21 November is a day that should be remembered for one of the most amusing errors ever by an over-excited newspaper sports editor, and his hapless reporter.
For it was on this day in 1914 that the Times sent a man to watch Arsenal, not realising that the first team (which is what they wanted their man to cover) were currently playing away at Huddersfield. He watched the reserves instead, and neither he nor his editors realised.
Despite Great Britain declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914, the 1914/15 football league season was played to its conclusion. There was no precedent for stopping sporting events during wartime (not least because the wars were always conducted somewhere else), and besides the general view that was expressed in the newspapers was that “it would all be over by Christmas”.
As the football season and the war progressed so some newspapers – most stridently The Times – made the opposition to the continuance of the League programme their prime concern. Although they argued that horse racing, the “sport of kings”, should not be interrupted for the “sake of the horses.”
The Football League would have none of these bullying tactics, and continued the League programme to its end, the following April, after which regional leagues were instituted (because of the shortage of coal and the resultant problems in getting to away games by train). In the meantime the League matches were used as a recruiting ground. Henry Norris was at the forefront of this, encouraging fans to join the regiments that some of their heroes on the pitch were signing up to.
However not all clubs were so patriotic in their duty and many were reported as saying to their players that if they signed up they would be sued for breach of their contract of employment, and would most certainly not be able to return to their job after the war.
The stand off between the newspapers and football reached a peak on this day in 1914 when Arsenal lost 3-0 away to Huddersfield and the man from the Times (who seemingly knew nothing of football) went to the reserve game at Highbury, thinking he was watching the first team.
His rampant, raging piece said that the crowd was tiny and he noted that very few in the crowd volunteered to serve in the army in response to the the now usual half time announcements. Arsenal reserves lost 1-2 although the hapless reporter seemed to have had singular difficulty in following the game.
Arsenal’s home crowds for the first team matches ranged from 7,000 to 15,000 that season, having reached 35,000 the previous year (also in the second division). There was probably about 1000 inside Highbury for this match.
This ludicrous error by the Times however was not the only clerical cock-up that beset Arsenal in this season. When the final league table was published it showed that Arsenal were sixth in the League, equal on points with Birmingham City and Hull City. Goal average (the format used at this time for separating clubs on the same number of points, and which involved dividing the goals scored by the goals conceded) put Arsenal 6th, with Arsenal behind Birmingham.
However much later, when the results were computerised for the first time, it was realised that Arsenal had in fact come fifth. This made no difference in terms of what happened next, but it was odd, since even a quick glance with a modest amount of mathematical knowledge would suggest Arsenal would be higher up the league.
It is a technical point, but I have often wondered since how many more errors there were like this. This one came to light because of the post-war debates on which clubs should be promoted to the expanded first division – but I suspect there are probably many other occasions where a large amount of long division with quill and parchment led to clubs being assigned faulty positions.
However not every newspaper was against football and pro-government, and the (now) Arsenal supporting Islington Daily Gazette on the Monday following the Huddersfield game, said that it was the government’s fault if young men didn’t sign up. The censorship, it wrote (clearly from inside knowledge) was now so stringent no one realised how desperate the situation was.
The paper also stated that as long as joining up was voluntary, no one should criticise those who didn’t volunteer. Indeed the government was in effect criticised for wanting to have its cake and eat it.
Then before the match on Saturday, 28 November, a home game against Bristol City, Arsenal’s chairman Henry Norris (who had obviously seen the nonsense of the reporting the reserve game and made his feelings known) was interviewed by the Times on the subject of recruiting volunteers at football matches and he made the point that this was indeed what he himself was doing. Soon after he was recruited by the War Office and his rise from civilian to Lt Colonel commenced.
As a result of the interview the reports of the game in the press focused as much on the crowd as anything else, of which there were just 7000 for the Bristol City game. It was said that 2,000 of these were in uniform and the rest too old, or too young to serve. The Times didn’t apologise for its complete mistake in previously thinking a reserve match was a first team game but at least did something to set the record straight via the Norris interview.