Wednesday, October 5, 2022

When i think of Highbury

When I think of Highbury, I think of a perfect marriage between architecture and innovation. Somewhere that at once feels homely, but awe inspiring. I think of the art deco design that instantly conferred history and greatness on the place, the preserved 1930s typography that remained in the east and west stands until the old ground closed its doors in 2006.

When I think of Highbury, I think of the Marble Halls [which were predominantly made from Terrazzo] and that intoxicating red and cream façade. I think of Jacob Epstein’s bust of Herbert Chapman, initially a solemn monument to his premature death in January 1934, at the height of his managerial powers. Over the years, as that grief passed into history, it morphed into a tribute to the club and the ground that he shaped, Highbury’s guardian angel preserved forever in bronze.

When I think of Highbury, I think of the commissionaires at the East Stand entrance, decked out resplendently in their uniforms, doffing their caps to all who entered. I think of the instantly recognisable screens in the east and west stand upper tiers, designed to shield spectators from London’s unforgiving elements. I think of the concrete rendering at the front of the east and west stands to give the illusion of the drape of a theatre curtain over a grand balcony.

When I think of Highbury, I think of tradition. ‘It smells of tradition’, Dennis Bergkamp once remarked. I think of the flowers in the boardroom dyed in the colours of the visiting team on matchdays. I try to put myself in the mind of the opposition and how intimidating it must have been to step into those Marble Halls and pass the gaze of Chapman. I think of how seductive it must have been for a new signing come to talk terms.

When I think of Highbury, I think of Avenell Road and the large dressing room windows that overlooked it from above the famous East Stand facade. I think of Ian Wright and others opening them up after a great result and celebrating with the fans filing out of the stadium towards the tube station or their cars. I think of a stadium nestled tightly into its surrounding streets, woven into the fabric of its community.

When I think of Highbury, I think of the history. I think of the great nights that occurred long before I was born- of winning the league on goal average on a sodden Friday night in May, 1953, of beating Anderlecht 3-0 in the Fairs Cup Final in 1970, of Liam Brady swaggering around the grass with his socks down and his shirt untucked.

When I think of Highbury, I think of Constable Alex Morgan and the Metropolitan Police Band that played on the pitch at half-time for over two decades [again, before I was born]. I think of the oak panelled boardrooms, of Henry Norris’ five-legged chair, embossed with the Arsenal crest. The extra leg allowed him to tip his chair in board meetings, which, he said, helped him to think. The chair remains in the Arsenal boardroom to this day.

When I think of Highbury, I think of that night against Manchester United in May 1991, when “you can stick your fucking two points up your arse” bounced triumphantly off the walls of the old stadium, as the Gunners celebrated another league title. [I wasn’t there that night, my first trip to Highbury came ten months later, but I watched on TV and marvelled at the gratuitous swearing].

When I think of Highbury, I think of Leeds at home on the 22nd March, 1992, my first trip to the stadium. I think of arriving two hours before kickoff with my mum because I was so nervous about being late. I remember the eye-catching simplicity of it all, red and white seats set against brilliant green grass. I recall constantly checking to my right from the west stand upper tier and down onto the travelling Leeds fans as they stirred with a quiet menace.

When I think of Highbury, I think of the West Stand Lower tier, where I sat for eight years in the Family Enclosure. I think of the impossible closeness we had to the pitch, with no advertising hoardings separating us from the grass, where Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn would often end up sprawled out beneath us within touching distance after another sliding tackle. Sometimes, if we were lucky, they would take the opposition winger with them on their journey.

I still think of that West Stand entrance, in its iconic red and white candy stripe design with the words ‘Arsenal Football Club’ spaced out beneath the window-panes, the cannon stylishly separating the words like a punctuation mark. Highbury instantly brings to mind the classic cannon designs, as well as the beautiful 1930s crest, with the letter A, a football and the letter C framed together inside a hexagon.

When I think of Highbury, I think of the Clock End, where I spent the last six years of the stadium’s life. When I turned 16, it was my own private graduation from the family enclosure, to block 19 of the Clock End, perched tantalisingly on the barrier that separated the home and away fans. My mind takes me back to greeting every goal with a glare to my left and how every concession was met by turning my head decidedly to the right. I think of that iconic clock suspended above my head.

I think of being moved into the North Bank for FA Cup games, when increased away allocations meant we had to migrate. I think of the unspoken rivalry between the Clock End and the North Bank fans and how we always raised our game when sat together and how thrilling it felt to answer climb to my feet and sing ‘we’re the Clooooock End, we’re the Cloooooock End, we’re the Clock End Highbury!” from the padded seats of the North Bank lower.

When I think of Highbury, I think, not just of the stadium’s history, but my own. I first visited Highbury 14 years before its closure. It’s now 14 years since that emotional departure. I think of growing up there, of the memories that are, essentially, bookmarks in my life. I remember Kevin Campbell’s winning goal against PSG in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup semi-final, my first game under the lights at Highbury.

When I think of Highbury, I think of the memories. I think of Tony Adams put through by Steve Bould, I think of Thierry Henry gliding the length of the pitch to score against Spurs, then making the return journey to celebrate in front of the Tottenham fans. I think of those nail-biting wins against Derby in April 1998 and against Ipswich and West Ham in 2002, when you could smell another title was coming and the stadium clenched its stomach muscles in unison.

When I think of Highbury, I think of Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against West Brom in April 2006. My sister had finally caught the family Arsenal bug in her teens when she saw Bergkamp play in the flesh for the first time. It was the final time she visited the ground with me and the perfect send-off. I think of those Champions League nights in 2006, when the final whistle sounded against Real Madrid and the stadium rocked to its foundations.

When I think of Highbury, I think of Thierry Henry, of Dennis Bergkamp, of David Rocastle, of Ian Wright and of Tony Adams. I think of the Invincibles and I think of Reeeeeyyyyeeeeeeees! [STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS!] I think of family, of taking my nephew for the first time, of going with my granddad for the last time. When I think of Highbury, I think of Arsenal and when I think of Arsenal, I still think of Highbury.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– or like my page on Facebook

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