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Decades of Dominance: The Early Years

This is the first in a series of posts about Arsenal's history, about how they got to where they are today and what it took to get there (this whole series was inspired by this comment thread). After this one, which is about three decades' worth of stuff, each post will probably cover about a decade, and once we get to current day, there will be an Alltime Best Arsenal Players-type thing. Isn't learning fun? I think so. Let's go learn stuff!

Arsenal, as you may or may not know, was founded in 1886 as Dial Square. They originally played in southeast London, at Woolwich, and was populated by players from the nearby Royal Arsenal, a business so catchily named that the club changed its name to Royal Arsenal as well. In 1893, they became an actual company (as opposed to just an after-work social club for the workers), changed their name to Woolwich Arsenal, and joined the Football League. This may be hard to believe, but at the time Arsenal were the southernmost members of the League; the power in soccer at that point in time lay in the north, and the majority of clubs were in the Manchester, Midlands, and Newcastle areas.

Arsenal struggled at first - they started out in the Second Division in 1893 (their first result: a 2-2 draw against Newcastle United), and had a somewhat inconsistent season - 6-0 defeats against that same Newcastle team and against Burton Swifts were balanced out by 4-0 wins over Walsall Town Swifts and 6-0 wins over Middlesbrough Ironopolis and Northwich Victoria. At the end of the 1893 season, Arsenal were ninth out of 15 teams, with 28 points from 28 games (YE OLDE CLUBBE IN CRYSIS!).

The problem with being the southernmost club in the League in the early 1900's was that, in the early 1900's, nobody could afford to travel to see games; Arsenal survived on a shoestring budget for those first few years, but by the latter part of the first decade of the 1900's were pretty much broke. in 1910, two London businessmen, Henry Norris and William Hall, took over Arsenal and tried to sort out the financial mess that Arsenal had become, and soon hit on an idea that has been a rallying cry of sports-team owners around the world to this day; "We need a new stadium!".

They did their due diligence (they even looked in Battersea, which is where Chelsea have just applied to move), and they found a great spot - trouble was, that great spot was in North London, which was close to Tottenham Hotspur. Hall and Norris didn't necessarily want to move that close to another league club, but they were persuaded by the fact that the plot of land they were looking at was right next to an underground station, which meant they'd be able to attract bigger crowds.

The deal was done, the stadium was built - in four months! - and in September 1913, Arsenal played its first game at Arsenal Stadium (soon to become known colloquially as Highbury), a 2-1 win over Leicester Fosse. Things bubbled along nicely for Arsenal in the Second Division until 1915, when the League was suspended until the 1919-1920 season because of World War 1.

Then, the fun started. Arsenal finished fifth in the Second Division in that last season before the war, which meant - or so everyone thought - that Arsenal would start the 1919-20 season in the Second again. However! The League voted to promote Arsenal to the First Division to recognize and reward their long tenure in the pre-war League; they also voted to preserve Chelsea's First Division status despite being relegated on the last day of the prior season, after it was discovered that Manchester United conspired with last-match-day opponents Liverpool to fix their match in order to get Chelsea relegated. So, with the League voting to promote Chelsea and Arsenal despite the league's promotion/relegation structure dictating it, a team had to be relegated to maintain the League's existing size. Guess who got relegated by vote, even though their league finish meant they should be safe?


Since that promotion, Arsenal have never been relegated, which is the longest unbroken streak of First Division football in English history. They finished 10th in that 1919-20 season, and labored along in mid-table obscurity until 1923-24, when they finished 19th, one mere point above the relegation places - level on points with Nottingham Forest, but a superior goal difference meant that Arsenal finished 19th over Forest (there were 22 clubs in the First Division at the time). The next season, Arsenal finished 20th, 7 points clear of relegation. Clearly, something needed to change at Arsenal; these results weren't making anybody happy, and Arsenal's First Division status was in danger.

In the summer of 1925, Arsenal relieved Leslie Knighton of management duty, after six seasons, and named Herbert Chapman as manager.