Current Topics: Henry Norris in West London and Fulham Times 1909-13
Last updated: December 2008
Drew/Merula gave up his column on West London and Fulham Times in January 1909. A reporter writing as Gee-Whiz took it over and stayed in the job until the end of season 1911/12. ‘Gee-Whiz’ strikes me as a young man’s choice of name and he was certainly treated by the management as someone who was not in a position to dictate, when they invited Henry Norris (or he volunteered) to write a football column for them when Football Chat went into liquidation. When Norris’ Casual Notes was first published in WLFT in August 1909 Gee-Whiz told his readers that he’d been told to give Norris first refusal on subject-matter: if Norris wanted to write about a particular topic, Gee-Whiz couldn’t. In fact, their columns in WLFT complemented each other, Gee-Whiz writing match reports, while Norris used his column more as an advertising board for Fulham, sometimes mentioning particular incidents in recent matches but often doing nothing much more than listing forthcoming fixtures. There was no more discussion of football’s bigger issues.
I suppose Norris was asked, or decided off his own bat, to remember that WLFT was a local newspaper and write accordingly. However, in the summer meetings of the FA, FL and Southern League, all the reforms that Norris had urged in Casual Notes when it was in Football Chat had been rejected. Norris had to wait until the early 1920s for the national football league to be set up; and until the late 1920s for a transfer deadline; the maximum wage stayed in force long after his death. He must have been very disappointed; and he didn’t write about them again.
1910 was the year that Fulham FC’s Henry Norris and William Hall got entangled with Woolwich Arsenal FC and ended up as its major shareholders. The two men had a very rough time in the local press in Fulham and in Woolwich and at the AGM of Fulham Football and Athletic Company Norris crossed swords with Oscar Drew again. Drew/Merula led the very noisy criticism of Norris and Hall’s involvement at Woolwich Arsenal, beginning by saying that the players recently bought by Fulham FC weren’t worth the money spent on them, and ending by saying that he could only see a downward spiral for Fulham while two of its directors had money tied up in two clubs. Entitled to attend the AGM because he was a shareholder, Drew/Merula may still written the WLFT’s coverage of the AGM; the article was printed anonymously but Drew played a starring role in it. It seems to have been a kind of parting shot: Drew then spent most of the next two years abroad.
When Norris’ football column returned to WLFT in August 1910, he changed its title to Current Topics: a plural because while the contents of his weekly articles were the same as the previous season, he covered Woolwich Arsenal as well as Fulham. The articles were shorter, and over the next few seasons they got progressively more defensive, with Norris trying to defend himself against the complaints of two sets of supporters, both of whom were feeling short-changed. For me, reading them was a big disappointment: he never did explain why he got involved with Woolwich Arsenal at all.
Gee-Whiz was the second football writer at WLFT until August 1912, when he disappeared and Drew/Merula returned. In his first column of the season, on 23 August 1912, he got straight down to brass-tacks by wondering where the £750 Fulham FC had spent recently on transfers had actually gone. He quoted another newspapers’ interview with Fulham FC manager Phil Kelso; I wonder why he didn’t interview him himself? Perhaps Norris had forbidden it. When Norris’ own column, now called Football Topics, started up again on 30 August 1912, he spent most of his words refuting what Drew/Merula had said the week before: a pattern that was often repeated as the season advanced.
1912/13 was the season when Woolwich Arsenal were relegated from Football League Division One; and Fulham only just avoided ending bottom of Football League Division Two. Football Topics continued its format of short comments on the recent matches of Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham, and details of forthcoming fixtures. Norris betrayed his prime concerns by usually discussing Woolwich Arsenal first; then the rest of FL Division One - in which Chelsea FC and Spurs were also doing very badly; and then Fulham and FL Division Two. He also didn’t hide sufficiently well to escape annoyance the fact that he was going to more Woolwich Arsenal matches than Fulham ones. On 27 September 1912 he commented on Woolwich Arsenal’s first win of the season that the team would “prove not quite such a poor side as some scribes would have their readers believe”; he wasn’t having a dig at Drew/Merula this time because Drew/Merula was a Fulham FC man and didn’t usually comment on Woolwich Arsenal. However, Woolwich Arsenal didn’t win again until well into 1913 and as the predictions of the “some scribes” were fulfilled, Henry Norris seems to have got into a kind-of trap of positive thinking, where he ascribed poor result after poor result to bad luck and injuries; he never did admit that after so many seasons with money spent on players - let alone well spent - Woolwich Arsenal’s team was no longer fit for First Division purpose.
