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Same old Arsenal - always cheating

If you are 'locked down' at a loose end, with time to spare and fed up with watching back episodes of Bargain Hunt or Antiques Road Trip (or even can no longer face catching up with the latest Ownership Thread postings) then take a look at this article written about 18 years ago for the Charlton fanzine GoodBye Horse and see if you can guess the reason why it might (or might possibly not) have appeared there. No prizes - just an excursion down memory lane.

In the October 2002 issue of Goodbye Horse (No 25) we told you the story of our encounter with some young Arsenal supporters in the Charlton Cafe who seemed to be genuinely unaware of their own club’s history to the extent that we had to explain to them the meaning of our “Woolwich rejects” chant. This got us thinking and we thought we’d do a little more delving into our long-decamped rivals on the basis that it is always useful to know one’s enemy.

Little did we know however where that path would lead but as you read on you should be aware that the story reveals backroom dealings of near Watergate proportions with reports of secret late night boardroom sittings at The Library and the summoning of a fleet of lawyers to the home of (then) Arsenal Chairman David Dein.

It all begins of course back in 1913 when the then co-director of Woolwich Arsenal, Henry Norris, decided, for reasons only known to himself, that a London team could never prosper if it was sited on the south side of the River Thames. As Norris was at that time also the chairman of Fulham whose Craven Cottage ground nestled on the bank of the said river there is a strong suspicion that Norris had the idea of merging the two clubs of Fulham and Arsenal and moving the combined team into a more central London location. The idea of merging was strengthened by the fact that Woolwich Arsenal were at that time in the first division whilst Fulham had not long come up from the Southern League into Division 2. If Norris could successfully relocate Arsenal then this could provide the opportunity to merge Fulham, and be chairman of a much larger club (the Fulham name would be dropped completely) in a well populated catchment area. Not all of Norris’s plan worked of course as Fulham still exist today but the first stage was completed when Woolwich Arsenal secured land at St John’s College of Divinity, Islington on a 21year lease. 

The move immediately backfired as Arsenal were relegated to the Second Division at the end of the 1912-13 season, their last at the Manor Ground. Having deserted Plumstead they started their new life in North London as a Second Division team alongside Norris’s other team Fulham whose board meanwhile had refused to see the club uprooted to north London. Exactly how Norris felt when Fulham met Arsenal in the Second Division at Craven Cottage on 8th November 1913 is not recorded but his new love Arsenal beat the Fulham of which he was chairman by six goals to one and they completed the double over the Cottagers in March 1914. This was the same year (1914) that the Woolwich prefix was dropped and the club became known as The Arsenal. Having dropped ‘Woolwich” the board wished to retain “Arsenal” the connection being of course that the first players for the club in 1886 had been recruited from workers at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich by founder David Danskin.

This is where it gets interesting because Arsenal had brought to Islington not only their team but also their club badge which was based on the coat of arms of the Borough of Woolwich -three vertical cannons. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the Borough of Islington were less than enthralled at the prospect of hosting a prospering football team which proudly ran out in shirts bearing the badge of a rival borough south of the river. However, world events culminating in the First World War meant that different priorities came to the fore although, strangely, the 1914-15 season was played out with Arsenal finishing fifth in the Second Division and with Derby, Preston North End, Barnsley and Wolves all finishing above them.

 Move along four years and whilst Anglo/German hostilities ceased in 1918, football hostilities resumed in 1919 with Arsenal now as if by magic, a first division club having been elected into the top division (along with Derby and Preston) by virtue of the increase from 20 to 22 clubs. With only one relegation from the First Division (Spurs) this meant 3 to go up. Barnsley had finished third in the Second Division in the last pre-War season but in those days, teams were elected in by votes as much as by league position and Arsenal (who had finished 5th) garnered 18 votes to Barnsley’s 5. As an aside it is worth noting that even the official history of Arsenal (by Phil Soar and Martin Tyler in 1996) states that the election of the club to one of the two new places in the First Division was “illogical and possibly corrupt.” Arsenal have of course remained in the top division ever since so the “same old Arsenal, always cheating” has a solid foundation in truth!

