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.