Casual Notes: Henry Norris and Football Chat
Last updated: December 2008
[ROGER THIS FOLLOWS IMMEDIATELY AFTER SLDREW]
I think you can say that Henry Norris’ investment in the sports newspaper Football Chat began with the Athletic News issue of Monday 25 February 1907; on that day Norris found that Charles Sutcliffe, in his regular column, had put the case for a national football league.
Norris was delighted to find such an influential Football League figure sharing his ideas on the subject. In Athletic News 4 March 1907 a long article from him appeared, supporting Sutcliffe’s idea in principle and describing how the Football League and Southern League could be amalgamated in practice. It also contained Norris’ first journalistic statement of his opposition to the maximum wage; he described it as “totally un-English and opposed to the best interests of the sport” and this was a view he held until his death. The article shows Norris’ at his best, as an intelligent and practical thinker on the wider football issues: there’s a clear argument, well laid out in simply-constructed sentences; it is a little wordy for 21st century tastes but that was typical of its time; and he doesn’t waste words (like he did so often) sniping at people who don’t share his views or who have been sniping at him.
Nothing came of Sutcliffe’s and Norris’ suggestions. They were nearly two decades ahead of their time and were thoroughly stamped on by the grandees of the leagues in question. Norris may have thought of his article as raising his and his club’s profile on the national stage, in advance of Fulham’s application to be elected into the Football League. But I think that he also found he enjoyed writing about the great football issues of his day, contributing to the debate and helping form future policy. He was always a man with strong views, on the future of football as on everything else; airing them in the sports press helped him put them over to the widest audience. He would have made a good, though controversial, TV pundit.
About a year later, Henry Norris may have read in WLFT or heard on the local gossip grapevine that the owner of Athletic World, Cycling and Football Chat had been at West London Magistrate’s Court in Hammersmith for non-payment of debts. A few months later, the newspaper had been sold on, and its new owner, Edward Cox Price, was looking for someone to sell it on again.
As far as that it seems quite simple; but then - because of a lack of any papers extant from the various companies that got involved - the tale gets rather sketchy. A group of men who were prominent in London football circles decided to look into Football Chat to see if it was worth buying. I can say that one of the first to do so was Henry Norris’ refereeing acquaintance Charles Crisp, who later became a director of Norris and Hall’s Arsenal FC. Another who was probably involved from the start was the chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion, George Broadbridge. Crisp and Broadbridge spent several weeks at Price’s offices looking at Football Chat’s records. The investigation ended with Price sending them a letter on 10 June 1908 in which he stated that its readership was 25,000 per issue and it had £20 per issue in advertising revenue. On the basis of that letter, Crisp and Broadbridge set up a limited company to sell shares for the purpose of buying Football Chat for £1000, £200 down and the rest in instalments. The sale went through in early July 1908 and the new owners relaunched Football Chat on 5 August 1908. In October 1908 Henry Norris confirmed that he had bought some of the shares and was now a part-owner of Football Chat. I think he did so with the intention of writing as often as he had the time - which turned out to be more or less every week for season 1908/09 - the kind of wider-issue article he’d had such fun doing for Athletic News the year before.
Oh dear! Despite the best efforts of the men who investigated Football Chat’s records in May-June 1908, it rapidly became clear to its new owners that Price had been lying about its readership and its revenues. He also broke the contract for the sale, by starting a sports called Football Sport in August 1908, a direct rival to Football Chat. On the advice of their solicitors, Football Chat’s new owners refused to pay the second £200, due in September 1908. Then Price fled to Holland - where it would be more difficult to pursue him - and made over the ownership of the money he was due to a man called Stoddart, who started proceedings against Football Chat for the remaining £800. It all ended in tears and in court in 1911. The court upheld Football Chat’s owners’ claim that they’d been sold a dud (Price’s letter of June 1908 was their best piece of evidence) but as far as I can discover they never got their £200 back and neither did Stoddart get his £800.
