TWIH: Leicester Fosse Make History

In the latest of his ‘The Week in History’ blogs, Club Historian John Hutchinson recalls the occasion 100 years ago, when Leicester Fosse played, and scored, in the inaugural fixture at Highbury.

Last Sunday, Leicester City played a special part in the build up to the Premier League fixture between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Emirates Stadium. The occasion was a special day for Arsenal as the Gunners were celebrating the centenary of their first ever game at their old ground at Highbury. Their opponents on that occasion were Leicester Fosse whose forward Tommy Benfield scored the first goal at the ground.

The Arsenal team, with Mesut Ozil making his home debut, marked the occasion by wearing shirts embroidered with the date  of this historic fixture together with the words ‘100 years in Islington’.

The Arsenal matchday magazine included a free reprint of the 16-page programme from that first game. It was reproduced as faithfully as possible. The colouring and size matched that of the original and the paper used was similar to that on which the original was produced.


Arsenal, then known as Woolwich Arsenal, moved to Highbury in order to survive. Their previous ground south of the river, at Plumstead, was inadequate. Crowds were plumetting. Transport links to the ground were poor and better grounds were being built at Fulham, Chelsea and Tottenham. To cap it all, Arsenal were relegated in April 1913. A cartoon in the programme for the first game at Highbury featuring a Dr Highbury and a Dr Plumstead, under the heading ‘On the High Road to Recovery’ strongly emphasised the Club’s need to move to Islington.

As for the historic game itself, there was a large crowd of 20,000, a distinct improvement on the average gates at Plumstead.

The ‘Daily Leicester Mercury’ reporter, ‘Old Fossil’, described the occasion in some detail.  His headline was, ‘Fosse defeated in first match at new ground after scoring opening goal.’


Old Fossil then went on to say: “The match at Highbury this afternoon attracted an amount of general interest which had the effect of bringing the Fosse very much in the limelight. It provided Woolwich Arsenal with the first match at their new ground at Highbury and their first in the Second Division since relegation was their fate last April. Most of their trouble last season was due to the poor measure of public support. The sequel to this was the leaving of their old quarters at Plumstead and of opening their new ground miles away on the north side of London.

“The new ground presented a singular appearance. The playing area was all that could be desired, but the accomodation for the public was a long way from being complete.Only a small portion of the stand is as yet roofed. The representatives of the press had to take their chance with the crowd and make the best of a bad job.

“Both teams had a great welcome, the Arsenal making their entry amidst scenes of much enthusiasm and with suitable musical accompaniment.”

It is worth noting at this point that the Musical Programme for the afternoon, provided by the North London Excelsior Silver Prize Band, included the Post Horn Gallop, prompting the thought that this might have been the first time that this was ever played at a match involving a side from Leicester.


The first goal scored at the new ground, scored by Leicester Fosse’s Tommy Benfield, came after 15 minutes,

Old Fossil continued: “Douglas was set going by Sparrow, who, getting well in, sent the ball the width of the field to the unattended left winger who trapped the ball and gently tapped it to Benfield who, without wasting time, took deliberate aim and crashed the ball against the rigging. It was a brilliant shot, which left the Arsenal goalkeeper helpless.”

George Jobey, making his debut for Arsenal and who played for Leicester City after the war, equalised for Arsenal two minutes before half time. With half an hour to go Jobey was carried off the field injured, ‘having met Clay’s foot in the middle of his back. With their forces depleted, Arsenal played with extraordinary keeness and ten minutes from the end took the lead with a penalty the origin of which could not be seen in that part of the ground where most of the press were located.’

The Fosse side included two members of the Great Britain Olympic football side, which had won gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. One these was Douglas McWhirter, The other was goalkeeper Ron Brebner who sadly died from a football related injury the following year.

‘Old Fossil’s’ verdict on the match was full of praise. He said: “The game all through was at a great pace, full of fine football of the thrilling sort. Both teams played with true grit and if one team had to win, Arsenal justly deserved the verdict. Much of Brebner’s work was brilliant. The forwards operated with sparkling dash and accuracy. The halves were masterly and both backs tackled well and kicked with accuracy.”

There are two footnotes to this anniversary.


Firstly, George Douglas, a member of the Fosse side that day, was a guest at Arsenal’s game against Leicester City in 1963 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening match at Highbury. His commemorative programme from that day, together with other mementoes from his distinguished career such as his England Amateur International shirt crest, are now part of the Club’s memorabilia collection, having been generously donated by Steve Douglas, his grandson.

Secondly, before the game at the Emirates last Sunday, the Arsenal Chairman presented Leicester City with a framed facsimile of the programme for the opening game at Highbury. This will soon be on display at King Power Stadium, enhancing the exhibits already on show.

Pics:

Header: Plaque in the Arsenal Museum commemorating Fosse’s game at Highbury.

Images 2, 3 and 4: Pages from the programme for Fosse’s first match at Highbury, Sept 1913.

Image 5: The Fosse team that played in the first game at Highbury. Tommy Benfield, scorer of the first goal at Highbury, is second from the right of the front row.


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