The East Stand - my home
Today marks the 100th anniversary of Woolwich Arsenal's first game at Arsenal Stadium, Highbury. It marked the beginning of the Club's association with Islington which endures to this day. As it is such a special anniversary I would like to share with you some memories of Highbury which I hope might convey what the old place meant to me. One thing I will always be sure of is that the new place can never compare in the eyes of the generations that went there. My children will never know any different (though I was lucky enough to visit on a non-match day with my eldest shortly before the final game there and get a photo of him in my seat) and will come to regard Ashburton Grove as their "home" but to those of us old enough, and lucky enough, to have seen football there Highbury will always be the most special football stadium in the World. More than that, it is the most special place in the World full-stop.
It's 30 years since I first went to Arsenal. There are fleeting moments from that day. It was New Years Eve and we were playing Southampton. The game finished 2-2. I can remember Dad picking up two Southampton supporting family friends as we drove out of Dover that morning. I also remember having to be "persuaded" to actually go as I had a late change of mind about seeing my first game and leaving Mum for the first time! We parked in Highbury Fields right up until a year or two before the old place shut and Islington Council made it difficult for people to get to games by car. We used to walk through the flats in Leigh Road and I can vividly remember my brother telling me that I would be able to see the flags on the top of the stand as we got to the end of the road. As we got on to Aubert Park and turned towards Avenell Road I saw he was right. It seems odd that my first memory of seeing the place is marvelling at the massive Arsenal flags fluttering on top of the East Stand.
The view from Avenell Road
As for the game itself I remember virtually nothing, though the padded, green, theatre-style seats are an enduring memory. I've just looked it up and seen that I saw some top players that day, not all of them from Arsenal. On the pitch were Pat Jennings, Kenny Sansom, David O'Leary, Paul Davis, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Nicholas, Peter Shilton, Mick Mills, Mark Wright, Steve Williams, Danny Wallace and Frank Worthington. Both of Southampton's goals were scored by Steve Moran, while David Cork (with his only ever Arsenal goal) and Charlie Nicholas got Arsenal's.
David Cork - my first Arsenal scorer
Visits thereafter would be semi-regular. My brothers were becoming old enough (at least in Dad's eyes) to go on the North Bank together (they were 11 and 8 in 1983, so I suspect Mum didn't quite appreciate what football terraces were really like!)
Part of going to football as a small child meant having to get there early. As I said, my brothers would be going on the North Bank so would need to be as close to the front of the queue as possible in order to get their regular spot, on the corner of the barrier, on the East side looking straight over the raised shelf that stood about halfway up the terrace. This afforded them a perfect view, an easy exit at the end, and a place where Dad could keep an eye on them from the East Upper. Once or twice a season in the late 80's they would head to the very front of the North Bank in an effort to get themselves seen on the end of season video. I reckon I must have paid more attention to them than to the matches because I recall so little of the action. As a child I would watch the North Bank fill up (sometimes not quite so full if I'm honest) and there was always the regular vocal group who seemed to start the singing in the middle, right at the back, with the police keeping a close eye on them from behind. In those days each player seemed to have his own song from the supporters. In turn they would respond to the North Bank as they warmed up on the pitch.
My first ever evening game was against Sheffield Wednesday and my abiding memories are of being told that there were two brothers playing for Wednesday - Glyn and Ian Snodin - and seeing Desmond Lynam walking in to the old bar in the East Stand. An evening game was a real treat as I was only allowed to go to them when school was not on (my nephew has no idea how lucky he is - I was only allowed to go to night matches on a regular basis when I was 11 years old!) Another evening game that really sticks with me was against Liverpool in 1989 in the Littlewoods Cup. We won 1-0 and I can still see Alan Smith's goal now and the noise of the crowd is vivid to me. It's before the game that makes it stands out, however. As I said above, we used to have to get there early, especially for a big game like Liverpool. Having seen my brothers safely on to the North Bank me and Dad headed up to the main entrance of the East Stand. You could get really close in those days and we got talking to some people as we saw the likes of Frank Carson and Lawrie McMenemy getting turned away by the Commissionaire's. The people we (well, Dad really) were chatting with obviously were with the opposition, but not all were scouse. Being so young I took no notice of the fact that the old man with us was a Geordie. When Liverpool's coach arrived most of the players went straight in, but Steve McMahon came over and gave tickets to some of the men we were stood with. Then Peter Beardsley came over to speak to the old man - his Dad! I'm fairly sure the old boy got Peter to sign our programme before he went in the changing rooms. Ever since then I've quite liked Peter Beardsley who always seems a very humble and under rated footballer.