The £200 that Crisp and Broadbridge’s group did pay Price for Football Chat was just the start of it, of course. For one whole football season the group paid the costs of producing the newspaper each week, and the wages of the high-profile editor they appointed, without receiving anything like the revenues that Price written about in his letter. I’ve no idea how much they lost in the end, but the company that owned Football Chat went into liquidation in July 1909 and no issue of the paper ever appeared again. For Henry Norris - and all the other shareholders, I imagine - it was definitely a case of burnt fingers; as far as I know he never invested money in any kind of newspaper again. No records of the company that ran Football Chat now exist, so apart from Norris, Crisp and Broadbridge I can’t be sure who held shares in it. However on the basis that profiles and interviews in Football Chat included the men who owned it, I give a list of men who may have lost money on it: Oscar Drew/Merula; Alfred Davis, FA representative of Berks and Bucks FA; T A Deacock, director of Tottenham Hotspur; Frank Walton, director of QPR; T H Kirkup, secretary of the London FA; and referee G W Verge or possibly Varge. That all these men were based in the south of England was no accident. I’m sure Norris at least hoped that Football Chat under their guidance would become as respected and as widely-read as Athletic News and be an antidote to AN’s northern bias. It never happened; but they did give it a try. If it had been successful, Henry Norris would have been amongst the writers whose national profile would have been enhanced; I think that that was one of the reasons why he got involved.
In their first issue in charge, on 5 August 1908 the owners of Football Chat announced a clean sweep of all its previous writers. Amongst the new brooms they brought in were Drew/Merula and Henry Norris. In the edition of 26 August 1908 Football Chat followed this up by announcing the appointment as editor of J J Bentley. As a previous editor of Athletic News and grandee of both the Football League and the Football Association, Bentley was one of the best-known and well-respected football writers of the time. No doubt his wages contributed largely to the newspapers’ bankruptcy.
A column by Henry Norris called “Summer Football Reflections” appeared in Football Chat on 5 August 1908. In it, Norris said that he hoped to write regularly for the paper. In the event and probably because he wasn’t asking for a wage, columns by Norris appeared almost every week during season 1908/09. In the issue of 14 October 1908 he called his column CASUAL NOTES, a name which it kept until he stopped writing about football altogether in 1913.
In terms of themes to write about in football season 1908/09 was a gift, because it was a season when professional football almost - but not quite - got rid of wage restrictions; and a national league was discussed, 13 years before it became a reality. Henry Norris didn’t begin the debate. That was done by the FA, who asked their secretary, Fred Wall, to write to Athletic News admitting that the FA’s wage and bonus restrictions were being widely ignored, and asking people with information on breaches of the rules to shop their football colleagues. The letter appeared on 17 August 1908. Norris, however, helped set the tone of the debate, making a speech at a meeting of the FL in which he laid out a timetable for the abolition of all wage restrictions for professional players; and following the debate and urging his point of view in his Casual Notes column as the season continued and the debate first widened its scope and then became bogged down.
These are the main topics of Henry Norris’ Casual Notes during season 1908/09:
25 September 1908 urged the abolition of the maximum wage
14 October discussed transfer fees. That the FL allowed them and the Southern League wouldn’t hear of them was the biggest obstacle in the way of a national football league; the other being bonuses
11 November considered the effects on players of two matches per week
18 November condemned the Southern League’s recent decision to continue to refuse bonuses to be paid to players. Norris thought it had made the creation of a national football league almost impossible
2 December see below for one of Norris’ most inventive columns
9 December discussed some recent matches and the FA Cup draw
16 December argued that it was an “open secret” that the players wanted a “free market” in wages
23 December worried about the effect of heavy drinking on footballers’ careers; with illustrations from his own observations
6 January 1909 wondered about crowd behaviour when a team is losing (Fulham FC’s crowds were notorious!); and the effect of famous players (he was meaning James Sharp) on crowd figures.
13 January argued that a national league was the solution to the differences between FL and the Southern League as regards payments to players
20 January put forward the view that the Southern League’s governing council involved too many people, making it difficult to reach a consensus
27 January urged the need for restrictions to prevent rich clubs buying their way out of relegation. Again, Norris was ahead of his time in seeing a need for this. He put forward two ways of restricting transfers:
A total ban between August and May; or
What is now called being cup-tied, but applied to league matches
10 February was a long report on a recent FL meeting at which 20 clubs out of the 22 voted to abolish all wage restrictions. Norris’ comment that the 20 would find it difficult to stay in the FL if at its AGM it refused to enact the vote, caused a great deal of argument in football circles in the following weeks. Fulham FC had been one of the 20.
