Herbert Chapman and Leeds’ first football farce

ANTON RIPPON writes that the past week’s episode at Elland Road is far from the first time that the city has been at the centre of football controversy

What a shambles at Leeds United. The goings-on at Elland Road in the past week descended deeper into farce with each passing hour.

On his way out? Or back in? Brian McDermott has endured the strangest of times at Leeds United in the past week
On his way out? Or back in? Brian McDermott has endured the strangest of times at Leeds United in the past week

One consortium that wants to take over Leeds “sacks” the manager without actually having the power to do so.

Then the club’s shirt sponsor fails in a bid to take control instead and responds by attempting to have the club wound-up.

But this isn’t the first time that the major football club in Leeds has found itself mired in a financial crisis that had the rest of football smirking. And I’m not talking about Peter Ridsdale’s tropical fish tank.

Whoever Leeds’ next owners turn out to be, as they consider what to do next to avoid their new acquisition imploding, they may wish to consider following in the footsteps of their Elland Road predecessors who, 95 years ago, saw their players auctioned in a unique sale of footballing flesh.

The Leeds City auction of October 1919 followed a scandal that brought a temporary end to league football in that city and must have sent shivers through club boardrooms everywhere as officials waited to see who else might blow the whistle on corrupt football practices during the First World War.

It began so simply. When the Football League closed down for the war in 1915, City’s manager-secretary Herbert Chapman – a name later synonymous with Arsenal’s first great era – went to work in a munitions factory. His assistant, George Cripps, took over the administration and two directors, Joe Connor, the chairman, and JC Whitehurst, selected City’s team for wartime matches.

A cutting from the Hull Daily Mail of 1919 reporting the sale of all Leeds City's players after the club was closed down
A cutting from the Hull Daily Mail of 1919 reporting the sale of all Leeds City’s players after the club was closed down

Connor eventually accused Cripps of incompetence and replaced him with an accountant’s clerk. Cripps moved over to take charge of the team and correspondence but discord then spread to the dressing-room when Leeds players threatened to strike if Cripps travelled with them to away games.

The Leeds board must have been mighty glad to see Chapman when he returned to Elland Road in 1918. Alas, their problems were only just beginning.

Cripps, demoted to his former role of assistant, through his solicitor James Bromley, a former City director, threatened to sue for wrongful dismissal. Cripps claimed £400 and, just in case the club was about to tell him to take a running jump, added that he could prove that during the war City had paid illegal wages when the Football League had decreed that players could receive only expenses.

A compromise was reached. Cripps would receive £55 and in return would hand over all documents relating to the alleged illegal payments. In January 1919 Connor and Whitehurst took possession of cheque books and letters. Sealed in a strongbox they were placed in the club solicitor’s vault.

Bromley later claimed that on behalf of Cripps he had handed over the documents in exchange for a £50 donation to Leeds Infirmary but had been refused a receipt to show where the money had gone.

Yet that still might have been the end of the matter but for the intervention of Charlie Copeland, a Middlesbrough-born full-back who had joined Leeds in 1912.

As City prepared for the Football League to resume in 1919-1920, Copeland’s contract was up for renewal. Before the war he had received £3 a week with an extra £1 for first-team games. Now Leeds offered him £3 10s (£3.50) with more for first-team games, but no summer wages. Effectively, his income would be reduced.

Copeland threatened to report Leeds for making illegal wartime payments. The board called his bluff and gave him a free transfer to Coventry City. Had they been aware that his solicitor was James Bromley, the man who also represented George Cripps, they might have thought again.

In July 1919, Copeland carried out his threat, adding that he knew where there was a parcel of incriminating evidence to support his claim.

On September 26, 1919, Leeds City appeared before a joint FA-League enquiry where they claimed they were unable to produce the documents. They were given until October 6 to change their minds.

Two days before the deadline, City won 4-2 in a second division game at Wolves. Because of a rail strike, they had to travel by charabanc and on the way home gave lifts to several people, among them Charlie Copeland.

When the deadline passed there was still so sign of the documents and City’s next game, at South Shields, was postponed. The inquiry met again and announced that Leeds City was to be disbanded. Although there was still no evidence of illegal payments, the club’s refusal to co-operate had signed its death warrant.

Five club officials, including Connor, Whiteman and Herbert Chapman, were banned for life. Chapman, successfully arguing that he had been absent from Elland Road, was later reprieved.

Herbert Chapman: might have been banned for life from football before Huddersfield or Arsenal because of his association with Leeds City
Herbert Chapman: might have been banned for life from football because of his association with Leeds City

After eight games of the season, Burslem Port Vale took over Leeds City’s fixtures but the FA now had City’s players on their hands. They decided to auction them and on October 17, 1919, at the Metropole Hotel, Leeds, representatives of 30 clubs cast their eyes over a varied collection of footballers along with the club’s goal-posts, shirts, shorts and boots.

Twenty-two players fetched £10,150 with high-scoring forward Billy McLeod the most expensive at £1,250 when he moved to Notts County. Billy Kirton went to Aston Villa and ended the season with an FA Cup winner’s medal, and Billy Ashurst (to Lincoln City) and George Stephenson (to Villa) later played for England.

Within hours of the auction, Leeds fans held a meeting in the city’s Salem Hall and on October 31, a new club, Leeds United, was elected to the Midland League to take over from Leeds City’s reserves.

The following season, ignoring a suggestion that they should amalgamate with impoverished Huddersfield Town, Leeds United were elected to the Football League.

Anyway, it’s just a thought as we wait for the next Whitehall Farce moment from the LS 11 postcode.


Mon Mar 24: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, Grand Connaught Rooms, London
Mon Apr 14: SJA Spring Golf Day: Croham Hurst GC, Surrey. Booking details to be announced