Fulham – European champions: how the London football map might have looked

The current hoo-hah over the legacy of the Olympic Stadium and the squabbling between West Ham and Spurs offers an interesting reminder of how different the map of London football could have been.

In 1904, when the new owners of the vast Stamford Bridge athletics stadium in Walham Green decided they wanted to find a football club to play there, the first thing they did was ask Fulham.

Fulham were London’s first professional club and one with some potential, but surely not as long as they stayed in their tiny Craven Cottage stadium, cramped between residential streets and the River Thames. Stamford Bridge, a huge and modern ground, should have been a far more attractive proposition, but the Fulham chairman, Henry Norris, said no.

He would never again demonstrate such caution or traditionalist principles.

The stadium owners, the Mears family, eventually – after some prompting from Frederick Parker’s dog –  decided to form their own club. Chelsea appeared in 1905, and thanks to expansive investment, almost immediately became the biggest club in London, drawing huge crowds that totally overshadowed poor Fulham and the rest of London football.

Norris took stock of this and decided the best thing to do was get the hell out of West London. He hopped over to Arsenal, then a struggling club with small crowds in Woolwich, took one look at the unpromising area and after briefly attempting to merge Arsenal and Fulham agitated instead for a move to North London, much to the fury of the existing and suddenly squeezed Tottenham Hotspur, who began to draw more of their support from East London, where West Ham resided. Tottenham’s overlap between East and North London is what makes the Olympic Stadium semi-logical but also vaguely heretical.

Over in South London, the absence of Arsenal allowed Charlton to step into their shoes, turning  professional at almost the same time as Arsenal crossed the river.  (Hat-tip Darryl, in the comments)

Suddenly, the map of London football had completely changed. Chelsea were the undisputed giants in the west, while Spurs and Arsenal shared domination of the north, with everybody else filling in the blanks. 

Here’s a picture of Norris. Doesn’t he look like a nutter?

But has one man had a greater impact on London football?

Without his intervention, Chelsea wouldn’t exist, Arsenal would still be in Plumstead and Charlton would still be amateurs. Spurs and Fulham would almost certainly be the twin giants of London football. Indeed, Fulham, playing at Stamford Bridge and managed by Herbert Chapman (who Norris was later to recruit at Arsenal) could easily have become one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Fulham, champions of Europe – it could have happened.

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16 responses to “Fulham – European champions: how the London football map might have looked

  1. One other aspect to this – if Arsenal hadn’t left Plumstead (in summer 1913), Charlton (who became a senior side in summer 1913), would probably not have grown into a League club. Before WWI, they weren’t even the biggest side in Charlton, let alone SE London – after WWI, with Arsenal’s departure, they had it all to themselves.

    • Another footnote is that after World War I the Div 1 expansion by two clubs saw 19th placed Chelsea stay up whilst 20th placed Spurs lost their place to the 6th placed team in Division 2…Norris was the Blatter of his day…

  2. Really interesting analysis. You could take it even further – Norris effectively takes out Spurs altogether by appointing Chapman: White Hart Lane won nothing for 30 years after their post WW1 promotion. Only when the Chapman/Whittaker setup goes into 1950s decline did they get so much as a sniff. Same story for Chelsea.

  3. Good stuff on Charlton – hadn’t considered that and will add to post.
    As for Chapman, well here you can really make a counterfactual case in which Norris’s Fulham, managed by Chapman and playing at Stamford Bridge, could conceivably be one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

  4. Yes, that really is interesting about Charlton – easy to get all north of the River about this and forget what a large population they had to draw upon once Arsenal were gone, and just what a huge natural stadium the Valley was. If Szymanski/Kuper is right about this, and that these days the level of player pay at a club is the big driver of that club’s league position, maybe in Maximum Wage days it was all down to geographical dominance and stadium size. (Although, I would argue, it’s starting to come down to stadium size again, as without 60K capacity, it’s hard to pay top wages in a sustainable manner, and it’s the clubs who are stuck in their pre-1992 stadia that are starting to suffer).

  5. I forgot to say in relation to Charlton, about Jimmy Seed’s 1930s, when Charlton were arguably, behind Arsenal, the most consistent side in the country.

    I’ve just had a look at the attendance records. Most of the preWar ones belong to Maine Road (brand new, then) and Stamford Bridge (huge and fairly new). But the Valley got close to 70K in 1936 (the preWar records in general are from 1935-7 – was the depression starting to lift?) and held 75K for a 1938 Cup game against Villa. All that in a stadium hacked out of the chalk by local volunteers!!

  6. How come Charlton were able to draw such huge crowds while Arsenal felt they had to move?

    I don’t know too much about the move to Islington, was it simply a case that that was where land for a larger stadium was available?

  7. Is it me or is their something a little Wengerish about Mr Norris? It’s maybe just the glasses.

    We who were born and bred in Norf Larnden but are of sound mind, when travelling on the Piccadilly Line, always refer to the stop between Finsbury Park and Holloway Road as Gillespie Road in protest against these blow-ins.

  8. Interesting read. Was wondering if Wimbledon being forced out of their home by dogs of owners might get a nod but it would have been a bit of a crowbar job. That said whilst all this shifting about in black and white seems to be rather quaint doing it in 2002 should have seen far more outrage than it did (but then I’m a supporter of exiled Wimbledon still longing to “go home”).

  9. James – how many clubs are using attendance to pay wages anyway? Also not certain it is sustainable at all without insane business models and rogue owners.

  10. daysofspeed – no one’s SOLELY using gate money to pay wages, and yes to both business models/rogues in charge! But crowds are an extremely important source of income nonetheless, and when you consider that Manchester United were able to host one million more spectators over the course of the 2009-10 season, it adds up. Arsenal added 600,000 spectators to their total in one year just by moving to the Emirates. Spurs, West Ham, Liverpool, Everton – all of them are desperate to move, and Man City can’t expand the City of Manchester stadium fast enough.

    Peter – I think the availability of land may have come into it, but I wonder about the attraction of a newer, more prosperous area too. The chance to swap the proles for Pooters. To move somewhere like.. Sands End, in fact, but Sands End having been taken, next best is Highbury.

  11. Sorry, I meant that Manchester United were able to seat one million more people in 2009/10 than Liverpool, specifically, with whom they used to compete for annual highest attendances in the 80s.

  12. Great article.

    Charlton’s 75,000 attendance in 1938 was the ‘official’ attendance. The real attendance was probably in excess of 100,000. Lots of people used to sneak into football grounds in those days, not to mention the clubs fiddling the attendances to avoid tax. Just the old East Terrace at The Valley could hold over 40,000.

    As for how come Arsenal couldn’t attract crowds back then but Charlton went on to – maybe they were boring, boring Arsenal in those days too? Seriosly though, I suspect that it was down to the fact that when hardly anyone had a car, Plumstead was a lot harder to get to than Charlton was. The occurence of WW1 between Arsenal moving out and Charlton setting up at The Valley in 1919 could have created a somewhat different economic landscape. Having said that, Charlton even moved away to Catford in 1923 for a season before returning to The Valley because crowds were low. It was only in the late 20’s that things really got going at Charlton.

  13. The old East Terrace at The Valley is probably my favourite single item of London football infrastructure, followed closely by the lopsided-on-stilts North Stand at Chelsea.

  14. Anyone given any thought to the other London clubs in all this? What about the lesser clubs like Leyton Orient (formally Clapton Orient) who are to meet Arsenal shortly in the cup?

  15. Why do Tottenham sing Southampton songs can’t they find a song of their own? …. It’s when the Saints go marching in,

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