Almost a century on, Arsenal’s election back into the First Division in 1919 continues to rankle Tottenham fans. Having shown that the reported events of that year have been the result of idle hands, there was one last tenet that Tottenham fans continued to spout as “the truth.” They have continued to put forth “precedence” as a reason for being wronged. If you don’t believe me you only have to do a simple search.
On 31 January 1919, The Sportsman reported on the case put forward by Tottenham to retain their position in Division One. They mentioned precedent and cited previous cases. However, they misinformed the public of what really happened.
Whilst flicking through an old edition of Gunflash that something caught my eye – an election in 1898 – and I thought it was worth looking into. The results will not make easy reading for Tottenham fans.
Let’s take a look at the how the Football League grew following its formation in 1888.
The Football League was formed in 1888 and originally comprised 12 clubs; it was not called Division One as there was no Second Division.
In the summer of 1891 the members agreed to expand the Football League to 14 clubs; there was still no Second Division.
The following year, the Football League was expanded to 16 clubs, and a second tier was formed, comprising of 12 clubs. These two divisions were known as Division One and Division Two. If we take a look at the final table for 1891-92, we see Accrington, West Bromwich Albion, Stoke and Darwen at the bottom of the table.
Football League final table 1891-92
|2||Preston North End||26||18||1||7||61||31||37|
|12||West Bromwich Albion||26||6||6||14||51||58||18|
At the Football League’s AGM the bottom four had to apply for re-election to the First Division. According to Tottenham’s “precedent”, all of these clubs should have just retained their place in the newly formed First Division. However, Darwen were unsuccessful and played the 1892-93 season in Division Two whilst the other three clubs played in the First Division.
Not looking too good for Tottenham.
The next time we see an expansion of the First Division is 1898. By then the Second Division had been also been expanded to 16 clubs. This was supposed to have happened in 1893 but it was something of a messy affair.
This is how the two tables looked at the end of the 1897-98 season.
Football League Division One final table 1897-98
|7||West Bromwich Albion||30||11||10||9||44||45||32|
|12||Preston North End||30||8||8||14||35||43||24|
Football League Division Two final table 1897-98
At the Football League AGM on 20 May 1898, a number of different options on how to increase the size of the League were debated. Woolwich Arsenal proposed that the First Division should comprise 16 teams, and the Second Division should be split into two regional divisions (North and South) of 16 teams each. This was obviously to reduce their travelling expenses and generate bigger crowds which were more likely to attend games between local teams. However, a simple increase of both divisions by two teams was agreed.
Now this is really confusing as promotion and relegation was decided by a series of play-offs known as Test Matches. The results of the Test Matches meant that Stoke retained their place in the First Division and Burnley were promoted. This was the last season that Test Matches were played, mainly due to the belief that Stoke and Burnley had taken it easy in their Test Match knowing that a 0-0 draw would suit both teams.
A vote was taken to decide which teams formed the First Division. Those in the mix were: Newcastle, Blackburn, Small Heath (Birmingham), Arsenal, Manchester City and Newton Heath (Manchester United). What is notable here is that Blackburn are included in the vote. They had finished above Stoke in the First Division and must surely have been, according to Tottenham’s “precedent” claim, entitled to retain their place in the top flight and not have to subject to a vote by their peers.
So, now we’ve had three expansions to the size of the top tier and none of them have been the same. It’s a bit hard to refer to a precedent when there is no commonality between the methods.
Let’s move on to the next one. In the summer of 1905, it was agreed to increase the size of Division One and Division Two to twenty teams. This is how the tables looked at the end of the 1904-05 season.
Football League Division One final table 1904-05
|8||Preston North End||34||13||10||11||42||37||36|
Football League Division Two final table 1904-05
|10||West Bromwich Albion||34||13||4||17||56||48||30|
|12||Glossop North End||34||10||10||14||37||46||30|
By now, automatic promotion and relegation was the norm. The bottom two teams in Division One and the top two teams in Division Two exchanged places at the end of each season.
So, what happened at the Football League’s AGM on 29 May 1905? The Daily Express gives a good account of proceedings.
Well, well, well. It looks like Liverpool and Bolton were automatically promoted from Division Two (just like Derby and Preston in 1919) whilst Bury and Notts County were subject to a vote along with other clubs (just like Chelsea and Tottenham in 1919). And look at who else was in the pot – West Bromwich Albion who finished way down in tenth in Division Two.
So, it seems that in 1919 the Football League was following the precedent set in 1905 for the expansion of its two divisions: automatically promoting the top two teams in Division Two, holding a vote to elect the other two teams which included the bottom two teams of Division One as well as any other club that wished to be considered, irrespective of their league position.
That pretty much puts to bed all of the scurrilous rumours, myths and plain untruths about Arsenal’s election to the top flight in 1919. Tottenham fans, let it go. Historians, do some proper research and report the facts.
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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