According to the book “The Gunners: Day to Day Life at Highbury”, Royal Arsenal played Millwall Rovers at the Manor Ground, Plumstead on 11 February 1888. This was (they say) the first Arsenal game at the Manor Ground.
But according to Roper (2004) although the first match was indeed against Millwall Rovers, but was not until 30 March 1888. So which one is it? And why were Arsenal playing in Plumstead when they were Woolwich Arsenal?
Let’s deal with the name and location first. Arsenal’s first match was played as Dial Square played on the Isle of Dogs. After that match they became Royal Arsenal, a name they happily held until 1893 when the club (by now professional) joined the Football League and became a limited company.
Then as now, limited companies are not allowed by law to have a name that suggests a royal connection, so they changed to Woolwich Arsenal, which was the name of the factory where the original players had worked, and indeed where many of their supporters worked.
But that didn’t mean they played in Woolwich – no, they actually had a ground in Plumstead initially called the Manor Field, but then becoming the Manor Ground in 1894. And the first game at the Manor Field was indeed the one against Millwall Rovers, but not until 30 March 1888, and it wasn’t even called the Manor Field then but rather “Mr Cavey’s Field”. Arsenal did indeed play Millwall Rovers on 11 February 1888 but this was played at The Sportsman Grounds.
Royal Arsenal played at the Manor Field (under its varied names) between 1888 and 1890, before temporarily moving to the Invicta Ground, which was almost opposite. Following the split in the club between those who wanted the club to be professional and those who didn’t, Arsenal bought the Manor Field, leaving Royal Ordnance Factories FC to play at the Invicta.
The Manor Field was in essence a field, and was not turned into a football ground with terraces and grandstand until the creation of Woolwich Arsenal FC, and entry into the Football League in 1893. And this was done in a matter of a few weeks, after the owner of the Invicta Ground conspired with some members of the Arsenal committee to take over the club, by doubling the rent and thus forcing the existing committee out.
The elected committee however moved to the ground opposite, and built a new “stadium” there in the summer so the club was ready to enter the League the following September. Even then the battle was not over since the rebel group tried to bribe the owner of the Manor Field into which Arsenal were moving, to play the same trick and double the rent after the ground had been built, and thus force Arsenal out of business. Fortunately for the club this landlord was a man of honour, and told the rebels where to go.
Where they went was to the Invicta Ground, setting up their own rival team Royal Ordnance Factories, which played for a few seasons in the Southern League before going out of business.
But yes, 11 February is an anniversary for on this day in 1888 Arsenal played Millwall Rovers at The Sportsman Grounds. I am glad we got that sorted.