With many memorable seasons including their dramatic First Division title win on the final day at Anfield in 1988/89 (immortalised in the film Fever Pitch) and their unbeaten 2003/04 Premier League campaign under Arsène Wenger, Arsenal FC are a team long associated with the top division of English football. But has that always been the case, and have the Gunners ever been relegated?
Arsenal boast the longest current run in the top division, having played there every season since 1919. This means that whilst they haven’t won the league the most times like Manchester United or won the most top-flight games like Liverpool, they are able to say they have consistently dined at the top table for over a century!
We’ll have to dig deep into football’s history to remember the last time that an Arsenal supporter felt the sinking feeling of relegation – it happened to the club only ONCE, all the way back in 1912/13.
The First Southerners
Woolwich Arsenal were elected to the Football League in 1893, and played their first season in the league in the Second Division in 1893/94. In doing so, they became the first club from the south of England to join the Football League. Before them, the furthest-south club was Small Heath (today known as Birmingham City FC).
Getting to the First Division
Arsenal’s first spell in the Second Division didn’t come because of a relegation, but because of expansion of the Second Division in 1893/94 which allowed them to join. They won 12, drew 4, and lost 12 games in their debut season – a solid first attempt, but far from promotion form.
This is how things would continue for Arsenal for several seasons, as they finished between 5th and 10th every year between 1894 and 1901. After the turn of the century, though, their team began to grow into one of the stronger outfits in the Second Division and after finishing 4th in 1901/02 and 3rd in 1902/03, they continued that improvement and were runners-up in 1903/04, winning promotion to the First Division where they would play for the first time the following season.
Although they did join the Football League as it expanded in 1893 and played in that competition from then on, Arsenal also seemed to hedge their bets in these early days of football, and certainly weren’t shy about joining other projects. In 1896 they joined the new United League, and whilst this new league only lasted for three seasons, Arsenal played in all three alongside their Football League commitments and finished 3rd all three times. Between 1901 and 1904 they then played in the London League, finishing third twice, although their promotion to the Football League’s First Division then finally saw them fully commit to just one league at a time.
After their 1904 promotion, Arsenal took well to life in the First Division and enjoyed nine seasons in the top flight before finally dropping back into the Second Division – the first (and, as of today, only) relegation.
The relegation season came in 1912/13, when Arsenal finished 20th – bottom of the table then exactly as it is today. With just three wins to their name all season, it was a campaign to forget for Arsenal supporters as they finished five points behind 19th-placed Notts County and a distant ten points behind 18th-and-safe Chelsea. This poor season was determined by a dismal 25-game run in all competitions in which Arsenal won just a single game – an FA Cup tie against Croydon Common!
Arsenal’s relegation was finally confirmed on the penultimate day of the season when they could only draw with Tottenham Hotspur. At the time the two sides didn’t enjoy the fierce rivalry that they do today, with many of the events including Arsenal’s move from Woolwich to North London only set to happen in the next few years, but perhaps it was a sign of things to come!
The Second Promotion
Arsenal’s spell in the Second Division following this relegation lasted just two seasons – 1913/14 and 1914/15. The Football League was then interrupted by World War One, and on its resumption Arsenal, who had finished 5th in the Second Division in 1914/15, were elected back to the First Division as the league was expanded to 22 teams with a few teams moved around. They have remained in the top division ever since.