Arsenal Fan: Ten Things I Miss About Highbury...
1) The Mystery of the Horse’s Skeleton at the Laundry End
As a kid I’d heard the rumours of a horse being buried when they were building the foundations of the original North Bank in 1913, then known as the Laundry End. That a horse and cart that had fallen into the rubble and that the unfortunate creature had to be put down.
I’d also heard that when they rebuilt the North Bank in 1993 they failed to find any remains and was disappointed to think that the tale simply did not occur. I remember a mate sitting on his shiny new seat in the North Bank the first day they opened it as an all seater stand and wondering out loud whether he was sitting near “that horse”. It got a round of hearty laughter from the fans around us who knew exactly what he was talking about. It was about the only highlight of that day as a certain Mickey Quinn of Coventry City scored as unlikely a hat-trick as you will ever see as the Sky Blues tonked us 3-0 on the first day of the 1992/92 season.
I had forgotten all about the horse until our move from Highbury which necessitated further digging at the beloved old ground, as it turned into the Highbury Square residential development.
Would you believe it, far below the surface workmen found two horseshoes alongside the remains of some timber, believed to be the cart. The story was true. My ten year old self was delighted. To be fair my thirty-something self was pretty pleased too, when I heard the news confirming such a romantic story in our long history had been confirmed.
As far as I know the horse shoes have been put in the Arsenal museum - not that they’ve brought much luck in the way of trophies just yet….
2) The Schoolboys Enclosure
This piece of hallowed concrete, which was effectively the lower tier of the East Stand was a rite of passage for all young Gunners of a certain vintage. When I first started going it was 75p entrance into the shallow terracing. No-one could call themselves a true Arsenal fan unless they stood here as a youngster, up until they put seats there in the early nineties as the ground dutifully complied with the Taylor Report.
If you know someone who claims to be a life-long Arsenal fan that is approaching middle age, ask them if they ever stood on the Schoolboys Enclosure. If they did then chances are you’re talking to a bona-fide gooner.
Nick Hornby recalls being terrified there as a kid, and having his scarf nicked. When I started going in the early 80s I seem to recall it was a bear pit full of streetwise Islington rascals. It says something that I was actually glad to graduate to the Clock End, and onto a whole new set of ruffians…
3) The Peanut Man
What passes for food at Arsenal these days? Genuine Handcrafted Pies made by machine at a fiver a pop? Nachos? Arsenal goujons?
That’s not proper football fayre.
No-one who stood at Highbury can forget the Peanut Man.
Incidentally the first time a good mate saw a picture of Stefan Swartz advertising ‘Arsenal goujons’ at the food counters in that cramped alleyway that passed for the entrance, exit and passageway in the Clock End he asked in all seriousness ‘What the f*ck is a goo-john?’ To me I still date his question as the first sign of the gentrification of Arsenal.
The Peanut Man did what it said on the tin. Or his brown paper sack of peanuts at any rate. He sold Peanuts. But he didn’t wait for you to come to him. He came to you. Via the terraces. He was in effect offering a delivery service for monkey nuts. I always thought he must have been a contortionist the way he weaved effortlessly through huge crowds.
It always felt like the larger the crowd the more you would see him on his circuit of the ground. I remember one game against Man Utd we actually scored when he was selling peanuts (in their shells of course) to a bloke behind me. Despite the mayhem – and me and many others inadvertently crushing up against him – he not only kept hold of his bag of nuts but actually gave the right change to the man who was by now insensible with joy: and managed to utter his immortal words, “peanuts, peanuts, cola”.
Even writing those words brought me back to a time before pubs stayed open all day, and if you didn’t meet your friends at a time and place you had agreed on you wouldn’t see them again as there was no chance of getting in touch in this distant per-mobile phone era…
4) Queuing at the Clock End turnstiles for big match tickets.
This may not seem like a memory to those who buy their tickets over the internet these days. But believe it or not kids, for FA Cup Final replays, and FA Cup Semi’s, not to mention big away cup games where we had a large allocation, you had to take your place – invariably at the top of Highbury Hill as the queue was already huge - and wait patiently to pass through the turnstiles. As you did you would have to chance to buy a ticket for the particular game that you wanted to go to (cash only mind).
The worst was when the powers that be decreed that tickets would go on sale for a predetermined game after the final whistle of a game that was actually taking place at the time. I recall as a kid waiting in a drunken crowd of big blokes who were all straining to hear on Avenell Road what exactly was going on at the game we had paid to see. It was like some surreal Kafka-esque experiment.
I went after school once to get tickets for a semi and had my new sports “Head” bag trampled in the melee, then ripped to piece by the wrought iron turnstile it had got trapped in.
It was worth it. I had just bought myself a ticket for Tottenham v Arsenal, Littlewoods Cup Semi Final replay at the Lane , 4th March, 1987.
