15 March 1884

Beware the single source!

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Leslie Knighton.  He was the man appointed as Arsenal manager in 1919 and who lasted until 1925, when he was replaced by Herbert Chapman.

If you have not heard of Knighton, you may be forgiven – these days few people who don’t make the AISA Arsenal History Society blog part of their regular reading will know much about him.  And yet his influence upon Arsenal has been immense.

Unfortunately, that influence was for all the wrong reasons.

Knighton won nothing as Arsenal manager.  In fact Arsenal were almost relegated in three of his seasons, Arsenal coming 17th, 19th and 20th out of 22.  His highest position achieved in six seasons was 9th.

So we can understand why he is largely forgotten.  And indeed, I doubt that he would ever be mentioned at all in terms of Arsenal, other than in statistics were it not for the fact that 20 years after being dismissed as Arsenal manager, he wrote his autobiography.

Sadly, others involved at the top of Arsenal at the time (most notably Jack Humble and Lt Col Sir Henry Norris) did not write their own versions of what happened at Arsenal at the time of his managership, and so the only version of events we have (apart from the statistics in terms of results, transfers and the like) is Knighton’s story. 

Now the problem is that Knighton wrote his autobiography in his retirement in Bournemouth when he was suffering from ill-health, and it appears he was short of money.  Perhaps through false memory over events over 20 years before, or perhaps because he was encouraged by a Sunday newspaper that serialised a part of his memoires, Knighton’s story strays rather a long way from reality.

And even though at the same time as his autobiography appeared, so did that of the infinitely more successful George Allison (2 league titles, one FA Cup, and the man who kept Arsenal running during the second world war), it was the Knighton book which was taken as gospel.  The fact that Allison contradicts some of Knighton’s claims (particularly in relation to Henry Norris) is ignored by historians.

Indeed you may have come across the Knighton tales – that Sir Henry would not let him buy players costing over £1000.  That Sir Henry had minimum weight and height requirements for players signed.  That Sir Henry insisted that the whole Arsenal scouting network was wound up, and that he (Knighton) was left working with an informal group of pals to keep the club supplied with players.

That these allegations have been published and republished over the years as the truth, shows just how lazy most football journalists are, because a simple look at the facts shows us that Knighton did indeed sign players for far more than the alleged £1000 maximum.  In fact, Sir Henry was generous beyond belief with his transfer budget.

What’s more in the book Knighton suggests that he offered more than double the alleged maximum for one player. 

He also talks about how, because of the lack of finance, he was forced to play the brother-in-law of the club’s physio on the wing, as he had no other players available.  In fact the player in question was a man who had pre-war won the league with Rangers in Scotland, and played for the Scottish League in a game against the English league.  He played as an amateur for Arsenal, and was the star player of the Arsenal side when he did.

Knighton was not a totally useless manager as he did recruit some very good players.  But the failure of football historians to read Knighton’s book alongside the autobiography of Allison, is a serious error.  Allison knew Sir Henry Norris and worked with him from 1910 onwards, and the two men both worked in the War Office during the first world war.  Real historians never look at just one source. 

If you would like to read the only in-depth analysis of Knighton at the Arsenal, that is published on the AISA Arsenal History Society site.  There is an index to the series of articles here.