As legend—and just about any Tottenham fan—will have you believe, Arsenal only got promoted to the First Division after World War I because Henry Norris spread some money around to buy votes. It’s become somewhat of a mantra among Tottenham fans, at least those who didn’t jump on the Pochettino bandwagon and who have a deeper sense of the club’s history and our shared rivalry. It’s a multi-layered onion but one that smells less and less the more layers we peel back—much to those Spuds’ chagrin.
First, the history. Arsenal finished the 1914-15 season 5th in the Second Division of the Football League. Meanwhile, in the the First Division, Chelsea and Tottenham were set to be relegated. That optimistically named “war to end all wars” forced the suspension of football from 1915 until 1919. Before the 1919-1920 season was set to begin, Blackpool proposed an expansion of the First Division from 20 to 22 clubs. The debate then began: should Preston North End and Derby be promoted to the First Division, or should Chelsea and Tottenham stay up? Chelsea were allowed to stay up because they had fallen into the drop-zone as a result of Man U fixing its final match of the season against Liverpool.
There was still one spot available. In stepped Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris, an influential and well-connected MP. He pressed Arsenal’s role as the first southern club to have joined the Football League over the Southern League and the first London-based club to turn professional. In his mind, then, there were historical considerations for promoting Arsenal, even at the expense of Tottenham (at this point, there was no particular rivalry or tension between the two clubs even if Arsenal’s 1913 move to Highbury after playing at various stadiums in southeast London did raise eyebrows). Norris had already suffered severe calumny for pointing out the rampant match-fixing among the northern clubs, especially Man U and Liverpool.
With all of this as an admittedly abbreviated backdrop, the vote was held on 10 March 1919. Arsenal received 18 votes, and Tottenham received eight. There were five for Barnsley, four for Wolves, and a half a dozen for other assorted clubs. Here’s where the conspiracy theory kicks in. If Norris were to bribe anyone, he’d have had to bribe a solid five or six other chairmen. This means he would have had to approach only those most inclined to accept a bribe at considerable personal risk, not to mention the damage it might inflict on the club they would have originally supported. Let’s assume that it was an open secret that Arsenal and Tottenham were the frontrunners. Those 15 who voted for Barnsley, Wolves, and other clubs would not be swayed. Would Norris have risked approaching anyone other than those he knew would be open to his apparently indecent proposals? This leaves those inclinded to vote for Tottenham. That feels unlikely in extremis.
During the war, Norris was knighted for his financial and actual contributions to the war effort, having paid for three battalions and emerging as a hero of sorts. It beggars belief, then, to suggest or believe that he would risk his political and financial reputation on a pet-project, a hobby, a diversion.
What we’re left with then is the notion that Norris managed to bribe no less than six chairmen who would have otherwise voted for Tottenham, thereby reducing our tally to 12 and increasing Tottenham’s to 14. That’s six people whom Norris hoped and prayed would remain mum. Not one of them thought to approach the FA over this kind of corruption in the wake of match-fixing scandals? Not one of them let slip or bragged about how they put one over poor, put-upon Tottenham? It’s been more than a century, and there’s been not one iota of evidence leaked. Try to arrange a surprise party six months in advance. Involve six compatriots. Let me know how well that surprise party surprises the guest of honour.
As for the coverage at the time, there was not one whiff of scandal. In fact, there weren’t any allegations of anything untowards at all until Leslie Knighton, who had a fractious relationship with Norris during their time together at the club, published an autobiography in 1948 in which he alleged that Norris might have bribed anyone. It’s worth noting that no one came forward to corroborate his claims. Despite that, various critics (namely, Tottenham fans) have grabbed that egg and run with it for decades. Sadly, the story itself just doesn’t have any legs.
If Tottenham fans have an axe to grind, it’s not this one. They might have a more-salient point over our move from southeast London to Highbury, but even that looks, smells, and tastes like thin gruel salted with spite. We’ll have to revisit that sometime soon. They’re forever in our shadow even during their most-successful period. Yes, they came within a dodgy handball of winning the Champions League, but even at their zenith, we won more trophies despite our wandering in the wilderness.
What’s this all add up to? Well, it should be obvious: North London is red. It may not always be so. There will always be blips and aberrations, after all. The future is indeciperable; the past, much less so. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, “Life can only be understood by looking backward but it must be lived looking forward.”