In the here and now, all thoughts about Arsenal Football Club are concentrated around the uncertainty generated by their inconsistent first team. Can they finish the job and beat Real Madrid? Can they overcome their abject away form and qualify for next season's Champion League? Will Thierry Henry sign a new contract? These are the questions that gnaw away at the minds of both uncertain Arsenal fans and interested spectators looking for a dose of soap opera.
The bigger picture is that Arsenal are soon to leave their home of 93 years for a new ground. In the process, London is losing one of its most distinctive and cherished stadia and the club's supporters will see their relationship with the club changed forever.
Big changes, big themes. How best to get a grip on them? Perhaps a good starting point would be to talk to someone who knows an awful lot about the ground. To that end, we caught up with Bruce Smith , Arsenal supporter and author of 'Highbury - The Story of Arsenal Stadium'.
Hello Mr Smith, could you tell us a little bit about yourself please?
Born and bred in Bethnal Green E2, I consider my self a proper ‘Cockney’ and I guess by rights I should have supported West Ham United – but it didn’t turnout that way despite spending many of my formative years around Whitechapel and pubs such as The Blind Beggar. I always wanted to write and so pursued that path pretty much to this day – have had around 100 books published around the world and on topics from computers to sport. I worked freelance on TV and BBC radio for a while – was part of C4’s The Big Breakfast Team during the 1998 World Cup - playing the ‘stato’ role as Monitor Man. I have an unhealthy love of stadiums and events and have worked in this field for well over 15 years. I guess these days I am a freelance Project Manager/Consultant in the venue and event industry and obviously still tackle the odd writing task! I am a member of the Football Writers Association (FWA), and an Arsenal Bond and season ticket holder. I currently live in Sydney, Australia - moved here in 2004 to get married to an Australian girl who is now my wife – Melanie. Would love to get involved in the 2012 Olympics at some point in the next couple of years as it will be staged in my part of London Town – that would be a real great homecoming!
What is your relationship with Highbury?
Totally love, love, love. In my work I see many venues around the world and only two remain stuck in my memory because of their sheer splendour. One is the All-England Club in Wimbledon and the other is Highbury. Both these palaces give me a special feeling when I wander around them. (I hate tennis by the way!)
Arsenal started off in Plumstead, so how did they end up in north London?
Basically to avoid going out of existence – Highbury itself was a big gamble that came within a whisker of failing. Indeed if an Edwardian bounder by the name of Henry Norris hadn’t taken his investment north the Arsenal of today simply would not exist. With no transport in the Plumstead area fans were going to other clubs and so were the better players. Norris tried to move the Woolwich Arsenal – as they were known then – in with Fulham but it was vetoed. So Norris, learning the transport lesson, looked along the new Underground lines and found some land at Gillespie Road. It couldn’t have been a worse start though – the club was relegated to Division Two at the end of their last season in Plumstead and so the new beginning at Arsenal Stadium was in the second division. And to make matters worse the following year war was declared and there was no football for almost four years! It was amazing the club survived at all, but it did and after muscling Tottenham out in the committee rooms after war hospitalities ceased Arsenal were ‘promoted’ to Division One and there they have remained ever since.
What do you think makes Highbury different from other grounds and why should we mourn its passing?
There is the physical aspect for one – Highbury is very distinctive and the East and West Stands with their art deco opulence are unique in world football. Show any football fan a small section of one of those stands and they’ll snap back ‘Highbury’. There is nothing like them externally and internally. Even traditional old style football grounds are fading fast as clubs rebuild, re-furbish and so forth. Plus tradition – so much special history has passed at Highbury – not just on the pitch but off it as well where the creative likes of people such as Herbert Chapman implemented new concepts that day we take from granted. Things like shirt numbering, turnstile counters, European football – the list goes on. Thankfully Highbury will largely remain in character after the club relocates across the road and so the structure of the Home of Football will remain as a lasting monument to everything that went on their. There are no plans that I know of but there really should have been a museum dedicated to Highbury built within in the old stadium.
Are the marble halls really as opulent as they sound? Should there be a bust of George Graham as well as one of Herbert Chapman?
There is only one’ Marble Hall’ as such even though it is often referred to in the plural. Sadly it is not as opulent as it once was. Even a look outside the front gates these days shows much of the exterior brass work missing – maybe in the hands of souvenir hunters? Many of the offices that packed in around the hall entrance have been relocated into extensions elsewhere so the hustle and bustle has gone from when I remember it as a kid. However, the stairwell is wonderful and leads into a first floor of mahogany doored offices which are just wonderful to look at. Thankfully the Marble Hall will remain as the entrance to the new apartments and so will the bust of Herbert Chapman – not being moved from when it has sat for 70-odd years and will no doubt keep his ghost company.
