What Really Happened When Arsenal Turned Professional

If you read any book or website written about the history of Arsenal FC it will invariably say that the club turned professional in 1891. This is a very important part of the club’s history as it was a huge step that set in motion Arsenal joining the Football League and the foundation of the Southern League.

It is very likely that the reason given for the club turning professional was that following the FA Cup game against Derby County on 17 January 1891, two Arsenal players were approached by Derby’s John Goodall and offered professional contracts with the midlands club. Some books or websites may even mention that the players were Peter Connolly and Bobby Buist.

The story then follows that the Royal Arsenal committee that ran the club voted overwhelmingly to turn professional. The consequences were that the club was expelled from the London FA and Kent FA as professionalism in the South of England at the time was looked upon with distaste. It was tolerated for FA Cup matches and friendlies but was members of the London FA and Kent FA were strictly amateur. The club was boycotted by clubs from the South of England (except FA Cup games) and spent two seasons playing friendlies against Midland and Northern teams, and FA Cup ties.

What is written above is how it is told in every story written about the club – except one. I’ll come to that later.

The origin of the why the club turned professional and the consequences is a history of the club written by George Allison for Athletic news sometime between 1910 and 1914. At the time Allison was a journalist. He had been reporting on Arsenal games since 1906 and become editor of the club’s match day programme in 1913. He went on to become a director and manager of the club. He was much respected in every thing that he did.

The first Arsenal handbook was published in 1914. Allison wrote his version of the club’s history in this handbook and stated that it was based on the version he had previously written for Athletic News. Below is how the story of Arsenal turning professional was written in that handbook.

1914-15 Handbook page 18

There is no doubt that Allison mentions the Derby game, Connolly, Buist, being expelled from the London FA and being ostracised by clubs from the South.

This was re-printed in every subsequent handbook that contained a history of the club.

In 1952, Bernard Joy wrote “Forward, Arsenal!” This was the first book written about the history of the club. Joy was a former Arsenal player and England international. When he retired from playing he turned his hand to journalism and quickly became respected in that field. Joy must have sourced the story from Allison as he repeats the same reasons for turning professional and the consequences. Joy’s account is shown below.

Bernard Joy - Forward, Arsenal! page 6 Bernard Joy - Forward, Arsenal! page 7


The story has been re-told in the following publications (all of which I have copies of):
Geoffrey Mowbray – Gunners On The Target
Derek Brown – The Arsenal Story
Ralph L Finn – From Chapman To Mee
Anton Rippon – The Story Of Arsenal
John Robertson – Arsenal
Martin Tyler & Phil Soar - The Official Illustrated History Of Arsenal
Scott Grant & Colin White – Arsenal History & Full Record
Fred Ollier – Complete Record
Bruce Smith - Arsenal Fact File
Jem Maidment - Arsenal Encyclopaedia
Steve Stammers - Arsenal Biography
Rab MacWilliam and Kevin Connolly - The Essential History Of Arsenal
Jon Spurling – Rebels For The Cause
Brian Belton – The First Gunners.
The club’s official website!

There will be other books that did the same as well.


Allison got it wrong from the start and every body else has copied him. It’s worth noting that George Allison was 7 years old and living in the North-East of England when Arsenal turned professional. It his highly unlikely that he heard the news when it happened and that his version of events was based on hearsay from 20 years previous.

Here is what really happened.

Arsenal played Derby County in the FA Cup on 17 January 1891. Derby’s John Goodall approached two Arsenal players after the game and offered them professional terms. One of them was Peter Connolly. The other one is unknown. I can state for sure that it wasn’t Bobby Buist. I can state this 100% as fact. Why? Because he didn’t play in the game. In fact he didn’t play for Arsenal until he joined them 8 months later in September 1891. There is no doubt whatsoever, that Allison got this wrong. Below is the end of the match report printed in the Woolwich Gazette showing Royal Arsenal’s line-up.