Some indication of Norris’ struggles to make the best of the very worst can be gained from my saying that in WLFT of 22 November 1912 he described Woolwich Arsenal 0 Everton 0 as an improvement. Well, it’s an improvement on losing I suppose. Even he couldn’t take anything positive from Burnley 5 Fulham 0 though, which had happened the same weekend, probably as a psychological reaction on the part of the players to Fulham’s decision to sell their best defender, James Sharp, to Chelsea, who were down with Woolwich Arsenal in the relegation zone. In trying to explain away the sale of Sharp - in which he must have had some say, although he was not chairman any longer - Norris returned to an old bug-bear, often featured in his chairman’s address at the AGM’s of both his clubs: Fulham’s gates weren’t big enough; without bigger crowds there wasn’t enough money for transfers; the directors weren’t going to continue using their own money to buy players. The following week, his column didn’t appear at all: in a decidedly Freudian slip, he’d forgotten to post it!
I think Norris’ positive thinking was a front. Instead of continuing to watch more and more defeats (at Woolwich and at Fulham) he took his family to St Moritz for nearly a month. His column of 3 January 1913 spent more words on Switzerland than on football - obviously, as he’d missed all the Christmas and New Year fixtures. He did, on 10 January 1913, admit that he was having to endure a lot of cutting remarks and leg-pulls about the double that might end his season - Woolwich Arsenal relegated from FL Divison One and Fulham (after 2 out of the last 20 points) bottom of FL Division Two. By 24 January 1913 he even admitted that Woolwich Arsenal were almost certain to be relegated, and that they had played badly in their last match. He reminded his readers that because of all the injuries, Woolwich Arsenal had hardly ever played their first-choice eleven. It was very depressing reading though; and depressing writing as well. As the season moved into February, he turned away from local troubles to looking at the FA Cup (both his teams were out already) and who would win the FL Division One championship - saying that it was between four teams but not picking any one of them out.
All this time that Henry Norris had been writing more or less solely about fixtures, there was one piece of news that he had to hand that he didn’t put in his column: his search for a new ground for Woolwich Arsenal. Naturally he wanted to keep it a secret until the deal was done. And naturally, he reckoned without the football gossip grapevine: at the end of February several papers printed rumours that Woolwich Arsenal were going to move to north London; one even correctly named Gillespie Road as the chosen destination. In WLFT on Friday 28 February 1913 Norris used his first opportunity to respond thus: “I notice that Tottenham Hotspurs (sic) and Clapton Orient are reported to have attended before the Management Committee of the [Football] League to urge that a club should not be allowed to change its ground without special permission of the League. I am told that their attendance had special reference to a rumour that a club proposed to take a ground in London 4 miles away from their respective ground (sic). It appears to me to be a foolish attitude, the population of the surrounding boroughs totalling up something like 2 millions, but it is the old, old story. Some clubs want not only the earth, but a little bit of heaven and the other place as well.” The number of grammatical and spelling errors in this riposte, very unlike the usual Norris, suggest to me that he was writing quickly and furiously, and following his usual instinct to deny; not taking time to think that - by suggesting that the managements of Spurs and Clapton Orient had got it all wrong - he would be making it worse for himself in the long run. A few days later he had to stand up at a dinner for sports reporters, hastily organised in central London, and admit that the rumours were quite correct. He looked an ass on that occasion; and being caught out that way did nothing to improve his opinion of journalism as a profession.
