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Saturday
Apr052014

"The day I took on the Arsenal chairman.."

By JEFFREY L. FREEMAN 

In the early years of my life the German nation were causing me and the team certain inconveniences.

If memory serves me correctly it was about 1943 when my father decided to introduce me to the wonders of supporting Arsenal Football Club.

I lived a short walk from Highbury in Finsbury Park but the Germans had bombed our state-of-the-art stadium during one of the Luftwaffe's many air raids. This piece of aggression was bad enough but it meant I had to catch a bus to watch my first Arsenal game at the home of another enemy - Tottenham Hotspur.

Fortunately, I remember nothing about the match so have no memory of the boys in red and white playing home games at White Hart Lane but I do remember standing at the bus stop with my father as he explained the game to me.

At the time I thought it all sounded quite complicated but I was excited at the thought of being a fully committed lifelong supporter of the club; just as he was.

When hostilities ceased I accompanied him to the Highbury box office where he asked for two season tickets. "Certainly Mr Freeman," came the response. "Walk around the ground and chose any two you like." 

My father did so and I sat in Row F of Block W in the West Stand from 1945 until the final game at Highbury against Wigan in 2006. They were the best of seats and although I don't remember how much they cost back then I do know that in 1965 I paid £20 for each season ticket.

In 1948 we won the 1st Division championship (the equivalent of the Premiership today) and even at that tender age I understood what it meant to support the best club in the world.

We claimed the title again in 1953 but then things started to go downhill and the club entered what some of my generation called 'the wilderness years'. To some the pain was not winning a trophy for 17 seasons but this didn't really concern me. 

Sport, and particularly football, has played a vital part in my life and I was brought up to believe the game was a sport - not a form of entertainment. So taking part was what was important, not winning. However I did object to the poor football the team was playing. 

When I was young my father told me about the giants of the 1930s Arsenal side: Alex James, Cliff Bastin, Charlie Buchan and countless others. They were all excellent footballers and I became mightily fed up watching second or even third-rate players wearing the red and white shirt.

This dissatisfaction would go on to play an important part in my relationship with the club.

Meanwhile - and somewhat to my surprise - I had qualified as a solicitor and found employment at £15 per week (perhaps footballers earning £20 per week was not so unfair back then!).

I was pretty skint but this didn't prevent me from discovering and becoming riveted by the stock exchange. When a stockbroker friend who was aware of my passion for Arsenal told me I could buy shares in the club, I was intrigued. This was VERY unusual in those days but the idea filled me with excitement. Owning a part of the club, no matter how small! I was totally captivated by the idea.

The market was thin so I had to wait but the magic moment came on January 8 1964 when I bought five shares.

Some time later my attention was drawn to an advertisement in the Evening Standard asking Arsenal shareholders to come forward. I did so and met Leslie Wise, a fellow Arsenal supporter who was also unhappy about the quality of the football and lack of trophies for so many years. He blamed the board of directors for being out of touch and reactionary (sounds familiar!) and manager Billy Wright who he felt wasn't up to the job. 

Leslie felt nothing was ever going to change unless there was a 'revolt' from shareholders and he was looking for one who would spearhead the rebellion. I agreed to do so because I felt it was a just cause.

For reasons I never really understood, Leslie was happy for me to carry on alone. He was extremely helpful and I both enjoyed and learned from my discussions with him - however action was down to me.

Where was I to start?

The media as we know it today didn't exist and communication was more difficult so I decided to obtain a list of shareholders. This was an interesting document that showed how steeped in history the club was. There was a striking lack of activity, many accounts went back decades and there was a very 'Victorian' feel about it all; a point that became relevant in due course.

My next step was to draft a questionnaire to be sent to all shareholders, but it wasn't long until the newspapers got hold of the story. They hounded me for some time and I soon learned they weren't to be trusted (and this was in 1965!) a lesson that became invaluable in my legal career.

I also learned there was no such thing as bad publicity. I say this because I believe the influence of the press - whatever I thought of it - eventually assisted me in attaining my objectives, which were the dismissal of the manager and an energising of the board.

In the mean time, I received a good response to the questionnaire and most shareholders agreed with me - but not all.

The quality of the opposition surprised me and I received a hostile riposte someone I believe represented The Arsenal Supporters Club (AISA today). I believe the chairman was one C.R.B. Joyce and his reply to my request dated 24/04/65 stated: "I shall be glad to answer this if I knew something about YOU, Mr Freeman. Would you kindly oblige?" 


I took this as an implication that I was an ignorant upstart who was up to no good and I had to prove my credentials before he would respond to me. 

To me these people only wanted to retain the status quo in all walks of life and I thought their attitude was very Victorian: You must know your place in society and keep to it!

This only served to encourage me and confirm my view that things at Arsenal needed to be shaken up.

I was also fascinated to get responses from people telling me they'd been supporting the club since the 19th century. People who were still alive in the 1960s!

Some had known the club in the early years and I heard from Nora McKelburg, whose father George Newman had played for Arsenal as an amateur in the Plumstead days. 

Another reply was from M Millstone who'd supported the club since 1915 and I always remembered what he wrote:

"In the early days at Highbury, Arsenal were on the verge of relegation several times, but things improved when we had a few lucky buys like Charlie Buchan, David Jack and later Ronnie Rooke. These things take time and one must have a little patience and consideration. So cheer up and do not be downhearted."

