Sunday, May 07, 2006


Highbury Memories

It is so typically Arsenal. We can qualify for the Champions League in the last minute. We can do it at the expense of those funny people up the Seven Sisters. And we can do it with tears of joy and remembrance as we say farewell to Highbury Stadium, our home for 93 years and my own spiritual home for 30 odd years.

My Highbury experience began as a 9 year old being taken by my Dad to see us play West Ham in 1974. What do I remember? I remember walking up the North Bank steps; I remember seeing the Clock End for the first time, a vast open terrace. We stood to the right of the North Bank, we drew 0-0 and in Clyde Best I saw my first black man! The programme cost 5p! The next day it was on the Big Match and my Mum asked why bother when I could stay at home and watch it on TV? Well, at Highbury it was in colour!

I had to wait 51 weeks for my next trip up from suburbia. This time we played Sheffield United, the crowd was below 20,000 and Brian Kidd scored the first goal I ever saw at Highbury. 1-0 to The Arsenal. My old man soon tired of dragging me up there so I started going on my own. I was a tall gangly youth, not dissimilar to Lux in Graham’s Gang, and I lacked the confidence to go on the North Bank but we are The Arsenal. We had the Schoolboy’s Enclosure. 20p to get in and a chance of being on TV. Which I was. I also had my picture in the programme a few times which sure as hell impressed my mates at school.

Those late 70’s were a crossover period. The Arsenal were looking at revenue streams beyond the turnstiles and introduced lottery tickets with Make Money With Arsenal. Red Kagouled babes walked the cinder track before kick off and at half time selling tickets, one even today still sticks in the mind not just of me but many of those terrace veterans. Tall, wild hair… But we stayed traditional. No advertising hoardings, a manual half time score board, red and white college scarves, silk scarves and toilet rolls on the pitch. The Metropolitan Police Band at half time and everyone praying the conductor would drop that stick thing. Being traditional of course, it was round this time I took my first slap, off a Manchester United fan, at Arsenal underground station.

1980/81 was my first real season. I missed very few games and moved from the Schoolboy’s to the North Bank. First home game was Southampton and there weren’t enough turnstile operators to go round. It was Keegan’s first game back in England but for us it was the post Liam Brady era, Kenny Sansom’s first game and you know what? They’re both still involved with The Arsenal! The final game of the season was against Aston Villa. We beat them 2-0, they became champions, Pele ran round the pitch and a computer game manufacturer sponsored the game. I started queuing about 11 am that day, coming down from Finsbury Park to be sure of my spot among the 57000. We finished 3rd, we were confident but failed to replace Brady and that summer Stapleton was off leaving behind much recrimination. I still hate the guy!

We were in the doldrums. Attendances dropped, I recall one game at Highbury against West Brom and the crowd was 13000! Swansea and Watford would come and collect three points. I would get home disgruntled and my mum would ask if I enjoyed the game and to be fair nobody can say they enjoyed those days. But for those who lived through them they make Wenger’s wonder years so much sweeter. Woodcock and Chapman came and generally disappointed, Petrovic did a cameo, impressed and, in a typical Arsenal moment, was released. Probably too skillful, after all we had Peter Nicholas and Brian Talbot.

1983 the casual scene was at its peak as brand labels filled the terraces and everyone whispered ICF and Gooners. We signed Charlie Nicholas and the fans grew bubble perms. He was our Charlie, he scored against Tottenham, he filled the gap left by Brady, a terrace hero, our first terrace hero in a number of years. But on the pitch we were still inconsistent. A skinny Tony Adams made his debut, we lost to West Brom and Coventry and Terry Neill was on thin ice. We played Walsall in the League Cup and went one up. 10 minutes left and they equalized. Mentally I’m doing the maths and logistics of a day off work and a trip to the West Midlands for the replay. I decided I didn’t want to go, Come On The Arsenal, we need another goal. Walsall scored, we were out and so was Neill days later.

Don Howe was in charge and the following season we were top for a while with Ian Allinson becoming an unlikely hero with some important goals. But it didn’t last. It never did in those days. Roberts, that silver haired tosser from the football purists in N17 put Nicholas in the Lower East and we had someone else to hate! Something needed to be done. After a snowy league cup tie against Southampton I decided to move to the Clock End. Rocastle was introduced, Davis delivered on his promise, Merson looked good but for now we were still shite.

Then George Graham arrived for our Centenary Season. Youth was given its head, we went on an unbeaten run and we won the League Cup with Charlie getting both goals. One nil down 2-1 up, we fucked Rushie’s record up! Things were promising; I set off to Australia convinced I’d be gone just 12 months and be back for a nicely maturing team.

I missed 87/88 but returned for the following season. Richardson, Marwood and Smith had added experience and guile while Davis had developed as both a player and a boxer as his assault on Cockerill proved. It was an exciting season, we won the Championship and I was gone again.

1991/92 was at times sublime. At Highbury Ian Wright was brought in and with Campbell and the Merse formed a bloody impressive spearhead. We scored for fun at Highbury, 7 against Sheffield Wednesday, 4 against Palarse, 4 against Liverpool (one 50 yard lob from Limpar) 5 against Southampton. That was some day. I had a tenner on us to win 6-1, we won 5-1 and it was bye bye North Bank. The next season we would play with a mural at one end, I didn’t want to see that so moved to Germany! The Arsenal I’d grown up with was slipping away from me.

I went to a few games in the early 90’s but mostly I kept up with live TV broadcasts and the internet. My last game at Highbury was understated. I flew back from Bangkok on the same day we played Oldham in a League Cup replay. We won 2-0; Paul Dickov scored the last goal I will ever see at Highbury.

Then came Arsene. I never saw him at Highbury. Never saw Overmars, Anelka, Bergkamp, Henry. From various pubs and bars across Asia I have followed our impressive success but always remember how transient football can be. In my day we were shite, go one nil up and play for a draw. Maybe I never saw Henry and Bergkamp but I saw Colin Hill and Gus Ceaser! But they were The Arsenal, they were my team, my club and I believed. They still are The Arsenal and always will be. Highbury will always be a part of my growing up years and maybe one day in the future, in my dotage, I will return to my spiritual home and cheer on The Arsenal.

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