Paul Savill takes an in-depth look at a relationship which has endured the test of time.
During his speech at our wedding, my wife's father worked in my passion for Arsenal and noted that whilst writing his address he had been looking for a link between the Gunners and his home town club Leicester City. As soon as the words left his mouth I blurted out "First game at Highbury". My father-in-law said he had asked one of his brothers about a link earlier in the day and had been pointed in the direction of the 3-3 draw of 1954, whilst his own research on the official Arsenal website had led him to the twelve goal thriller that was the 6-6 draw in 1930.
I knew a bit about players who had represented the Gunners and the Foxes: legends like Geordie Armstrong who left London for Leicester in 1977 for a transfer fee of just £15,000 after falling out with manager Terry Neill, and was reunited with our great double winning captain Frank McLintock – who was by then in charge at Filbert Street, for one solitary season, and had himself moved in the opposite direction as a player when Billy Wright paid £80,000 for his services in October 1964. McLintock had replaced Jimmy Bloomfield as Leicester boss; Bloomfield had spent six years at Arsenal during his playing career. Jon Sammels, who took to the pitch in the colours of the Arsenal on no less than 300 occasions scoring the goal that clinched the 1970 Fairs Cup and collecting a league championship winners medal as the Gunners marched towards an historic double the following season.
In the week that preceded the cup final win that saw the Arsenal seal their first league and cup double Sammels reluctantly moved to Leicester City in a £100,000 deal, feeling he had become a scapegoat for every Arsenal mistake despite all he had achieved at the club. And amongst others such as Kevin Campbell, Eddie Kelly, Jeff Blockley and Lawrie Madden, who all donned the jersey of both sides at some point in their careers, there was Alan Smith: a goal scorer who won the golden boot award in both the 1989 and 1991 Championship-winning sides of George Graham. Smudger had been snapped up by Graham for £800,000 in March 1987, however the deal had been finalised after the deadline for transfer completions had passed, and Smith was duly loaned back to the side who had just sold him until the season had come to an end. He even played against Arsenal when City visited Highbury on April 20th.
Since that day in May 2010 I've had a feeling that a vein of history connects Arsenal and Leicester City, and that an almost unique bond between the two clubs has existed in the background; obscured by the more obvious and perhaps 'Box Office' links. Once I finally got around to really looking into it I found that perhaps this wasn't a romanticised perception of my mind and that real tangible evidence exists. While they are little more than the first of 129 occasions the clubs have met it all started with the first matches between Leicester Fosse and Woolwich Arsenal in 1895...
This was the Arsenal's second season in Division Two and while it's not quite clear if the team had a recognised manager in place at the time, whoever took charge of the side on the afternoon of January 7th 1895 was unable to steer the Gunners to victory, as they headed back down south having suffered a 3-1 defeat. The return fixture on the 9th March was held at the Lyttelton Cricket Ground, Leyton, after Arsenal's Manor Ground was shut for five weeks by the Football League; a result of the crowd trouble that had broken out in a game against Burton Wanderers. This second meeting of the clubs finished 3-3.
Fast forward fifteen years to 1910 and the Chairman of Fulham Football Club, Henry Norris, had decided that one club was not enough, and after looking into the possibility of taking over either Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspurs it came as something of a surprise when the former mayor of Fulham decided to splash out on Woolwich Arsenal: a side rooted to the foot of the Division One table who didn't have two brass farthings to rub together, a side that played it's football on the feted bog pit of the manor ground in Plumstead.
Norris' original plan had been to merge Woolwich Arsenal with Fulham but this proposal was rejected by the football league and Norris was informed that he could only be involved with one club and severed his ties with the Cottagers (according to Arsenal historian Tony Attwood, Norris had also been involved with Croydon Common FC but that's a story for another day). No one really knows why Norris choose to stick with what would have been perceived as the 'lesser club' but thankfully he did and in the summer of 1913 began to seek a new site for his club after they had suffered relegation, the only time in the club’s history that it has dropped out of the top flight.
With its close proximity to Gillespie Road tube station the recreation fields of St John’s College of Divinity were deemed to be almost the perfect location. I say almost because whilst Norris wasn't worried about moving the club from its South East roots to North London, he did consider that given the fact one of the main objectives of the operation was to increase the number of paying supporters turning out to watch his side, the close proximity of Tottenham Hotspurs and Clapton Orient was something of a concern. However, with the ground located so close to the underground station it was too good an opportunity to turn down and a £20,000 twenty-one year lease was agreed. Objections were raised by Spurs and Orient who felt it unfair that a club from outside the area could encroach upon their North London turf (Orient would go on to move from their Homerton home to Leyton in 1937, and ninety-eight years after attempting to fend off Norris and Arsenal the O's would find themselves embroiled in another case of encroachment, when Spurs and West Ham United mounted their own bids for occupancy of the new Olympic Stadium at Stratford).
The local residents of Highbury were also unhappy at the thought of new neighbours and along with the local football clubs they petitioned against the move. However, a league management committee turned down all appeals and architect Archibald Leitch was charged by Norris with building a new stadium on the site, his previous experience of designing and building stadiums such as Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox Park and Sheffield United's John Street Stand at Bramall Lane had made him the obvious choice for the job although with just four summer months in which to complete his work time was certainly in short supply.