Actually Mr Millstone did not support me but his words gave me great encouragement and still uplift me to this day. Furthermore, the wise words of Mr Millstone proved correct. Where has his type of wisdom gone today?

I learned from the replies that although some people were no longer supporters the roots ran long and deep and didn't easily die off. Other replies were touching and nostalgic.

At the time there was little market for shares and although some shareholders offered me theirs at a knockdown price I was not interested. 

My next course of action would be to hold a shareholder meeting at Alexandra Palace.

The meeting was reasonably well attended and I opened by calling for questions. I believe the first was from Mr C.R.B. Joyce who launched into the same response he'd given in his questionnaire. This time I was prepared and I proceeded to begin giving him my Arsenal credentials until a rather bored member of the audience stood up and said he'd heard enough!

There were mixed views expressed at the meeting and when it concluded I wasn't satisfied there was a consensus of opinion. As minority shareholders we were in a weak position and I had to consider my tactics carefully.

I believed Dennis Hill-Wood (father of our previous chairman Peter Hill-Wood) was a shrewd and intelligent man. There were some interesting comments and exchanges with him in the national press and he knew how things worked. He realised I couldn't take on the club but I could cause damage. 

Yet I strongly believed his stonewalling would eventually prove unsuccessful and that matters at Arsenal would only get worse, so I decided to play the long game and wait for the situation to change.

However I still did the following:

1. Let it be known that the minority shareholders would, if necessary, call on fans to boycott games. There was no Sky Sports in those days so gate receipts accounted for nearly all of the club's revenue.

2. I wrote to Hill-Wood confirming that I had no wish to be a member of the board or interfere with playing policy. I hoped this would convince him my only concern was to see good football plus, hopefully, some glory. If I was right, I hoped this might plant seeds of doubt in his mind.

As a lawyer, I have always believed tactics and strategy are more important than the law itself when fighting a legal battle. This applies to all walks of life but you need luck as well.

I was lucky.

In 1965/1966 we finished 14th, our lowest league position in three decades. Towards the end of the season Arsenal were playing Leeds - a prominent team in those days - in a midweek game. There was a European Cup game between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund on TV the very same evening and the gate for the Leeds match was around 4,500. A shocking attendance for an important league fixture and the lowest ever at Highbury! 

Some claimed it was because of the match on TV but I disagreed. I was convinced fans didn't attend because they'd had enough of the lack of quality football and weren't prepared to spend money when nothing was being done about the problem. Additionally, I found it difficult to accept that any Gooner would rather watch Liverpool than Arsenal!

It would seem Dennis Hill-Wood came round to my views and sacked Billy Wright soon after that fateful game. In March he was strongly supporting Wright and had said: "I am 100% behind Billy Wright ... Those shareholders are wasting their time if they're trying to get at him!"

A few months later he was gone - a situation with which many modern football managers will sympathise with!

The power of the fans was much stronger in those days. It shouldn't be ignored today but with Sky and many others companies pouring money into football their influence has been diluted somewhat.

We awaited a great leader who would return us to our proper place in the league and an unknown called Bertie Mee appeared. He was a physiotherapist who had never managed a football team before but his influence was immediate:

1966 - 1967: 9th in the league.

1967 - 1968: 4th in the league and league cup runners-up.

1968 - 1969: 4th in the league and league cup runners-up.

1969 - 1970: European Fairs Cup winners.

After the Fairs Cup victory - brilliantly described here by Steve Cooper - I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I was looking at a new dawn of success. It was an emotional time.

This was Mee's preparation for the big stage and we all know what happened in 1971. The next 35 years were glorious maybe more so than at any time in the club's history. 

After the double I threw a party to celebrate, at which the star attraction would be my dog who had been kitted out in Arsenal colours. However as a result of the party, the star attraction turned out to be the woman I later married. We are still married to this day despite the fact I converted her into a Gooner!

The Freeman family has supported Arsenal for the best part of a century and if my story proves one thing it's that club's should never underestimate the value of their fanbase.

I believe in later years Billy Wright admitted he was not up to the job.

(c) Jeffrey L. Freeman

 

Reader Comments (4)

Fantastic Post !

Arsenal forever!

Joaquim Moreira
Portugal

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoaquim Moreira

What a wonderful story Mr Freeman. I am an overseas fan but as a lover of the game I admire what Arsenal stands for as a footballing entity especially in this era when money has distorted the sport. I wonder what you think of the modern Arsenal

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentershottagunna

Actually, Jeffrey, we were 7th in 67 and 9th in 68. I remember all the events you describe very clearly. It has always amused me the way Denis Hill-Wood "forgot" to resign!
Another aspect of that season was the way that people, many of whom were boycotting first-team games, gave great support to the Youth Team which won the FA Youth Cup. The team included Pat Rice at full-back and Sammy Nelson at outside-left.
The supporters were the primary source of income in 1966 and were in a position to make their feelings known. The current money obsessed american business franchise does not have to listen. And they don't.

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRamgun

What an excellent read Mr. Freeman. I certainly hope I will read about your Arsenal experiences again and also hear about how you used your shares in the future. I would be surprised if you hadn't!

Oral history is one of my most relaxing pastimes and the articles posted here evoke so many different memories and emotions that always end in happiness and learning. A welcome relief from the normal unhappiness and sniping. Thank you.

October 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTJ
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