top of page

A Bitter Pill to Swallow for Arsenal

Similar to some other high-profile team sports, football in recent times has been rocked with its fair share of bad press relating to club sides or individuals who have participated in using an illegal performance-enhancing substance. Although entirely legal under the rules at the time, one wonders what the ramifications would have been for Arsenal, had laws existed back in January 1925 when the Gunners’ visited the Boleyn Ground for an FA Cup First Round tie.

At the end of West Ham United’s historic 1922-23 season, the Hammers were runners-up to Bolton Wanderers in the first-ever F.A. Cup Final to be held at the newly-constructed Wembley Stadium in which a now-legendary ‘white horse’ was prominent in the proceedings, seven days later promotion to the Football League First Division was secured after a nail-biting tussle on the last day of the season had ended in favour of the east Londoners on goal average.

Having clinched their place in the top tier of English football at the end of the 1922-23 campaign, West Ham had the edge over their more illustrious north London neighbours by a margin of two league wins to one going into their FA Cup encounter.

On the morning of the match, newspaper predictions decided the tie between the two sides might well result in a draw, although on recent home form West Ham stood out as a good thing and that in a local derby players are seldom able to do themselves justice, and a second match may be necessary before the issue can be decided.

 

Of the two teams West Ham were considered the more fortunate side in Cup-ties and all felt pretty confident the Hammers’ wouldn’t be on the losing side. The “shilling gaters” were advised to arrive early on a ground where the accommodation is sure to be taxed.

An All London Cup-tie

The Upton Park First Round tie was originally scheduled for 10 January 1925, on the day Mr. Russell the referee from Swindon was delayed getting to the ground by thick fog and arrived shortly before the scheduled kick-off time of 2:30pm. With an estimated 20,000 congregated outside and the ground still shrouded by the murkiness the official had no option but to postponed the match. It was difficult to communicate the official decision to the waiting thousands, and it was left to a police inspector to announce the postponement until Monday from the windows of the club offices.

So bad was the fog that trams and buses ceased to run after their initial journey and spent the remainder of the day puzzling their way back home to the garages. Nothing moved in London except for the Underground railway trains, and they were both late and slow.

 

It was later confirmed by a London weather expert who had calculated that the fog was so great that it exceeded the maximum measuring capacity of his instruments. Rather surprisingly, with similar conditions up and down the country the London tie was the only one postponed.

Thousands of disappointed supporters watch the Arsenal team leaving for home in their charabanc

The match was rearranged for the following Monday, however, that too had to be postponed for the same reason and at the third time of asking the match finally went ahead in rain on the afternoon of Wednesday 14 January in front of 26,000 spectators and left undecided in a 0-0 stalemate.

 

In the Highbury Stadium replay the two sides finished all-square at 2-2, before West Ham finally settled the tie in the third game with captain George Kay scoring in the very last minute at neutral Stamford Bridge.

Leslie Knighton
Behind the Scenes in Big Football

Some two decades later in 1948 the drama behind the marathon cup-tie unfolded when the then Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton confessed in ‘Chapter Ten’ of his autobiography “Behind the Scenes in Big Football” that he had ‘doped’ his players in one of the first recorded cases of its kind.

Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton

Although entirely legal under the rules at the time, Knighton claimed he was approached by an Harley Street doctor just after the FA Cup draw was made. The physician who also supported the Gunners recommend the players take a “courage pill” to give them a better chance against the Hammers.

 

Unfortunately for Arsenal and the players they took the pills an hour before the game was fogged off. The Arsenal manager recounts in the book “Getting the boys back to Highbury that afternoon was like trying to drive a flock of lively young lions. Those pills not only left us ‘roaring to go’, but left the most awful bitter taste and soul-destroying thirst, we drank water till I thought that the Thames would dry up.

Two days later the Arsenal party travelled to Upton Park to try again, so dense was the fog that there was virtually no one outside the ground to hear the referee’s decision to once more postpone the match just prior to the scheduled kick off of 2:30pm. For a second time Knighton’s bad timing ensured the pills combined to torment the players with a raging thirst.

