity / Community Shield game in the last 36 years.
Having regularly appeared in overseas tournaments, Arsenal played their initial pre-season tournament in the UK in 1988. Originally titled “The Wembley Tournament”, the Gunners were runaway winners thrashing Tottenham 4-0 and Bayern Munich 3-0 in a prelude to a magnificent season. The following year it was sponsored by Makita and, in 1991, Arsenal hosted the tournament at Highbury – the first of such at an Arsenal ground. The competition was played for the last time in 1994 with Arsenal beating Napoli in the final.
It would be another 13 years before Arsenal fans were to see another pre-season tournament at the club’s home ground. The Emirates Cup was inaugurated in 2007 and has been held at The Emirates Stadium every year since, except for 2012 when the Olympics prevented any competitive games from being played in London during the games. The tournament has been well supported with a family atmosphere, and is a world away from the Probables v Improbables played in front of a few hundred locals 127 years ago.
Background to this article
This season we’ve been asked to write a regular page in the official Arsenal Magazine based on a classic match featuring the opponents for each game we play in. Magazine and Programme editor Andy Exley has kindly given us permission to reproduce the work on our blog. We will also be including additional material that didn’t make the final edit of the Magazine.
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- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal – crowd behaviour at the early matches