Arsenal: the first ever League club to have its ground closed because of crowd behaviour
26 January 1895: Woolwich Arsenal were ordered to close their ground for the rest of the season because of their inability to control the crowd. But why Arsenal? And when in 1895?
One thing we know is that the Manor Ground became the home to “betting gangs” – groups who hung out at the games and who were universally condemned by the press, and indeed the club. Gambling was very highly controlled in England at the time, and indeed when Sir Henry Norris became an MP after the war and had a chance to introduce a private members bill the bill he chose was one intended to reduce gambling in relation to football.
Mind you, newspaper reports also show that drunkenness was a reason for arrests, and these arrests caused further problems for it was not unknown for supporters to try and rescue one of their number who might be arrested by the police. Respect for the police in London was not the same as it is now.
The key “problem” was verbal abuse. Physical violence was very rare, but verbal abuse was becoming increasingly common. On the three times that Woolwich Arsenal was reported to the FA, twice was for verbal abuse, and only one for any form of physical assault.
And of course, always on the look out to attack people who were unlikely to buy their newspapers, the press did indeed get very worked up about foul language from “weedy uneducated hooligans.”
The original sentence proposed against Arsenal in response to the crowd troubles, was that their ground would have been closed for the rest of the 1894/95 season. However, the “compromise” of a mere 6 weeks suspension was eventually agreed upon by the FA.
However an almost identical episode of ref bashing at Wolverhampton Wanderers later the same year, in October 1895 led to their ground being closed for only two weeks. At least one non-local reporter put the disparity in the harshness of the sentences from the FA, down to Arsenal’s role as the pre-eminent southern professional team. The northern based League had welcomed Arsenal into their club, but didn’t want them getting above themselves!
There were also some altercations with Tottenham, the most serious being when the Spurs goalkeeper (an ex-Woolwich Arsenal man) punched a fan who was subjecting him to “foul and insulting language” from behind the goal.
Most of the findings point to a predilection for verbally abusing anyone and everyone, including the home team when they played poorly. Unlike today, the majority of supporters worked on the Saturday morning and only had that afternoon and Sunday as time off work, and also had very little annual leave. So this leisure time was precious in a way that, over a hundred years later, is very hard to appreciate. Working class men were treated as second class citizens at work, and this was their chance to fight back.
Thus They paid their 6d (about 2p) and saw it as their entitlement to exercise their verbal volleys at whoever they wished. If it was a home player who was the subject of their displeasure it was generally because pre-WW1 the crowd had an intense feeling of belonging and bond to that the club as a representative of “their”town. If the player was letting down the whole area with their uselessness, the feeling was that the player should be informed in no uncertain terms.