Tottenham Hotspur 1921 – the pride of post-war London

WHEN the year ends with a “1”, Tottenham win things. That’s the old adage, one that may have run its course, although in 2021, it could ring true once more. 

Almost one hundred years ago, Tottenham won their second FA Cup, beating Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge in the final. It was the high point of a post-WW1 resurgence at White Hart Lane, but by the end of the 1920s, the pendulum was starting to swing towards Arsenal, the club that moved from south to north London in order to build a more sustainable future. When Arsenal won their first league title in 1931, Spurs were back in the second division.

But the period just after the great war was an exciting one for Spurs, but it started with their controversial relegation to the second division. The first division was expanded to 22 clubs and Arsenal, who finished fifth in the second division, were given a place in the new-look top flight. Spurs, who finished bottom in 1915, were relegated, while Chelsea, in 19th, retained their place in the first division. Arsenal’s election was said to have been down to Sir Henry Norris, the club’s chairman, bribing the league’s chairman, John McKenna. Although unproven, the incident, one of the less transparent episodes in the history of the Football League, merely fuels the long-standing rivalry between Spurs and their neighbours.

Tottenham were comfortably promoted back to the top at the first attempt in 1919-20. They won 11 of their first 12 games and were unbeaten at White Hart Lane. They finished 14 points clear of third place and six ahead of second-placed Huddersfield Town, who also reached the FA Cup final. 

The Spurs team that won promotion had largely been assembled before the war, only leading scorer Bert Bliss, wing-half Bert Smith, full-back Bob Brown and striker Jimmy Dimmock of the regular line-up had joined the club since the end of hostilities. The team included a number of players who would go on to win caps for England: Tommy Clay, Smith, Arthur Grimsdell, Fanny Walden, Dimmock and Bliss.

Spurs rarely faltered in 1919-20 and were described as a “team of wizards” by some sections of the press. The manner in which they won the second division earned them many plaudits, with Aston Villa’s Andy Ducat, who led his team to FA Cup triumph in 1920 and beat Spurs on the way, claimed the Londoners were the best team they had faced over the course of the season. Others said Spurs were the fastest, strongest and hardest opponent they had come up against. Little surprise they were expected to fare well in the first division in 1920-21.

Frederik ‘Fanny’ Walden

The team was adjusted slightly to meet the challenge. Bob McDonald, a tough-tackling Scot, was signed from Inverness Caledonians, while Charlie Walters, a nimble centre half was acquired from Oxford City. The most influential player to secure a place in the team was Jimmy Seed, a clever forward whose career appeared to have waned. Seed, who had been with Sunderland before the war, was playing in non-league football in Wales, but joined Spurs in February 1920. 

Spurs more than held their own in the first division, although the first few weeks of the season proved difficult. They soon became the most attractive team in London, beating capital rivals Chelsea 5-0 and 4-0 in consecutive weeks and maintaining a position in the top half of the table.  

But it was the FA Cup that provided Tottenham’s best hope of glory. In the first round, Spurs beat Bristol Rovers 6-2 on a heavy White Hart Lane pitch. In the following round, they made hard work of Bradford City for much of the game, but a hat-trick from Seed helped them on to a 4-0 victory. By now the press were seeing Spurs as potential winners. “Spurs may go far in the Cup, especially if they can find their form in subsequent rounds earlier than they did in this game”.

In the third round, Southend United provided stiffer opposition and Spurs were criticised for the quality of their “listless, inanimate football”. It was 1-1 at half-time, but they woke up after the interval, scoring three times. Although they won 4-1, the general consensus was that it had been the worst display of the season by Peter McWilliam’s team.

The competition was now down to the last eight and Spurs were drawn at home to the 1920 winners, Aston Villa, the team that had knocked them out at the same stage a year earlier, thanks to a slip-up by Tommy Clay. “Dame Fortune turned her wheel in the contrary position,” said the Athletic News as Spurs put on an outstanding display and won 1-0, thanks to a goal from Jimmy Banks. Tityrus, the well-respected reporter, noted: “Spurs are the strongest candidate for cup honours that I have seen this season.”

Bert Bliss

In the semi-finals, Spurs came up against Preston North End at Hillsborough. Two goals from Bert Bliss – “a bonny pair from brilliant bliss” – gave them a 2-1 victory and sent them to the final at Stamford Bridge where they would meet Wolverhampton Wanderers, who clinched their place four days later after beating Cardiff. Tottenham were definite favourites as Wolves were a mid-table second division side.

On the day of the final, the heavens opened at Stamford Bridge, leaving pools of water on the pitch. The newspapers had speculated about the contrast in styles between the two teams. Spurs, they said, played faster, clever football “of the first league type”, while Wolves preferred a more bustling wing-to-wing style. “A wonderful struggle promised,” said one headline on the morning of the match.

The game was settled by a second half goal from the 20 year-old Jimmy Dimmock, who had recently missed out on his first England cap due to a knee injury. Against Wolves he was in good form, receiving the ball on the halfway line, dashing past two defenders on the flank and cutting inside to send a low shot skidding underneath the body of Wolves goalkeeper Noel George. It was Dimmock’s first FA Cup goal.

Tottenham went on to finish sixth in the first division in 1920-21, even though they only won one of their last five league games. But the momentum continued into 1921-22 with Spurs reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup again, this time losing to Preston in a repeat of 1921, despite going ahead through Bliss. They were also runners-up in the first division, six points behind Liverpool. So near, yet so far from genuine success.

The club went into a period of decline and it wasn’t until after the second world war and Tottenham’s first league title in 1951 – there was a one in the year, after all – that they got to polish some silverware once more. The 1921 team went down in their history as one of the club’s finest.

Photos: PA

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