Sir Henry Norris: A Forgotten Arsenal Hero

To put it mildly, Arsenal Football Club spent the early 1900′s struggling. After facing extreme financial trouble, paired with low match attendances, Arsenal were forced into a corner. Voluntary liquidation of the club seemed to be an inevitability.[quote_right]“Arsenal Football Club spent the early 1900′s struggling…”[/quote_right]

However, in 1910 - which marked the peak of Arsenal’s troubles, local businessman and politician Sir Henry Norris stepped in to rescue the club from financial turmoil.

Sir Henry Norris was wealthy, and knew his football, as he was already a part of the Fulham board of directors. His wealth, combined with his brave and visionary leadership helped transform Arsenal into the club we see today. His nineteen year Arsenal reign eventually set the foundations for Arsenal’s future - despite a bumpy, controversial ride along the way.

[title]Hands-On Leadership & Back Hand Deals[/title]

After saving Arsenal from financial extinction in 1910, Sir Henry Norris became the majority shareholder of the club. Although he had averted a financial meltdown, things were still in pretty bad shape on the pitch.

In the 1912-13 season Arsenal were relegated from the First Division after finishing at the bottom of the table. Norris knew he needed to take action, as attendances were poor, and the Club was in dire need of a fresh start. He pinpointed Arsenal’s poor Woolwich location as the root of the problem.

Eventually, Norris purchased a 21 year lease on a piece of land which - at the time, belonged to the Church of England. The land was in the heart of Highbury, North London.

After spending a further £80,000 to build the famous Highbury Stadium, Chelsea, Tottenham & Leyton Orient all lodged complaints with the Football League, stating that their attendances would be negatively effected by Arsenal’s move. However, the Football League soon announced that, “under the rules and practice of the League we have no right to interfere.”[quote_left]“The controversial decision led many to believe that Norris had bribed the various chairmen taking part in the vote, including [League Chairman] John Mckenna.”[/quote_left]

Following the controversial and expensive relocation to North London, Sir Henry Norris was desperate for Arsenal to win promotion back into the First Division. But the breakout of the first World War meant that he had to wait for four years to even have the chance on a return on his investment.

Once the war was over, it was decided to increase the size of the First Division from 20 to 22 clubs. One solution to the problem was to allow the relegated clubs in the 1914-15 season - Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, to remain in the First Division. However, Sir Henry Norris disputed this notion. He argued that a great deal of match-fixing had gone on in the 1914-15 season and that league positions for that year should be disregarded.

Arsenal on the other hand, had finished in 5th place in the Second Division in the 1914-15 season and therefore had no real grounds for being elected to the First Division.

Following discussions, it was decided to give Chelsea one of the vacant places in the First Division. However, Norris persuaded the league chairman John McKenna- who also owned Liverpool Football Club, to hold a vote on the other club to join them. Arsenal won the ballot with 18 votes. Tottenham only got 8 whereas Barnsley, who finished 3rd in the Second Division ahead of Arsenal in the 1914-15 season, received just 5 votes.

The controversial decision led many people to believe that Norris had bribed the various chairmen taking part in the vote, including John Mckenna. It is also believed that Sir Henry Norris had threatened to specifically expose the match fixing which had been rife in the seasons beforehand.

Either way - Arsenal got their lucky break. They were promoted back to the First Division, and were there to stay.

[title]93 Years Of Gratitude[/title]

In 1925, after having no success in the First Division for a number of years, Sir Henry Norris decided to sack manager Leslie Knighton, and placed an ad for the vacancy in the Athletic News.

Of course, the position was eventually filled by none other than Herbert Chapman - arguably Arsenal’s best ever manager. Chapman’s appointment was a masterstroke by Sir Henry Norris, as Arsenal went on to win their first ever League Championship, along with the FA Cup. His managerial prowess propelled Arsenal to many years of success, even after his premature death in 1934.[quote_right]“Sir Henry Norris’ inspirational, visionary and downright expensive actions took Arsenal from near extinction, to eventual League title winners.[/quote_right]

However, although Chapman’s success was due to his appointment by Norris, the chairman was not actually  in charge by the time Arsenal had come to dominate English football.

In 1927, reports surfaced that Sir Henry Norris had made under-the-counter payments to Sunderland’s Charlie Buchan - as an incentive for him to join Arsenal in 1925. Such behaviour was forbidden, as this was in an era of the League’s enforced wage cap, meaning any additional financial incentives to players were strictly outlawed, despite many clubs privately ignoring the ruling.

An investigation by the Football Association followed, which uncovered that Norris had also used Arsenal’s expense accounts for his personal use to, namely to pay for his chauffeur. Additionally, in the same year, he had pocketed £125 from the sale of the team bus. Norris sued the Daily Mail and the FA for libel, but in February 1929, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart, ruled in favour of the FA and the Daily Mail. As a result, Sir Henry Norris was banned from Football - forever.

After his expulsion from the Footballing world, Norris left the public eye, and sadly died of a heart attack on his 69th birthday in 1934. However, he lived long enough to witness Arsenal’s new-found success in the League and FA Cup, which was largely down to his years of good leadership.

Overall, Sir Henry Norris certainly had his flaws, but his inspirational, visionary and downright expensive actions took Arsenal from near extinction, to eventual League title winners. Additionally, Arsenal’s successful 93 year stay at Highbury is entirely down to the wealth and ingenuity of Sir Henry Norris.

Quite literally, Arsenal wouldn’t have been Arsenal without him.

Image Source: Arsenal FC Fans

Did You Enjoy the Article?

Subscribe to receive exclusive Arsenal content, competition entry & more.