Arsenal and Sir Henry

Arsenal fans look at the new statue of Thierry Henry. The statue is one of three unveiled around the ground to celebrate the club's 125th anniversary.-AP

Sir Henry Norris' vital role in the history of Arsenal cannot be exaggerated even if Gunners fans today have never heard of him. Over to Brian Glanville.

When Arsenal celebrated their 125th anniversary I, being present, was pleased to see the name of Sir Henry Norris whirled around among many others of the distinguished past at the base of each stand. Though I wonder how they may or more appositely how few of the 60,000 in the stadium other than myself, admittedly the author of the official club history, registered that name at all. Norris was not one of the three heroes of Arsenal history whose statues were unveiled before the game.

One very appropriate was of Herbert Chapman who, in his nine years at Highbury between 1929 and 1934, when he so sadly and prematurely died, utterly transformed a mediocre club into a dominant power. The two other statues were of recent stars in the shape of the centre half and skipper Tony Adams, a major force and figure despite his rampant alcoholism, and Thierry Henry, the record goal scorer.

And Norris? It is arguable that Arsenal today would not even exist were it not for the enterprise and machinations of this once wealthy property developer, his business based on the Fulham area of South West London, for which he eventually became a knighted Member of Parliament. The irony being that while, without Norris, Arsenal would hardly have reached their eventual heights, he would, if he had had this original way, actually have destroyed them!

For in 1913, Norris wanted to bring the Gunners, then Woolwich Arsenal playing in South East London at Plumstead, across the Thames not to Highbury but to Fulham, by the Thames itself, amalgamating the two clubs. It was touch and go then, but the Football Association, with whom Norris would eventually have many a bruising and ultimately losing battle, prevented him from doing so.

Thus it was that instead, Norris took the Gunners to Highbury in north rather than south west London, building a new stadium in the grounds of the St. John's Theological College. There they would stay until their recent move to the newly built nearby Emirates Stadium.

Norris seems not to have been a genial or a likeable man, he was essentially an autocrat. But not only did he take the Gunners to Highbury. He spent vast sums of money during the Great War to keep them financially alive, at a time when receipts dwindled away. And in 1919, when the War was over and football officially restarted, he got them by hook or crook back into the First Division.

He had no legal or moral right to do it. When soccer stopped for the War in 1915, the Gunners, after a truly dreadful season had been relegated to Division 2 where they had just finished only in fifth position, well short of the top two places which would have guaranteed promotion. It was decided in 1919 that the top division be expanded from 20 clubs to 22, and it was expected that therefore the two London clubs which had finished at the bottom of the last first division tournament would retain their places in Division 1. Those clubs being Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs already seething over what they regarded as Arsenal's invasion of their north London territory.

But much worse was to be done and it would take many a year for Spurs and their fans to forget, let alone to forgive, the offence. For Norris with the connivance of the President of the Football League, known ironically as ‘Honest John', worked out a dubious formula whereby Arsenal were promoted and Tottenham relegated.

The sheer casuistry of it went like this. Though the Gunners had finished only fifth in the last Second Division, they had been members of the Football League for some years longer than Spurs. Ignored was the fact that while the Gunners had never won anything of consequence, the Spurs back in 1901 had actually as a Southern League outside the Football League, won the FA Cup. But to the justified fury of Tottenham, down they went and up Woolwich Arsenal came. For years to come, rival fans jeered Arsenal fans that they had not been properly promoted. To which Arsenal fans retorted, and indeed still could, that, subsequently, they'd never been relegated either.

Arsenal's first post Great War manager was Leslie Knighton who had never kicked a ball in anger but would have charge of a string of famous clubs. Results were mediocre to poor, but he was a wizard in finding and signing relatively obscure young talent, to the outrage of competing clubs. Norris overawed and dominated him, reducing him to tongue tied silence in their meetings and eventually sacking him with scant compensation to make way — a historic coup — for Chapman. But even long after Norris' death, Knighton praised his foresight and originality. Insisting it was unfair that the FA had driven him out of the game.

This they did when his appeal against them in 1929 failed in the High Court, when it emerged that he had sold the club's motor coach for GBP300 — big money then — signed Chapman's name on the cheque and put it in his wife's account! Had Norris once so rich fallen on hard times? It is hard to know. But his vital role in the history of Arsenal cannot be exaggerated even if Gunners fans today have never heard of him.