In the issue of 17 February editor Bentley upheld Norris’ right to express the views he had the previous week; although he personally didn’t agree with them.
10 March considered a recent proposal for a national league hammered out at a meeting between FL and Southern League representatives. Norris thought all the London clubs would dislike the Southern League’s own view that it should be considered the equal of FL Division Two. (And one for the future): Norris congratulated Herbert Chapman by name, on having guided Northampton Town to the Southern League title.
17 and 24 March assessed the newly-formed Players’ Union’s wage demands
31 March discussed promotion and relegation issues
7 April argued for abolition of the maximum wage - again.
Note how few times Norris actually discussed what was going on on the pitch in season 1908/09. And he hardly mentioned Fulham FC at all. His columns were all the better for their concentration on big rather than club issues. His best one was the pantomime he put on in Football Chat’s issue of 2 December 1908:
Football in the 20th Century: the Player and the Club: is Honesty the Best Policy?
Actors: the Manager of a London club; and its Directors acting in chorus.
ACT ONE: in a Southern League boardroom. In order to get the signature of a particular player, the directors agree without any qualms or hesitation to pay him in excess of the maximum weekly wage plus a £250 signing-on bonus, the money to come out of their own pockets (rather than going through the club’s accounts, that is - a method Norris used himself later, at Arsenal).
ACT TWO: in the same Southern League boardroom. There’s a conference coming up on wages. The Directors instruct their Manager to go to the conference and state their total opposition to any attempt to abolish the maximum wage, and to refuse to countenance the payment of bonuses to players.
ACT THREE: a conference hall packed with Southern League delegates. Manager duly makes a tough speech, exactly as instructed. Cue applause from the other the delegates.
THE CURTAIN FALLS.
It caused a great deal of talk in football, and many requests to Norris to name names if he had meant any club in particular. He refused, of course - because the whole point was that it could be almost any club, the abuses and hypocrisy were so widespread. He got his message across by the use of humour, for once; and though there was a lot of talk about it, he didn’t get the hostile flak he usually did when his outspoken views hit football where it hurt.
In Football Chat’s issue of 21 April 1908 J J Bentley told the readers that the paper would be taking a break and wouldn’t be published in the close season. In the issue of 28 April 1908, the last of the season, Henry Norris looked forward to the AGMs of the various football bodies in the hope that decisions made at them would create a national league and abolish wage restraints. He made only a passing reference to the unexpected resignation from Fulham FC of its manager, Harry Bradshaw; merely saying that Phil Kelso had accepted the job. Elsewhere in the magazine Drew/Merula did an appreciation of Bradshaw.
Norris signed off for season 1908/09 by saying that he hoped his Casual Notes had given Football Chat’s readers something to think about; and that he hadn’t caused offence by his decision “to write quite fearlessly on matters on which I feel I had a right to express an opinion”; he’d stated in a previous column that he wrote Casual Notes not as a football club director but as a football lover concerned to improve the national game. He expressed a hope that Casual Notes would be back in August ready for season 1909/10; but there’s something about the wording that indicates to me that he knew it wasn’t likely. Casual Notes was back in August - but not in the same paper. Out of the wreckage of Football Chat it got a transfer to another publication - West London and Fulham Times. However, although it had the same name, it didn’t have the same content, and by season 1909/10 even Henry Norris had admitted that it was a shadow of its former self. He changed its name, first to “Football Notes” then to “Current Topics”.
Football Chat had too small a readership to make ends meet. However, it did have readers all over the south-east of England, perhaps further afield; and it was read at least sometimes by the northern-based hierarchy of the national professional game. By moving his regular football column to a Fulham local newspaper, you might have thought Henry Norris would have slipped under their radar. However in April 1913 you would have been proved wrong.
[ROGER THE NEXT IN THIS SEQUENCE IS SLWLFT.]
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SOURCES OF ALL THIS INFORMATION, SEND ME AN EMAIL AND I’LL SEND YOU THE SOURCES FILE.
Copyright Sally Davis December 2008