On April 1st 1972 Arsenal were due to play Nottingham Forest at home. Forest had been a poor side for a few years, but this season they were particularly dire, and bound for relegation.
Now although Arsenal had been experiencing an up and down post-double season this was a real home banker, and the game that my father had decided would be the right time to finally relent to my weekly pleas of “When can I go to Highbury?” I wonder if my Ma had the slightest inkling as she saw us off on our special outing that it would end up an almost weekly occurrence?
We drove part of the way (I’m not altogether sure where we were living at the time to be honest because we moved a lot when I was a kid) and then got on the tube. I was getting more and more exited as the train was filling up with fans. What a mixture! From an old man with a hat covered in badges to the noisy young bucks with their scarves. I even saw my first butchers’ coat on that train (for those that don’t know there was a brief craze for fans wearing white butchers’ coats covered in graffiti to football matches).
I was also incredibly impressed when my Dad told me that we were getting off at Arsenal station. Wow, my club has even got its own tube station! (Rather embarrassingly I remember looking at the stations on the tube line and thinking that we had one but Leeds didn’t – but then again what does a four-year-old know of geography?).
It was still early but there was a bit of a crush getting out of the dark station, and then suddenly we were out in the daylight and my eyes and ears were assaulted by a riot of colour and noise. I’d never seen anything like it. And there, framed in the image, was a corner of Highbury. I could actually see it with my own eyes! All these years later it sounds corny and was probably because I’d spent so long wanting to go there but it just felt so right. Despite the crowds around the ground and the noise I knew I was safe; I knew I was home.
We walked along Gillespie Road and I was just totally awe struck. It was absolutely amazing. There were people everywhere – and they all seemed to be Arsenal fans; I never realised there were so many of us. There were people walking along laughing and joking, some talking seriously, others walking along drinking and still more buying scarves and stuff. And lots of swearing, which did shock me for a while because I’d never really heard much swearing apart from Ma occasionally saying ‘Balls’ when something went wrong!
Next we turned into Avenell Road and went up to the main entrance to collect our tickets. It was just so beautiful, even having a fully uniformed commissionaire on the door, (who called my Dad Sir!). He opened the door and my Dad walked straight in but I must have been slightly intimidated because I just stood there for a second until the commissionaire smiled and asked if I was going in. “Yes please!” and then into the Marble Halls with Herbert Chapman’s bust in front of us. Just how impressive could this place get?
We collected the tickets from the box office counter in there and then Dad decided I needed a scarf, which we bought from someone more or less opposite the entrance. Whilst that was being bought I was just staring at the East Stand’s façade (I still get a buzz looking at it 40 years later). It’s just such a one off; to me it looks like it should be part of a museum or some such lauded building. The only thing wrong with it is the row of houses opposite which makes it difficult to get back far enough to take a really good photo!
Even my Dad was exited now, I could tell. He’d given up going to matches when he got married, so it was the first match he’d been to for a few years. We walked up the hill and round the Clock End to get to our entrance in the West Stand lower. To me it was like the greatest, plushest theatre in the land, although in reality it was a bit grotty down there. Not to me though – this was Highbury; this was my new home.
We were virtually at the front of the seats and watching the players running past just yards away from me was amazing. But what caught my attention most were the terraces at each end of the ground. These swaying, rolling walls of supporters and their noise enthralled me completely. Even then I realised that was where I wanted to be, and ironically the scarf I’d been bought had Arsenal on one side and North Bank on the other. Fate. There was something to celebrate that day as well, a comfortable win for Arsenal. Not a bad start at all…but one thing that had long puzzled me was why I thought that Peter Marinello was a wonderful footballer. On reading his autobiography he had that match down as his best performance for The Arsenal so mystery solved.
Now being with a four-year-old my Father wanted to avoid getting caught up in the crush at the end with the obvious risk of us being separated. Fortunately though, his method of avoiding the crush wasn’t to leave five minutes early, it was to sit there for ten minutes after the match ended! A much better idea I’m sure you’ll agree, and to this day I’ve never left a game early. We sat there watching the ground empty out and it got to me how quickly the stadium did actually empty, especially the terraces. Despite waiting a while there was still a massive queue to get into Arsenal station so we strolled down to Finsbury Park and got the tube from there.
On the way home I read the programme so many times I probably even knew the printers name and address off by heart! Thinking back I must have spent the rest of the weekend boring my Ma rigid with tales of Highbury and my adventure.
That trip, which was meant to be a one off treat, became a more and more regular occurrence over the next few years until just over five years later my Dad happily showed me what had come in the post that day – a pair of season tickets for the East Stand. And all these years (and season tickets) later my Ma still doesn’t understand why I don’t just watch the game on TV!
(This is a re-post of a piece published on April 1st)