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HIGHBURY THE FINAL SALUTE
by Andrew Vaughan
The rain subsided, the sun shone and we all said goodbye to the Arsenal Stadium - home to Arsenal (née Woolwich Arsenal) since 1913 and 93 years of glorious memories. Next season they will play at the spanking new Emirates Stadium. A mere Tony Adams skewed clearance from Avenell Road in distance it may be but it is a Ray Parlour half-marathon away in all other aspects. Whether the Emirates Stadium will become yet another soulless arena like the Ricoh Arena, Walkers Stadium or JJB Stadium or pick up baton of Highbury - it's history and soul - only time will tell. But the clues are probably in the stadium's new name. But we will return to Ashburton Grove later. For now let's pause and remember Highbury.
The move of Woolwich Arsenal north of the river ruffled the feathers of local residents in this leafy Victorian area and the Islington Gazette noted at the time that it was “a sad day for the district if these interlopers set up stall around here”. Tottenham Hotspur were livid as they decamped in their heartland. Over the years the residents came round to know and love the football club. Tottenham are still seething. The Woolwich chairman Sir Henry Norris moved the football club there when (forced by a financial crisis to act) he was refused permission by the FA to firstly merge with Fulham FC and then to groundshare with them at Craven Cottage. He was a ruthless bully and almost universally disliked. Not unlike many present-day football chairmen! The stadium was built on playing fields belonging to the St. John's College of Divinity. Norris negotiated a 21-year lease for the land for the sum of £20,000. Under the terms of the lease the club could not play any matches on Good Friday or Christmas Day a condition that remained until the club bought the land outright in the mid 1920's.
Archibald Leitch - designed the stadium, and like other grounds of his it comprised of one stand and three sides of terracing. It would be another 20 years before both Highbury, the ground, and Arsenal the Football Club would become known throughout the world. Herbert Chapman was appointed manager of Arsenal in 1925 and would become the most innovative manager of his time. His vision was of another time as he brought players diets, artificial pitches and floodlights to football's top table. As well as that he persuaded London Transport to rename Gillespie Road tube station "Arsenal" and literally put the football club on the map. He also, along with new chairman Sir Samuel Hill-Wood, presided over the construction of the magnificent Art-Deco West and East Stands in 1932 and 1936 respectively as well as the roof on the North Bank. And with the Clock later moved from the North Bank to the open South Stand terrace the ground took on the recognisable aspect that most know. The government's edict that all 1st Division grounds should be made all-seater saw a new two-tier stand built on the North Bank in 1993/4 but not before a season of "The Mural" with seats put in the Clock End.
The new ground looks impressive and the people at the club should be congratulated on building a 60,000-seater stadium so close to the Arsenal Stadium and bringing it in both on time and within budget - unlike the only other new stadium to be built in London since 1945. There is no doubt that if Arsenal is to compete with the Uniteds and Barcelonas of this world then the Highbury capacity of under 40,000 is a hindrance. But at what price to the people that cherish football and live and breathe the game. Will the Arsenal faithful ever raise the roof (just the one roof in the case of the new ground) in the way that the call and response chant of "We're the North Bank, Highbury" echoed around all 4 stands on the big occasions? We will soon find out and whilst the Arsenal Stadium was a beautiful sight that is only a quarter of the tale. It really isn't about the architecture. It's about the fans and the football. The soul and the singing. The pitch and the players. And at Highbury it is about the tales of Johnny Hoy and the North Bank. About Liam Brady and Herbert Chapman. Thierry Henry and Ian Wright. Ted Drake and Arsene Wenger. The local pubs and the burger bars. Michael Thomas and the 1989 Championship winning side. And it's about 12 other League Championships, 10 FA Cups, 12 Charity Shields, 2 League Cups, 1 Fairs Cup and 1 Cup Winners Cup. Maybe even 1 European Champions League Cup when you read this. It's about the kits (even that shitty yellow one) and the programme sellers. Bombs destroying the North Bank and people getting murdered - albeit in the 1930s film 'The Arsenal Stadium Mystery'. It's about the spivs and the touts, the characters and pains in the arses. The away trips and the camaraderie.
But most of all it is about community and it is sad to see how these communities are being destroyed by modern football and it's money at all costs attitude. Now clubs feel as though they have no option to leave glorious grounds and the working class fans that made clubs like Arsenal great while all kinds of Johnny-Come-Lately's infiltrate the game, OUR game. Sheets need to be balanced and it will be the new middle classes that have infiltrated our game that will balance them. From “Bon Appetit” and Paninis in St Moritz to “Joga Bonito” and Paninis with Tony, Melvin and Nick in ‘The Trevi’ after the game. Just another tick on their social calendar.
Cetin Aziz has been watching Arsenal for over 30 years. As he says: “I used to go when it was pay on the gate and when I eventually got a season ticket it cost me a quarter of my weekly wage. This year’s season ticket cost me three-quarters of my monthly wage”!
The prices are going up again and I simply can’t justify getting a season ticket at the Emirates to my wife and children. I’ll just pick my games”
At the moment most of the true fans are just about hanging in there as was proved during the final game and final celebrations at Highbury. It was a fitting tribute as the sublime Thierry Henry claimed a hat-trick and Arsenal pipped their rivals Tottenham Hotspur to the fourth Champions League place. But the two most poignant moments were (firstly) when the whole ground - including the Wigan fans (my team, my community) - stood to applaud Dennis Bergkamp's arrival on the pitch. Bergkamp in this modern day age of the "bling bling" mercenary footballer has played 11 years for the club. And then after the game as the past Arsenal players walked around the perimeter, the ground went up as one for a legend that was taken from us too soon but was undoubtedly watching over the parade: "Oh Rocky, Rocky, Rocky, Rocky, Rocky Rocastle". Bergkamp and Rocastle are both class acts that we can all identify with. Just decent working class lads that played the game we love. They are few and far between nowadays- from another age. A bit like Highbury. In fact a bit like football itself.
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