In his column in WLFT on Friday 7 March 1913 Norris chose to admit nothing and apologise for nothing; instead he looked steadily in the other direction by covering the top of Football League Division One. It was Drew/Merula who dared to write about Woolwich Arsenal’s move to Highbury; and in him Norris found an unexpected supporter. Oscar Drew had probably gone to the sports reporters’ dinner; or perhaps he’d had a personal briefing from Norris, because he was very well informed on the status of the move. As a man who’d grown up in Edmonton, part of Spurs’ heart-land, he correctly prophesied that it would be Clapton Orient who would suffer most from having Woolwich Arsenal as neighbours. He continued to write in support of Woolwich Arsenal’s move to north London in his next few weekly columns and I hope that Norris was grateful for he was never more beleaguered as a football writer than in the next few weeks.
The problem was that - just as relegation seemed inevitable - Woolwich Arsenal got two wins in two matches. Drew/Merula pulled Norris’ leg about the first (an away win at Manchester City that stunned all of football) describing men all over Woolwich collapsing in a dead faint at the news and hoping that Hall and Norris had taken due time to recover from the shock. I said above that I thought Norris’ optimistic stance was not a true reflection of his feelings on watching Woolwich Arsenal firmly attached to the bottom of the table; and spending no money to try to help alleviate this. In his column on 21 March 1913 he described how he and a friend who was a Chelsea fan had this running battle - the sort you have with football fans you know who support someone else. Norris hadn’t had much of chance to be on top in the weekly battles with this friend this season; but after Woolwich Arsenal had beaten West Bromwich Albion with what Norris himself admitted was an “exceedingly lucky” goal, and Chelsea had won as well, he greeted the friend with an, “Another lucky win on Saturday, eh?” He praised Woolwich Arsenal’s players for “battling against seemingly now hopeless odds” and (in my opinion) got carried away and made a fatal mistake: he indulged himself with some hope that they might even at this late stage, stay up. They had a difficult Easter programme, mostly away matches. What they needed was one of the other relegation candidates to lose a lot: Chelsea, perhaps...
Both Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham were due to play away in the north-west over Easter; so Norris took his family away to Lancashire for the holiday. On Good Friday he saw Manchester United 2 Woolwich Arsenal 0; on the Saturday he probably went to Preston North End 1 Fulham 0. He admitted in his column on the following Friday that by the end of those two games he was feeling disinclined to take any more punishment; but he allowed himself to be persuaded by a friend (perhaps his Chelsea-supporting friend; or John McKenna of Liverpool) to go to see the friend’s team play on the Easter Monday. It was meant to be easy-street for Liverpool; Chelsea won 1-2. Combined with Woolwich Arsenal’s bad Easter, it dashed all hope that Woolwich Arsenal might escape relegation. And when talking about it in WLFT on 28 March 1913 Norris allowed his great disappointment to get the better of his good sense. He described Liverpool/Chelsea as “the worst game of football it has ever been my misfortune to see”. That was OK - we’re always seeing the worst game ever, aren’t we? But unfortunately he didn’t stop at that, he made some remarks that could have been interpreted as a suggestion that the match had been fixed. And that was how the Football League did interpret them.
Norris was FURIOUS. When - after being punished by a joint FL and FA inquiry into the match - he finally discussed it in WLFT he said, “I really cannot understand the hubbub which has been raised” by his comments. He said they had been misinterpreted, “But if players play as some of the Liverpool team did in this match, they must expect to be criticised”.
It was the bigger issues in the whole affair that made him so angry. Firstly, he was the only football writer to have been investigated even though local papers such as the Lancashire Sporting Chronicle and the Liverpool Echo and the The Porcupine had all been quite as scathing about the match. In his column he noted that the LSC was owned by the same company that also published Athletic News (Hulton Newspapers) and noted that the Athletic News should have come out so strongly against his own remarks while making no comment at all on its own sister-paper’s strictures. He claimed to find this amusing - though I’m sure it was hollow laughter.
Norris did say that he had no quarrel with the findings of the enquiry into the match and his comments on it; he hoped that now the matter would be laid to rest. However, the second of the complaints he had about the affair was that a statement issued by the FL and FA after the enquiry said that he had admitted being “indiscreet”. In WLFT Norris now denied that, saying that the word was “never mentioned by me at all”. He did admit that if he had any reservations about the conduct of the match it might have been better to go to the authorities rather than voice them in a newspaper; but as always, he stood by his words: “At the same time, I was particularly careful to emphasise the fact that I did not withdraw...anything I had written”.
