The stewardship of the Hill-Wood family has provided continuity and stability to the Gunners since the 1920s, as the north London club contemplate the future without them
By Graham Lister
The decision of Peter Hill-Wood to stand down as Arsenal’s chairman on health grounds – he suffered a heart attack in December 2012 after a bout of pneumonia – signals the end of an era for the north London club. Peter, their longest-serving chairman, represents the third generation of Hill-Woods to sit on Arsenal’s board, the family’s association with the Gunners stretching back over 90 years.
During that time Samuel, his son Denis and grandson Peter gave the club continuity and stability while chairing it through momentous changes and many glittering cycles of success. Along the way they helped both to create and protect Arsenal’s distinctive values and heritage as the Gunners secured their status among the game’s elite.
And although in recent years old Etonian Peter, 77, has tended to be caricatured as out of touch, his stewardship in fact embodied boldness, vision and progression. This was most clearly demonstrated when he refused to allow his affection for Highbury and respect for tradition to obscure the need for a new stadium.
“You’ve got to accept that things change and not always for the better,” Hill-Wood said shortly before the club left Highbury for the Emirates Stadium in 2006. “We made a decision a few years ago that we wouldn’t leave. Then we decided 10 years later that we couldn’t stay.
“We can’t compete with the major clubs here in the UK and in Europe with a gate of 38,000. We took a calculated risk in my view to move and we were extremely fortunate to buy the land 500 metres from where we were and build a magnificent stadium, and I am thrilled.”
His grandfather Samuel had been at the helm when the Arsenal Stadium at Highbury was transformed into club football’s most prestigious venue in the 1930s, an imposing art deco monument to the success that Herbert Chapman’s team delivered throughout that decade. Samuel’s stewardship was in many ways the perfect antidote to what had gone before.
His predecessor as Arsenal chairman was the formidable Sir Henry Norris – dictatorial and determined, hugely controversial and breathtakingly ambitious. He had masterminded the club’s move from its Plumstead roots to the north London Borough of Islington in 1913. Even more controversially, he had somehow engineered Arsenal’s election to the top flight immediately after the First World War.
And in his quest to make the club great – and so recoup the massive personal investment he’d sunk into the Gunners – he hired the unrivalled innovator Chapman as manager. But he’d made enemies along the way, and they brought him down in 1927 on charges of financial irregularities.
Samuel Hill-Wood, a board member since 1922, took over as chairman on Norris’ fall from grace, and his great contribution was – in contrast to the man he succeeded – to allow the visionary Chapman a free reign to put the club firmly on the map, both on and off the pitch.
Samuel, a successful businessman and member of Parliament for the High Peak constituency from 1910-29, had played cricket professionally for Derbyshire in his youth and remains the only batsman to score 10 runs off one ball in a first-class game, against the MCC. He had also been chairman of Glossop North End FC, helping to guide them into to the Football League Second Division in 1898.
He had two spells as chairman, stepping down in 1936 before taking the chair again in 1946. Described as “the perfect man to help Arsenal establish itself as a big club”, he saw Arsenal win five League titles and two FA Cups under his chairmanship.
Son Denis took his place on the Arsenal board on his father’s death in 1949, and became chairman himself in 1962. Denis had also played first class cricket for Oxford University, MCC and Derbyshire in the late 1920s, but unlike his father, took over as chairman when the Gunners were in something of a slump.
They were without a trophy since 1953 and firmly in the shadow of their Double-winning neighbours and rivals Tottenham in the early 1960s. But in 1966 Hill-Wood took a calculated gamble by appointing club physiotherapist Bertie Mee as manager, and Mee rewarded his faith by delivering the European Fairs Cup in 1970 and, a year later, the coveted League/FA Cup double.
By the time he died in 1982, he had also enjoyed further FA Cup success through Terry Neill’s team. Denis had been much loved within Highbury and well respected beyond the marble halls, so son Peter – who maintained a family tradition by playing first class cricket (for the Free Foresters in 1960) – had a lot to live up to when he became chairman on his father’s death.
But during his tenure, the Gunners have enjoyed the most successful period in their history. First former player George Graham was appointed as manager and won six major trophies in eight years. Hill-Wood had the unwanted task of sacking Graham following allegations of financial misconduct, but saw Arsene Wenger arrive and deliver two Doubles and the unbeaten title-winning season of 2003-04 while treating Gunners fans to the most exhilarating attacking football they could remember.
With on-field success helping to stoke demand for tickets which Highbury’s restricted capacity could not supply, and with rivals like Manchester United netting at least twice as much revenue through the gate every home game, Hill-Wood and the board had to grasp the unthinkable nettle and relocate the club.
The fact that he has been lower profile and less hands-on as chairman than his father has prompted many to attribute some of the club’s modern achievements exclusively to Wenger and former vice-chairman David Dein. But Hill-Wood has certainly played his part, and managed the tricky balancing act between a romantic view of the past and the realism needed to confront the future.
Now, for the first time in many decades, there is no Hill-Wood on the Arsenal board – just as the club appears poised for an exciting period after several years of financial consolidation since constructing and moving into the Emirates. But Peter helped bring Bank of England director Sir Chips Keswick to the board in 2005 – and it is his former colleague at Hambros Bank who succeeds him as chairman.
So in looking forward with much anticipation, Gooners would do well to spend a moment reflecting on the considerable contribution the Hill-Woods have made to their beloved club over the course of many years.