In the early 1930s Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman was recommended a centre-back playing for Northern Irish side Cliftonville called Walter McMillen. Despatching assistant manager Joe Shaw - himself an Arsenal player between 1907-1922 - to assess the youngster’s qualities it was swiftly decided that McMillen would indeed be a useful squad addition at Highbury and negotiations were begun via a series of correspondence.
As an amateur outfit Cliftonville were not allowed to claim a transfer fee for their player so as a means of smoothing a deal for McMillen, Chapman agreed Arsenal would travel to Ireland to play a friendly match. The Gunners would have their expenses paid (amounting to £500), while the home side would collect the gate receipt which was expected to be a sizeable sum.
McMillen agreed to sign for Arsenal on a contract worth £5 per week with a £10 signing on fee and agreeable bonuses. As planned the friendly match was played.
Despite entering into a legally binding agreement with Arsenal, McMillen’s father soon decided that he wanted more money – a demand that contravened strict League rules at the time. It appears he and his son had their heads turned by other suitors and they stubbornly reneged on the deal to move to North London.
Believing that the contract was binding Chapman decided to register McMillen as an amateur only to find out that the defender had agreed a deal with Manchester United. Vigorous complaints were subsequently lodged with the Irish Football League and the Football Association, although it appears that nothing came of them. It is possible that the complaint may eventually have been dropped.
Even though Arsenal were the biggest club in England at the time, McMillen signed on for more money with comparative minnows Manchester United. He made his debut for the Red Devils in a Second Division clash against Brentford in September 1933 but left the club in 1936 having made less than 30 appearances. He later played for Chesterfield and Millwall and was capped on seven occasions by Northern Ireland. (See here for more details)
The papers displayed below (a snippet of a much larger correspondence) detail the early negotiations between Arsenal and Cliftonville, the contract offered to McMillen and Chapman’s subsequent complaints in what appears to be a very early case of tapping up.
Not only do they illustrate the manner in which players were signed in the early 1930s they also paint a fascinating picture of the integrity and formality of one of football’s finest innovators.