Finally he was angry that an enquiry into the match itself, rather than the press coverage of it, had decided that the Liverpool team had been spineless and disinterested that day, rather than bribed. Norris was annoyed that the players had been exonerated, while he himself had been censured for criticising them and saying that the public had a right to expect something better from them. He agreed with the Lancashire Sporting Chronicle’s comments on the enquiry, when it said that football was the better for “a man of prominence and experience” using the means he had to hand to “denounce a game which did not appear to him as genuine”. This was Norris defending his corner as usual, but I’m inclined to agree with him this time, when he claimed he was being victimised and that far too much was being made of his exercising his right to free speech. Perhaps he should have taken his concerns to the FL or FA. Would they have done anything if he had? I don’t want to be witch-hunted by the football authorities myself so I won’t say what I think.
WAFC 2 Sheffield Wednesday 5 sent Woolwich Arsenal down into Football League Division Two. In his column on the following Friday, 4 April 1913, Norris used the fact to reiterate that professional football couldn’t be made to pay in Woolwich. That was it for coverage of Woolwich Arsenal that week; and Fulham got no more. Norris then passed straight onto being enthusiastic about the FA Cup Final - Aston Villa v Sunderland (Villa won) he thought looked really exciting, at least on paper. It was not until Friday 25 April 1913 that he finally admitted to his readers that Woolwich Arsenal would be playing at Highbury the following season, letting them know how easy it was to get there by public transport. He never discussed how his own decisions as chairman of Woolwich Arsenal and influential director at Fulham FC had helped to condemn the clubs to seasons that he admitted had been “disappointing”; naturally, I suppose, but it gets my goat.
Before the enquiry into the conduct of the players in the Liverpool/Chelsea match, Drew/Merula had predicted that it would be impossible to prove or disprove Norris’ allegations. Later he told his readers that Norris had “not taken calmly” the enquiry’s findings, and supported him in his refusal to withdraw the comments that had started it. So at the end of season 1912/13 the two men, so often at loggerheads, finally found something they could agree on!
Henry Norris’ column of 25 April 1913 had always been scheduled as his last for that season. He didn’t say goodbye but it turned out to be the last he ever wrote. Drew/Merula wrote a column the following Friday and that too was a swansong. He didn’t say farewell either, but he too never wrote football reports again as far as I know; Gee-Whiz was back at WLFT for season 1913/14.
Did Drew and Norris resign together in protest at the FL and FA’s treatment of Norris’ honesty? Was Norris sacked for not being careful enough what he wrote, causing Drew to resign in protest? Hard to say, but I don’t think so. After the football season he’d had, I think Norris was glad to see the back of football writing: he’d begun writing about football because he enjoyed it but in season 1912/13 it had become a chore. Then something he’d written had caused a footballing furore, ending with him being publically reprimanded for speaking his mind. I think he was glad to quit.
I do wish he’d been able to write more of the type of article he’d done for Football Chat. His writing for WLFT is in my mind a sad let-down in comparison.
AFTER CURRENT TOPICS Norris did have one more go at writing about football. In 1929, Henry Norris said that since his banning by the FA in 1927 he had written and had published - not a regular column, some articles on the current state of football. Unfortunately he didn’t say in which newspapers they had been published. By the late 1920s Athletic News was no longer pre-eminent amongst sports newspapers, so it’s not a question of just running through its issues trying to find them. I haven’t looked for them.
FOOTNOTE ON OSCAR DREW. The ways of Norris and Drew/Merula lay apart after they both left WLFT. Drew had already moved out of Fulham. When he returned from his period abroad he and his wife had moved into a house in Putney. During the war they left London altogether. Drew was the second writer on football that Norris was acquainted with whose death was a sad one: he died in an asylum in Sussex, in August 1919. I suppose Norris never knew.
[ROGER THE NEXT IN THIS SEQUENCE IS SLJNL2]
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Copyright Sally Davis December 2008