FA Cup First Round : January 14, 1925

West Ham United 0 - 0 Arsenal

By the Wednesday, the Upton Park pitch was now in a shocking state owing to the recent effects of freezing fog, frost and the persistent drizzle that preceded the match which turned all but the edges of the pitch into a quagmire.

 

However, the referee deemed the playing surface playable and the cup-tie finally took place. According to Knighton’s own account, he “produced his red pill-box and he and the lads swallow their pluck-pills” and just before half-time he noticed a change, “his players seemed like giants suddenly supercharged” he went on to add “they put in shots that looked like leather thunderbolts and they monopolised the play”. He summarised the second half by saying his players, “ran like Olympic sprinters and jumped like rockets to reach the high ones and crashed in shots from all angles and distances”. For all their bravado the game ended 0-0.

Teams:

West Ham United:

Tommy Hampson, William Henderson, John Young, George Carter, George Kay, Albert Cadwell, Tommy Yews, Billy Moore, Vic Watson, William Williams, Jimmy Ruffell.

 

Arsenal:

Lewis, Baker, Kennedy, Milne, Butler, John, Hoare, Woods, Brain, Ramsey, Toner.

FA Cup First Round (Replay) : January 14, 1925

Arsenal 2 - 2 West Ham United (aet)

For the Highbury replay, Knighton had another box of pills, but when the players saw the red box they refused point-blank to touch them. The match ended 2-2, although he stated he didn’t have the heart to make them go through it all again – in fact, he shuddered every time he thought of swallowing another of the things himself.

 

He did however believed they would have scored two more goals if the pills had been taken. He was certain those pills would have taken us to Wembley.

Arsenal went ahead in the 12th minute of the second half through Jimmy Brain. Although the Hammers then began to improve, the probabilities of an Arsenal victory were always very strong, and not until Jimmy Ruffell equalised with a fast ground shot five minutes from time. The 'Daily Chronicle' claimed the West Ham marksman was 10 yards offside when he received the ball before shooting spectacularly from fully 30 yards.

West Ham's dramatic equaliser caused a good deal of controversy but not as much as the next goal that actually put them ahead three minutes into the second period of extra time. The 'Chronicle' claimed that four West Ham forwards were offside when Tommy Yews passed to Billy Moore. The referee ignored appeals and the visiting inside-right ran on to score.

Everybody on the ground (said the Chronicle) was aware that West Ham were ahead by virtue of two illegitimate goals and that the team that had notched the only legal point was losing. Brain saved the situation for the Arsenal when he levelled the scores from a Gordon Hoare corner.

Teams:

West Ham United:

Tommy Hampson, William Henderson, John Young, George Carter, George Kay, Albert Cadwell, Tommy Yews, Billy Moore, Vic Watson, William Williams, Jimmy Ruffell.

 

Arsenal:

Lewis, Baker, Kennedy, Milne, Butler, John, Hoare, Brain, Woods, Ramsey, Toner

FA Cup First Round (Second Replay) : January 26, 1925

Arsenal 0 - 1 West Ham United

For the Second Replay at Chelsea, a goal in the last minute decided the issue, Albert Cadwell found himself with the ball trapped near the corner flag. He kicked the ball against an Arsenal defender to gain a corner. From the kick the ball was sent to the far post where it was met by George Kay. He couldn't have been sure whether he met it with his head, boot or shoulder but it was charged over the line and the tie was settled.

 

Arsenal only had themselves to blame for losing. The two best chances of the match fell to them. Once by Ramsey who had nobody to beat after being put clear by Woods and then by Woods himself who nodded a perfect centre from Hoare straight at the West Ham goalkeeper Tommy Hampson.

Teams:

West Ham United:

Tommy Hampson, William Henderson, Jack Hebden, George Carter, George Kay, Albert Cadwell, Tommy Yews, Billy Moore, Vic Watson, William Williams, Jimmy Ruffell.

 

Arsenal:

Lewis, Baker, Kennedy, Young, Butler, John, Hoare, Brain, Woods, Ramsey, Toner

Ultimately, rough justice was done as the Gunners 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge came within a run of six straight league defeats, they later recovered to finish third from bottom of the First Division table and avoid relegation. Knighton was succeeded at the end of the season by the extraordinary Herbert Chapman and Arsenal’s fortunes changed.

bottom of page