The East Stand, Highbury
The years drifted slowly by and I would be taken along more and more regularly. My brothers invested in two season tickets in 1991, in the East Lower right beneath Dad's seats. I loved going and sitting down there as there was a bit more of an "atmosphere" in those seats. We were sat next to a man I knew only as "John" who was a giant in terms of both his size and his personality. I used to get dispatched to "get the teas in" shortly before half-time as John would treat all the regulars within a four seat radius and would then give me the change. I believe now that John may have been the much fabled Johnny Hoy, hero of the North Bank in the 70s and 80s. Part of me really likes to think that he most definitely was. I was sitting there the night we beat Torino and the night we beat Paris St Germain. The noise and relief at the final whistle of the Paris game was incredible, one of the greatest experiences ever though John had moved on by then and been replaced by Andy Gibbons who would move upstairs, and then down the road, with us all in the years ahead. My favourite game sitting down there however, was a North London Derby when Kevin Campbell and Ian Wright destroyed Spurs in a 2-0 win - big Kev ran right towards us after scoring a quite brilliant solo goal in front of the North Bank.
Later that season we'd say goodbye to the North Bank with Wrighty's hat-trick against Southampton. I have some great photographs of that day. Again I remember the noise towards the end as he scored two in injury time to get the Golden Boot.
The North Bank
Only football can detach you from the World like that. In those seconds after a goal that means something so important to everyone present there is seemingly nothing else in the World. Walking in to Highbury saw you turn your back on everything outside it. It's character and it's history set it apart, and it had it's own distinctive noise of crowd celebration.
At its very finest
My favourite Highbury day ever was against Everton in 1998. Winning the League on the pitch at Highbury was actually a rare event considering the number of Title's we won in its lifetime. It had been so unexpected at Christmas that the winning run was all the more special, I feel. When we blew Everton away and were 3-0 up with ages to go we knew we were Champions. Tony Adams would make the day, however, with that last minute volley. If I close my eyes I can see him now. I can see it all. I remember the tears of joy it brought from the 19 year-old me. Tony Adams was Arsenal at that time, everyone's Mr Arsenal. What a goal. I can see that trophy being brought on to the pitch by the Commissionaire's for the presentation, and Tony lifting it towards the North Bank whose view had been slightly obscured by Carling's advertisements - that summed up how he knew The Arsenal, turning first to the North Bank, before spinning round to all four corners.
My favourite Highbury moment
In a perverse way it was a moment that probably marked the beginning of the end for the old girl. Arsene Wenger saw the potential of the Club, and knew that 38,500 was too small a crowd for a Club of this stature. Whether we should have left is an argument for another day, but if the signing of Ozil is the start of things to come then it may yet have been worthwhile. Like I say, some other day.
What an atmosphere
When it did come time to leave it was one of the saddest days I've ever experienced. You'd hoped it would never arrive, while knowing that it always would. We used to meet up with the other Dover Gooners in the shadow of the East Stand before matches in those days. The usual meeting took place that day, though I was already welling up before I went in to the ground. Of course we won and got in to the Champions League and all that was great, but this was the end.
Over the years we'd made lifelong friends with those around us. To Dad's right throughout my childhood was Bob Everett. Bob died in Summer 2001, and his son Glenn had taken over the season ticket from his Dad. Bob had been to the Cup Winners Cup Final with Dad in 1980, and was with us (and Glenn) before the 1998 Cup Final. We'd met up at Derby before a League Cup tie on the road to Wembley in 1992. Bob was just always there at Arsenal when I was a boy. He'd seen me and my brothers grow up. He was the first person Dad phoned after Mickey Thomas won the Title for us at Anfield - two old Arsenal fans sharing the most special moment in 18 years. When the Club played a montage of the players we've lost in the closing celebrations we were urged by Tom Watt to remember those around us that couldn't be there. Glenn put his arm round me and Dad and it was a moment that summed up Highbury for me - it was all about family. We were all one big Arsenal family. I'm actually quite teary as I write this. To my left was Gary Goodson and his family, who have also become special friends. Gary stopped going on a regular basis a year after we moved down the road. The way the Club had allocated the new seats meant it just wasn't the same for him as we'd all been split apart. The new breed of "fan" is something Gary seriously dislikes. A year or two ago he came with his son, Daniel, and sat with us as the boys won a Champions League tie. Sitting next to Dad he said it was just like old times, and he wasn't wrong. Daniel, Laura and Nicola are still regulars, and occasionally take a ticket off our hands when one of us can't make it. Family and friendship has endured despite leaving Highbury, and isn't that what it should all be about? Saying goodbye to Highbury was something I found so hard to do. I cried and cried as I walked out that final time. Block F, Row E, Seat 161. That was my season ticket. My home. My family. That's what Highbury meant to me. It was genuinely a Cathedral of worship, The Home Of Football.
Highbury, The Home Of Football