Arsenal v Merthyr Town FA Cup 1915
When Merthyr played at Highbury
Arsenal 3 Merthyr Town 0 – FA Cup First Round 1915
Nowadays the news that your club has been drawn against Arsenal in the FA Cup is the signal to celebrate the prospect of a financial windfall and massive TV exposure. However a century ago the reality was somewhat different.
At this time World War One has fossilised into a line of trenches stretching from the French Channel coast to the Swiss border and many of the eager volunteers of the summer of 1914 were getting an unfortunate taste of what the reality of war was all about. Frank Costello who had worn the red & green of Merthyr Town in only the previous season had been killed in action only a few weeks before the third round was played. Although many footballers had ripped up their contracts in order to enlist in the armed forces, the decision of the football authorities to continue with a league and cup programme led to the game being subjected to mounting criticism from many sections of British society.
Merthyr Town’s FA Cup campaign began with a 4-2 victory at Eccles Borough in the 6th Qualifying Round. The reward for their exploits was a home tie against Arsenal. At this time, the Gunners were a somewhat unfashionable Second Division club run by Henry Norris, an ambitious London property developer. Since 1910, Norris had ploughed around £100,000 into the North London club and had been responsible for building their new home at Highbury. Even so, such large scale financial investment did not bring the success that Norris wanted as at the end of the previous season, the Gunners had been denied promotion to the First Division on goal average.
By the winter of 1914 Merthyr Town, who at this time played in the Second Division of the Southern League, were struggling to make ends meet. Crowds at Penydarren Park had plummeted due to a combination of many young men rushing off to join the colours and also colliers and steelworkers, who still made up the majority of the team’s support, being forced to work extra shifts in order to assist with the war effort. In the light of these circumstances the Merthyr Town directors accepted a financial guarantee, believed to be in the region of £100, to switch the tie to Highbury.
The match itself was played on 9th January 1915 and the teams lined up as follows:-
ARSENAL: Kempton, Shaw, Ford, Grant, Buckley, McKinnon, Rutherford, Flanagan, King, Bradshaw, Lewis.
MERTHYR TOWN: Gibbon, McCormack, Gliddon, Yarwood, Chivers, Westwood, Morris, Clay, Stoodley, Lawrence, Reed.
The following match report appeared in the Merthyr Express newspaper of 15th January 1915;
“For a financial offer, Merthyr agreed to play their cup-tie at Highbury. The weather was fine and there was a good crowd of spectators.
Stoodley started for Merthyr before a crowd of 8,000 and the visitors immediately made tracks for the home goal, Shaw however ended their progress and placed his own forwards in possession. The Arsenal were awarded a penalty after 15 minutes when McCormack handled and King scored with the kick. Merthyr worked hard but made little headway against the home defence. After thirty minutes, Arsenal added a second goal, Flanagan provided a fine opportunity for King who headed into the net. Stoodley broke away just after but was overtaken before he could become dangerous and Grant shot over the bar,
The second half opened in favour of Merthyr who quickly forced a corner off Ford but Flanagan kicked clear. The visitors were showing much better combination during this period than at any previous time in the game, Lawrence in particular being very clever. The Arsenal then made a raid and the visitors’ goal had a bombardment with shots by King, Flanagan and Buckley being saved by Gibbon. After twenty minutes of the half, Arsenal scored again when a corner by Rutherford was headed into the net. Bradshaw shot over the bar with Gibbon well beaten while at the other end a free-kick by Yarwood only just missed its mark with Kempton well beaten. Lewis gained two corners in succession but neither gave his side any advantage. The game was played at a considerably slower pace in the later stages”.
Ironically the attendance of 8,000 would probably have been higher if the tie had been played at Penydarren Park.
The following week it was back down to earth for Merthyr Town when they travelled to the Rhondda to face Mid-Rhondda in the South Wales Cup. Nevertheless, at least this journey proved to be more fruitful for “The Town” as they defeated the “Mushrooms” by 2-0. Any hopes the Gunners might have had for a long cup run were quickly extinguished in the next round as they went down by a goal to nil to the eventual beaten finalists, Chelsea.
The 1914/15 season ended with Merthyr Town narrowly missing out on promotion when they finished in third place in their league behind Stoke and Stalybridge while Arsenal could only manage fifth place in Football League Division 2. However the resumption of organised football after the Great War brought about a big upturn in fortunes for both clubs. Merthyr Town began the 1919/20 season in the First Division of the Southern League and a year later became one of the founder members of the Third Division of the Football League. Arsenal, via the influence of the now Sir Henry Norris, started their post-war football life in Football League Division 1 thus beginning their since unbroken membership of English football’s top division.
THE ARTICLE BY PHILIP SWEET FIRST APPEARED IN DIAL M FOR MERTHYR ISSUE 46