16 May 1891: The date in Arsenal’s history that has been completely mis-reported.

On 25 April 1891 Royal Arsenal FC held it annual dinner. The club at this time was an amateur side, and there was no talk of the club turning professional. Indeed when a list of the teams that Arsenal would play in the coming season was announced it contained the usual assortment of other local amateur sides, plus Cambridge University.

The actual vote to turn professional came on 2 May 1891 in an Extraordinary General Meeting where the members voted by 250 to 10 to turn professional. And because the cup competitions that the club played in were for amateur sides only, this was followed by the resignation of Arsenal from the London FA and Kent FA. (Various history books including Arsenal’s hand book for many years made the point that Arsenal were expelled from the FAs for turning professional, but detailed research by Andy Kelly revealed that this was not the case).

Sadly Arsenal’s own official handbook reported for years thereafter in its summary of the club’s history that Arsenal were reduced to near bankruptcy by not being able to play local teams, while some simple research would have shown that the same teams that were played before, were still happy to play Arsenal as a professional side. And why not – Arsenal were the most famous team around, and always drew the biggest crowds, so the coffers of the amateur clubs received a big boost when Arsenal came visiting.

Arsenal turned professional for two major reasons. First the players were working men who deserved reward for their work – so the idea was that they should be paid.   But worse, professional teams in the Midlands were starting to tap up Arsenal players by offering to pay them to play. And there were, at this time, no rules against tapping up.

The thinking at Arsenal was clearly also that if the club became a professional side, they would be the ones who could attract the best players by recruiting amateurs from local sides in London and Kent.

So on 16 May 1891 at its AGM Royal Arsenal voted in favour of paying players, but against forming a limited company. The local newspapers also said that the club had offered to resign from the London FA and Kent FA and were waiting for a reply.

In fact although the Arsenal handbook for many years in its history section reported that Royal Arsenal were thrown out of the two associations, and were unable to find local teams to play, the fixture list shows this was not the case and during 1891-92, the club played against eight out of the nine amateur teams that they were regularly playing season by season with other teams now applying to play the region’s only professional side.

That left one issue: what the local associations would make of it all. The Arsenal handbook for many years said that the club was thrown out of the Kent and London FA for becoming professional, but in fact although the issue was debated, the vote was to keep Arsenal in the associations (not least because of the extra money playing the most famous club in the region would generate).

And so the big step forward was taken, but not in the way that the Arsenal handbook reported it for many decades thereafter.