Many fans will know that Arsenal's top flight status in English Football is unbroken since the 1919-20 season, but many more may not be aware of the highly unusual circumstances that prompted this achievement.

When the terrible conflict known as "The War To End All Wars" reached its exhausted conclusion, top-class football had effectively ceased to exist, three quarters of a million young British men had been killed, and of those, no small number had been professional footballers.

Amid all this, The Arsenal's problems were clearly small ones but, to Sir Henry Norris, they were real enough. When the war began, the club had been fielding a side which should have quickly fought its way back to the First Division, hence helping with the £60,000 standing debt, and Norris's £125,000 investment. But those players who had survived the war were all 5 years older, and there was absolutely no telling how any club would perform in the season that was to begin in September 1919.

It was at this point that Henry Norris set out the single most outrageous enterprise ever to be conceived in the history of English football. His remarkable earlier political success in obtaining Fulham entry into the Football League, and Woolwich Arsenal entry to North London, were minnows compared to the audacious 'Whale' he was about to float.

More than 100 years later, there is still no convincing explanation of how Norris achieved his object, and it's almost inconceivable that any other individual, before or since, could have carried it off at all. Norris's aim, very simply, was to take Arsenal back into the First Division.

In 1914-15, the team had finished 5th in the Second Division. (For 60 years that League table was invariably copied, showing Arsenal finishing 6th, but in actual fact, they finished just above Birmingham on goal average by virtue of a 7-0 win over Nottingham Forest in their final game.) Above Arsenal were Derby County, Preston North End, Barnsley, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The Football League was suspended after the 1914-15 season, for the duration of the Great War. In 1919, it was decided to extend the First Division from 20 to 22 clubs. Extensions of the Divisions had happened on several occasions since the Football League was founded in 1888. The almost invariable procedure when extending the First Division was to re-elect automatically the bottom clubs from the previous season, and promote the top clubs from the Second Division.

Given the unfortunate intervention of the war, there seemed every reason to suppose, and little cause to even discuss it, and this was indeed what almost everyone assumed and were told would happen. By chance, two other London clubs, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, had finished 19th and 20th in the First Division.

Showing remarkable stealth and political judgement, Norris used the 8 months between the end of the war and the Annual General Meeting of the Football League, to canvass the other major clubs and various influential friends in the game. He had received his Knighthood in 1917 and became a Tory MP in 1918, and one must assume that many were flattered by the attention of this successful luminary in a game which had few figures of note outside of its own confines.

Norris seemed to have little to work on, but there was one small chink of hope. At the end of the 1914-15 season, it had become obvious that the Football League would have to be abandoned for the duration of the war. There had been allegations of some match-fixing by one or two players who had bet on results and, in one instance, this was proven after lengthy court cases; that particular game was Manchester United versus Liverpool, and United had won 2-0 to finish 18th, just one point ahead of Chelsea. Though United would have dropped below Chelsea if Liverpool had beaten them, they would still have finished ahead of last-placed Tottenham Hotspur.

But the whole business did serve to create an understandable uneasiness that the 1914-15 season was not quite all it should have been. It should be said that there was not the slightest suggestion that Tottenham or Chelsea were ever involved in any wrongdoing at the time, and none has ever been suggested since.

What Norris said to the other chairmen has never been revealed, but his desperation for First Division status, plus the size of his investment at risk, clearly persuaded enough of them that he had a worthwhile case. Leslie Knighton described his chairman's technique at the time thus: "His influence was enormous, he would speak to an important person there suggesting a favour, to remind a certain financier, that he had once done him a good turn, and been promised something in return."

When the AGM was convened, Norris's strategy became clear, it must have been agreed in advance with League President, "Honest John McKenna", a close friend of Norris, and the owner of Liverpool FC. Firstly, Chelsea were detached from Spurs and their position taken separately. There was no vote, and the fact that Chelsea would have finished third from bottom in 1915 had Liverpool beaten Manchester United in the fixed match undoubtedly influenced the meeting.

McKenna proposed they be re-elected to the First Division on the 'nod' and this was accepted. Derby County, and Preston North End, 1st and 2nd in the Second Division in 1914-15, were elected to the First Division without debate.

McKenna, who might have been more reticent given he was the force behind Liverpool FC, made a brief speech recommending that Arsenal be given the remaining First Division place because of their service to the League, and their longevity, particularly pointing out that Arsenal had been in the Football League 15 years longer than Spurs.

The arguments were of course complete nonsense, the Football League is not run on the basis of the most experienced clubs being given the higher places and, in any event, Wolves had finished 4th and had been members of the Football League 4 years longer than Arsenal.

To this day, it is impossible to explain what went on at that AGM; the most plausible explanation is actually the most irrational, that being, the individual representatives assumed that, if McKenna was prepared to support so unlikely a cause, then he must have some very good if well-hidden reason for doing so. If there was such a reason, it has remained very well hidden indeed, though it would clearly have been assumed to be something to do with the results at the end of the 1914-15 season.

The corollary of lasting concern to fans of Tottenham Hotspur was that, despite the expansion of the First Division to 22 teams, which should have seen them safely re-elected, despite finishing 20th in 1914-15, this highly dubious election of Arsenal allowed the other north London club to leapfrog over them, into the First Division, while they sank down to the Second Division; however, they immediately returned to the First Division as Second Division Champions of the 1919–20 season.

For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that, for many years, there were rumours of the involvement of significant sums of money. Nothing has ever been discovered in writing, of course, and there has never been any other documentary proof, so it must remain a mystery how Arsenal were promoted after finishing in 5th place in the Second Division. And since that time, they have never suffered relegation back to the Second Division.

Acknowledgement. Arsenal 1886-1986. Phil Soar & Martin Tyler.