A few years later and by 1922 the earlier problem over the crest was resolved by the abandonment of the Woolwich Borough badge in favour of one based on the Woolwich Arsenal and very similar to the badge worn by members of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Significantly though, the single cannon faced right rather than left so it could be argued that it was not a direct copy. However, a further and mysterious change was made in 1925 when the cannon was turned to face to the left and thus became little different from the official military insignia of the Royal Artillery – in fact the badge was almost identical to that found on the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse. This crest was to remain with Arsenal until 2001 the only change being the addition of the Latin motto Victoria Concordia Crescit (Victory grows out of Harmony). 

What then caused Arsenal FC to abandon their badge of 75 years standing for something new. The story given out by the club is that the badge was updated for 21st century marketing practices which all seems very plausible were it not for the fact that in 1998 a retired military type (Major John Humble) had happened to pick up on the fact that from at least 1955 Arsenal were technically in breach of Section 197 of the Army Act 1955 which proscribes the unauthorised use of any “decoration, badge, wound stripe, or emblem which resembles any in use by the British Army”. 

A light-hearted article on the subject appeared in the solicitor’s house magazine The Law Society Gazette in April 1999 with the throwaway line that Arsenal (or rather their board of directors) were culpable in this respect by employment of the Royal Artillery Woolwich Arsenal badge and could be brought to account if not by court martial then in a civil court. It must have been thought likely that the matter would end there but some years later a small group of City whizz kids who happened to be Spurs fans decided to club together some funds and test the waters in a legal challenge. Lawyers felt that they were more likely to be successful if the matter were examined as a civil breach of ‘copyright’ (i.e. Crown Copyright) by the Office of Fair Trading. The OFT on examining the evidence refused to make a ruling on the grounds that the challenge was spurious. 

Undeterred, the group approached UEFA and hit paydirt. UEFA has its headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. Unable to see the joke and fearing embarrassing newspaper coverage in a land where humour is not renowned as part of the national psyche, UEFA requested that Arsenal made changes to the badge for the following season (2001-02) or face sanctions. So concerned were the authorities that a senior UEFA negotiator was despatched to London to ensure that Arsenal complied. This negotiator was present at a number of the private meetings held at Highbury and at Dein’s home in Hertfordshire. Naturally, the Gooners acted swiftly and commissioned a PR company to re-design the offending insignia and reverse the cannon back to the 1922 right-facing position in order to comply.They thus arrived at the rather sanitised and more stylised version of the badge now adorning their shirts. 

The full story would never have been leaked had the negotiator (an Italian - Dott. Primo Aprile) not returned to Italy and his home village of Farfa in Sabina near Rome to take up a post with the Italian FA. Italy has at least three daily newspapers totally dedicated to sport so when Aprile unwisely recounted the whole episode to a fellow resident of Farfa, Alessandro Scherzo a journalist with Rome’s Gazzetta Dello Sport the die was cast. The story made page 4 of the Gazzetta in early 2001 under the headline La quarantasette anni guerra della Arsenal which we think translates as “The 47 year war of Arsenal” (a jokey play on words relating to the period 1955-2001 when they were using the military insignia).



  • Interesting to read that about the badge.

    Regarding the promotion, I will try to scan some more information on that onto this thread.
  • The full story would never have been leaked had the negotiator (an Italian - Dott. Primo Aprile) not returned to Italy.

    Primo Aprile?  Hmm ….
  • Dave Rudd said:
    The full story would never have been leaked had the negotiator (an Italian - Dott. Primo Aprile) not returned to Italy.

    Primo Aprile?  Hmm ….
    Yep,  the bulk of the story is true (and the bits about the Arsenal post WWI promotion at the expense of Spurs are totally true and lifted from the official history).

    But the badge stuff was intended as an over-elaborate April Fools for the April 2003 edition of GoodBye Horse.
    In the end only a truncated version of the 'Promotion' story was printed.

    However, there is still a mystery as to why Arsenal reversed the direction of the cannon, once in 1925 and then again in 2000 back to the 1922 direction.

    BTW it is also true that I did have to explain 'Woolwich Rejects' to some Arsenal supporters in the Valley Cafe.

    That all seems a life-time ago now 
  • As promised.

    from 'The Title' by Scott Murray
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