 Royal Arsenal v Derby County FA Cup 17 January 1891 (1)

 Royal Arsenal v Derby County FA Cup 17 January 1891 (2)

 Royal Arsenal v Derby County FA Cup 17 January 1891 (3)

The next thing that happened was that the club held its 4th annual dinner at the Freemason's Hall, Mount-pleasant on 25 April 1891. At this point, the club was still amateur and had not stated any intention to turn professional. The club secretary, George Osborne, stated that the following clubs had agreed to play Arsenal during the 1891-92 season:

St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Old Carthusians, Casuals. Crusaders,
Cambridge University, Chiswick Park, London Caledonians, Clapton and Chatham

All of these clubs were based in London or the South of England.

On 2 May 1891, the club’s committee held an Extraordinary General Meeting where they voted by 250 to 10 to turn professional. The club knew that the London FA and Kent FA cup competitions were open only to amateur teams so they resigned from the two associations. The club was not expelled from the London FA or the Kent FA. Allison got this wrong.

On 16 May 1891, the club held its Annual General Meeting. It voted against forming a limited liability company. It was reported in the local press that the club had tendered its resignation from the London FA and the Kent FA after the Extraordinary General Meeting on 9 May but had not yet had a response from either association. Below is the statement as reported in the Woolwich Gazette.

 Royal Arsenal AGM 1891 (1)

 Royal Arsenal AGM 1891 (2)

 Royal Arsenal AGM 1891 (3)

On 5 June 1891, the London FA held a special general meeting to consider two resolutions. These were a direct result of Arsenal announcing their intention to turn professional. The Kentish Mercury reported the meeting thus:


 Photobucket Photobucket


There you have it. The members of the FA voted against a boycott of professional teams. And to prove it, during 1891-92, Royal Arsenal played against:

St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Casuals. Crusaders, Cambridge University, Chiswick Park, London Caledonians, Clapton and Chatham

8 out of 9 clubs that had agreed to play the amateur Royal Arsenal were happy to play against the professional Royal Arsenal.

In addition, Royal Arsenal played against the following clubs based in the South of England during 1891-92:

2nd Royal West Kent Regiment, 2nd Scots Guards, Ashford United,
Borough Road College, City Ramblers, Cray Wanderers, Edmonton, Erith, Folkestone, Foxes, Gravesend, Great Marlow, London Polytechnic, Maidstone, Manor Park, Millwall Athletic, Old St Luke’s, Royal Artillery (Shoeburyness),
Royal Engineers Training Battalion, South Eastern Rangers, South West Ham, Southampton St Mary’s, Upton Park, Uxbridge, Windsor Phoenix, Woodville
and Woolwich & District League.

That makes a grand total of 35 Southern clubs that Royal Arsenal played during 1891-92. They played a further 16 Southern clubs during 1892-93. Allison got this wrong.

As I mentioned, there is one history of the club that did not fall into the trap of re-hashing what had previously been written. That book was “The Real Arsenal Story” by Alan Roper. However, Roper didn’t make a fuss about the fact that what had been previously written was wrong. He chose to leave it to publishing copies of the newspaper reports for readers of the book to work out.

What is amusing though is that, later in 2004, Jon Spurling wrote “Rebels For The Cause”. He took misrepresentation of the facts to another level. He read Roper’s book and saw the 76 voting against 67 and failed to read the rest of the newspaper report. Spurling then stated that 76 voted in favour of expelling Arsenal from the London FA! And Brian Belton copied Spurling when he wrote “The Early Gunners”

Fred Ollier’s books and Grant & White’s book published a full list of games for 1891-92 and 1892-93 which show all of the games against the Southern teams!

I will readily stand up and be counted as one of those who has fallen for the story even though I have been in possession of virtually all of the facts for nearly 20 years.

It’s now time to say STOP and put the record books right.

Royal Arsenal turned professional in 1891. They resigned from the London FA and Kent FA which were only open to amateur clubs. They were not boycotted by clubs from the South of England. They played at least 51 different teams from the South of England during the two seasons following turning professional.

I’m sorry Mr Allison, you may have been held in high esteem by your peers but 100 years ago you were a journalist who was prone to sensationalism and not checking facts. Not much different from today’s motley crew.