At a cost of £125,000, Leitch levelled the playing fields, erected a new grandstand on the eastern side of the ground and added three additional banks of basic terracing around the perimeter of the pitch. Although it was far from complete, the original Arsenal Stadium, which would forever be known as Highbury, was ready for the start of the 1913/1914 season. The club – still known as 'Woolwich Arsenal' – competed in Division Two and hosted its first game on September 6th 1913. They defeated Leicester Fosse by two goals to one.
Just as Aston Villa's Olof Mellberg would be the first player to score a competitive goal at the Emirates Stadium when Arsenal moved again ninety-three years later, it was an opposition player who first had the ball in the back of the net at Highbury. The Fosse's Tommy Benfield put the visitors one nil up before George Jobey scored the home side’ equaliser and first goal on home soil, nodding home from Tommy Winship's corner shortly before the interval. The game remained locked at one apiece until, with just twelve minutes remaining, a Leicester player handled the ball and the Gunners were awarded a late penalty. In front of a crowd of 20,000, Andy Devine stepped up to score from the spot and ensure that life at the new home got off to a winning start.
The game was not without incident. Jobey received a kick in the back from a Leicester player and was treated by doctors and ambulance men, before being taken home on the back of a cart borrowed from a local milkman.
Twenty years on and we reach that game and its gluttony of goals my father-in-law had mentioned. Five days before their 2-0 FA Cup final win over Huddersfield, Herbert Chapman took his Arsenal side to Filbert Street for a game that would create football history.
David Jack had the ball in the home side’ goal after just two minutes but his effort was ruled out for offside, by the 21st minute David Halliday had given the Gunners the lead; but at half time City headed into the dressing room with a 3-1 advantage. The first of the Foxes’ goals was somewhat controversial: Dan Lewis saved a shoot from Hugh Adcock but was unable to hold on to the ball. Arsenal right back Tom Parker appeared to clear the loose ball off the line but the referee saw fit to allow the equaliser to stand. Two minutes later Leicester took the lead for the first time in the game thanks to a goal by Arthur Lochhead and just before the half time whistle blew Adcock scored his second of the afternoon, this time firing his shot through Lewis' hands.
The Arsenal were as quick out of the traps in the second half as they had been in the first but on this occasion the goal within two minutes of the kick-off stood; Cliff Bastin giving the visitors a route back into the game. Sensing that they could perhaps still take something from the match, Arsenal went on the attack and in a five minute period between the 58th and 63rd minute, Halliday scored another two goals to complete his hat-trick and added a fourth to his afternoon’s tally. The Gunners were now leading by five goals to three. Leicester replied with a goal from Ernie Hine but with just thirteen minutes left on the clock Jack played in Bastin who dribbled through the Leicester defence and scored to restore Arsenal's two goal lead…but further goals were still to come. Len Barry pulled the score back to 5-6 before Lochhead scored the twelfth and final goal of the game. This remains the highest scoring draw in top-flight English football, although it was matched in a game between Charlton Athletic & Middlesbrough in 1960.
David Halliday, scorer of four of the Arsenal goals that afternoon, went on to manage Leicester City between the years 1955 and 1958. Despite being a prolific goal scorer at Dundee (90 goals in 126 appearances) and Sunderland (156 goals in 166 appearances) the forward only spent one season at Highbury, making a total of fifteen appearances and scoring nine goals (four of which came in the game against Leicester). Halliday never really found his feet in London and despite that haul just days before the 1930 FA Cup Final he was left out of the Gunners team that beat Huddersfield to claim the club’s first major trophy. After hanging up his boots, Halliday spent thirteen years (1937-1955) in charge of Aberdeen during which time he led the Scottish side to their first ever league championship in his final season before moving back south to take the helm at Leicester City, guiding the Foxes to the 1956/57 second division title and promotion to Division One. Although Halliday was only in charge for one top-flight campaign, the twelve-season period between 1957 and 1969 remains the Foxes’ longest ever spell in the top tier.
Another Leicester City record came against Arsenal in the form of their highest attendance for a league game at Filbert Street. On October 2nd 1954 42,486 fans packed into the old ground to watch that 3-3 draw my father-in-laws’ brother John had alluded to. With fans pouring from the terraces before the game kicked off it is little wonder that there were two fatalities that Saturday afternoon. A cloud of red & white balloons were sent into the air as an Arsenal side which included Tommy Lawton, who had briefly played for Leicester as a war time guest 15 years earlier, took to the pitch.
The City side included Arthur Rowley, holder of the record for the most goals in the history of English League Football. What price would a player capable of scoring 434 goals in 619 games command today? I've no idea if any efforts were ever made to bring Rowley to London but with his scoring prowess and nickname 'The Gunner' it would certainly seem a good fit on paper at least. Rowley wasn't the only productive goal scorer in the foxes starting XI that afternoon; manager Norman Bullock also had Derek Hines at his disposal. Between them Rowley & Hines notched up a combined 382 goals whilst in Leicester colours and it was to nobody’s surprise when the duo put the home side 2 – 0 up soon once this game got underway. The Gunners hit back with goals from Lawton & Jimmy Logie before half time and after the interval Rowley struck from the penalty spot to make it 3-2 before Lawton scored again for the visitors. Arsenal had the chance to complete a dramatic turn around with a penalty of their own but the City keeper saved the spot kick to insure the game finished in a draw.