5) The Marble Halls
If you ask any football fan to name something about Highbury chances are that they would mention the Marble Halls. All Arsenal fans were proud of this fact.
They used to sell tickets at the counters inside under the brass metal railway plate so you were able to enter this hallowed area if you had a good enough excuse back in the day.
I loved the way your school shoes would echo to the solid stone when you walked over it. I always made sure I cleaned them if I knew I had to pop up after school to Arsenal to get tickets or transport for some away game or other.
There always used to be a gaggle of touts outside on non-match days if there was a big game approaching. Eyes darting and speaking out of the side of their mouths like all touts used to do they would pull big rolls of extremely used tenners from their pockets, and ask kids to go in and buy some tickets for them.
As a serious child who knew even then that talking out of the side of your mouth was a Bad Thing I never trusted them. (That fact holds true even today. And I’d still like to have a quiet word with the one who sold me a nicked ticket for a ton for Chelsea away in the Champions League in 2004).
My mates were far less fastidious. They used to get a quid a ticket if they followed the touts orders. When one tried to undercut the rest by offering 50p per ticket, it prompted less than the normal efficient response from my pal when lying to those behind the counter. “Are they for the touts outside”, a terrifying club stalwart of the Travel Club asked us. As he was losing 50p a ticket on the deal my unmotivated mate simply replied yes. “F*ck ‘em then”, this Arsenal administrative legend who is still at the club replied.
I have also seen with my own eyes an Arsenal player (who shall remain nameless) brazenly hand over a wad of tickets to a well-known tout who in turn gave him a brick of fivers. I suppose it’s marginally more honest than lying on a casino floor with 50 quid notes plastered all over you, which is what certain players of certain teams do these days.
The amount of dodgy dealing that used to go on there – and in front of those immaculate Commissionaires resplendent in their starched uniforms too.
6) The Arsenal Locomotive Nameplate
I always thought that the art deco style of the famous marble halls was complemented even more by the most random item. Hands up who remembers the curved Arsenal Locomotive Nameplate with the small football underneath?
LNER, in 1936 rolled out a new class of engine. To publicise the feat they decided to name them after various football clubs. As befitting Arsenal’s status as the most well-known football club in England - some would say the world at the time, the first train off the production line was named Arsenal. On March 15 Lord Lonsdale, the Chairman of the club, unveiled the nameplate at Kings Cross station, and the engine stayed in service until it was withdrawn in 1958, upon which the nameplate was presented to the club and hung in the Marble Halls sometime after.
For those with literal trainspotting tendencies the Arsenal number was 2848. (Other prominent numbers included Leeds United 2856 and Manchester United 2862. Did I really just write that sentence?)
7) The Bloke Who Shouted “Come on you Rip-Roaring Reds” every time the game went quiet late in the second half.
I wasn’t sure if he was certifiably insane, mentally ill or just p*ssed. Either way it formed the soundtrack to my youth.
8) The advertising sign on the East Stand that read “JVC and Arsenal – The Perfect Match”
The power of marketing on impressionable minds. For years I only ever bought JVC branded electrical goods. More to the point I never drank Holsten Pils.
9) The “Make Money” women.
Arsenal’s first venture into commercialism. Women selling raffle tickets as they walked round the cinder track before games and at half time. I’m sure one prize once was a “tray of meat”. Who says the eighties wasn’t a simpler age?
10) Shouting “We’re the North Bank/We’re the Clock End/ Highbury” to each other at loud volumes.
People who talk about the “positive Matchday experience” at Arsenal these days don’t remember that going to Highbury simply used to be fun.
There is a Clock End at Ashburton Grove but that’s all it is.
An end with a Clock.
It’s not even the original.
When I sit on my padded Season Ticket seat in the silent new ground that I insist on calling the Grove, watching the latest day-tripper devour a box of Arsenal goujons, a bag full of overpriced club shop tat at their side, whilst they prod me, and demand a photo of them gurning inanely during the game with their backs to the pitch, unable to name half the current team, let alone the three statues outside - I think back to the days of supporting The Arsenal at Highbury.
And die a little death at the loss of that glorious old place.
And one thing I don’t miss….
Millwall and West Ham United always taking the North Bank
As a kid I’d always start to get worried when I came out of Arsenal tube and saw huge mobs of shifty looking blokes in the latest sports casual gear I’d never seen before, desperately trying to look inconspicuous while they walked up to the turnstiles. It never worked but I must admit as I queued for the schoolboys enclosure I would let out a sigh of relief that when it did kick off I would be able to watch it from the relative safety of the lower corner of the East Stand.
The day the ICF let off a smoke bomb at the front of the North Bank was a particular low, as were the 12,000 Lions fans who came to N5, in the infamous FA Cup game of 1987 - all of whom seemed intent on taking a piece of Highbury back to South East London with them.