Terms such as 'letting a two goal lead slip' and 'conceding a late equaliser' could have been plucked from a variety of Arsenal-related match reports from recent seasons and they seem to be something of a regular occurrence in games against the foxes and it was no different when Arsene Wenger took his side to Filbert Street in 1997. If ever an individual performance deserved to win a game it was Dennis Bergkamp's hat-trick on the evening of August 27th, but football is a team game and so it was proved once again, as the Gunners let two points slip. Yet the Dutchman's treble has still been described by some as the greatest hat-trick of all time.
The first was an incredible shot of power and accuracy from the edge of the Leicester penalty area. With almost every other player in the box the Dutchman received the ball direct from a corner, took one touch to control it then hit a curling shot into the right hand corner of Kasey Keller's goal. The second came from an Arsenal break deep in their own half: after receiving it from Ray Parlour, Patrick Vieira played the ball across the park into the path of Bergkamp who touched it on past the Leicester defence. Keller came rushing from his goal as Dennis chased the ball and as the American keeper slid in with his feet in an attempt to clear the it the Netherlands striker pinged the ball into the air and into the open goal mouth.
Leicester found a lifeline thanks to an Emile Heskey goal. A long ball was played into the Arsenal box and as David Seaman came out to collect it Lee Dixon somehow got himself in-between the goalkeeper and Heskey. The ball bounced off of the right back’s chest and back into the path of the man the home fans affectionately called Bruno who steered it into the open goal. The Foxes drew level from a low drive from Matt Elliott, which bypassed everyone including Seaman as the game crept into stoppage time. The goal that completed Bergkamp’s treble came from the restart and it was one of absolute majesty. David Platt had spotted the Dutchman's run into the City box and lofted the perfect ball into his path. Bergkamp took the pace out of the ball with an incredible first touch then flicked it past Elliott with his left foot, while the Leicester defender stood wondering where the ball had gone Dennis placed the ball past Keller into the top right corner. Yet still the game hadn't finished, after about six minutes of stoppage time one final chance fell to the home side. The ball, pinging around the Arsenal box fell to Steve Walsh who headed it into the goal to spark scenes of jubilation for the Foxes and their fans and utter outrage from Wenger and his players.
Bergkamp is by no means the only Arsenal player to put three past Leicester in any era let alone during the Wenger reign: Thierry Henry scored a total of 226 goals during his time at Arsenal, including eight hat tricks, the first of which came against Leicester City in a 6-1 win at Highbury on Boxing day 2000.
Then we come to the season of all seasons…
In the last league game of 2003/04 Arsenal needed to avoid defeat in order to become the first side to complete an unbeaten league season since Preston North End had achieved the feet in 1889. North End had competed in a 22 game season winning 18 and drawing 4 games, PNE also won the FA Cup that year without conceding a goal during their run to the final, becoming the first side to win the league and cup double. Arsenal completed their own Invincible campaign having played a 38-game season, almost double that of North End. The Gunner’s record stood at an outstanding 25 wins and 12 draws as they took to the pitch for the final time that season and their chances of reaching the incredible land mark were put under pressure in the 25th minute: when former Gunner Paul Dickov headed the visitors into the lead. Arsenal hit back from the penalty spot in the 44th minute to put the record attempt back on track, after Ashley Cole had been brought down by a clumsy Frank Sinclair challenge.
The Gunners made sure that the landmark season finished with a win when captain Patrick Vieira clinched the winner in the 66th minute but the unbeaten record wasn't the only celebration at Highbury that day. Of course the Gunners had already clinched the league title at White Hart Lane after a 2-2 draw on April 25th, and it was the late substitute appearance of Martin Keown which added to the emotional atmosphere at Highbury.
The stalwart, in his second spell at the club, had been assured a league championship winners medal after coming on to replace Freddie Ljungberg in the 87th minute. This was to be Keown’s 449th and final appearance for the club as he left on a free transfer that summer to join Leicester City. He would only spend six months with the Foxes, making just 17 appearances before an apparent falling out with then boss Mickey Adams saw him move on to Reading in January 2005 in a deal that would take him up to the end of the season. After just five appearances for the Royals, Keown hung up his boots at the end of the campaign, twelve months after bringing down the curtain on his Arsenal career.
I've been reliably informed that the Arsenal's 250th League goal came against Leicester Fosse; the Gunner’s 2000th and 2500th league goals came against the side who had by that time become Leicester City; and that Bobby Gould was the first ever Arsenal substitute to score a goal which came in a game against…guess who.
Maybe I'm romanticising it all a little for personal reasons, and maybe if you started to dig around you'll find little crotchets of fate scattered everywhere, but I can't think of any other side that has played such a prominent part in Arsenal's 125-year history without ever getting much of a mention.
Paul can be found on Twitter @PaulSavillUTA.