Definitely not in favour of a bust of Graham , no one can deny he is not one of the all-time greats in management terms but he left under a cloud and will be forever tainted by the bung scandal. Chapman also go his immortality because of what he achieved off the pitch. Wenger would be a good candidate in the future and I am sure the club will do something when his time comes to pass.
Aesthetically, what pleases you most about the ground?
I guess I answered that earlier – the uniqueness of the art deco East and West stands. As a kid I was also always absolutely fascinated by the fact that the floodlights were on the top of these stands – every other ground at the time seemed to have them on pylons.
Is there anything about the ground that you don't like?
The awful ‘three storey house’ addition to the end of the East Stand - an absolute carbuncle. The South Stand also is pretty dire and was a quick fix way of getting some corporate space into the stadium. Tin city and it shows. Thankfully the North Stand was designed and built with due respect for what else was around it.
The North Bank mural. It was pretty bad wasn't it?
I think it was a fun addition to the ground for a while. Not sure what else you could do – I guess most people would say it made as much noise at the North Stand does today! Did you know that when it was unveiled a keen-eyed person noted there were only white males in the painting? The club quickly got the artist to correct the error. The artist said that he had included ethnic faces but they had faded in the printing process – maybe to get his own back he also added a Manchester United supporter as well!
Is Highbury on match days as quiet as opposing fans make out?
Sadly I think it is. There is no doubt that putting people in seats makes them less boisterous and I also think the Arsenal clan seem to be strangely reserved. That said I have been at Highbury in recent times when it has literally rocked. I recall the whole North Bank upper tier shaking during the celebrations for the 1998 title – in fact the stadium management were so worried about the bounce of the stand they turned the music off in an effort to stop people bouncing to the beat! True! Its crazy really because I always feel Arsenal supporters make more nopise away from home than at Highbury.
Now for some Hornby-esque list-making. Your top three Highbury moments please.
Okay, the three most memorable games at Highbury that I have experienced would be:
Arsenal v Anderlecht – Fairs Cup Final,- 28 April 1970
Arsenal v Leicester City, FA Premier League - 15 May 2004
Arsenal v Everton, FA Premier League, 12 May 2005
Number One, Arsenal v Anderlecht was what I regard as Highbury’s Greatest Night – coming from behind to win the Fairs Cup (now UEFA Cup) – the clubs first trophy for 17 years was fantastic. The atmosphere was unbelievable and even though I was a young lad at the time I still get goose bumps thinking about it.
Number Two, Arsenal v Leicester City – we came from behind to win 2-1 and it meant we had gone the entire league season unbeaten. A truly remarkable achievement and one that even Chelsea may never achieved despite the millions they are spending on stopping over clubs getting players.
Number Three, Arsenal v Everton. The last game Arsenal played at Highbury in red and white shorts but more memorable for the scoreline – 7-0 – and more so for the football. It was simply the best display I have ever seen.
Which player would you choose as the ultimate darling of the North Bank?
Charlie George! A local lad and someone who had grown up at the club on the North bank as well.
Any little-known facts about the ground that you think we should know?
Could tell you a billion I expect. Most people are mazing to find out the original ground took just 60 working days to complete. So from putting the initial shovel in the turf to have a stadium with terracing that was fit to house 20,000 people on the opening day – just 60 days. Of course the ground wasn't finished – the original East Stand took to almost the end of the season! In those early days The Islington Gazette started a campaign to have the stadium called ‘Gillespie Road Stadium’. ‘Highbury’ just came about in matter of conversation. Not all Herbert Chapman’s ideas were good – thankfully the Board turned down his proposal to have a cycling track built around the pitch..
If you could keep one part of the ground as a piece of memorabilia, what would that part be?
The Highbury Hill entrance – wonderful example of art deco.
A bit deep this one, but how will Arsenal leaving Highbury affect the club's relationship with the city?
Maybe a bit too deep for me! The club is only moving into the next street but I feel it will be the impact going forward as much as what has happened in the past. If this works Arsenal will become one of the richest clubs in the world – and I mean top five – and that will elevate its standing, but will leave it with a stadium without history and tradition. Just how well the two start to come together and go forward will be interesting. In many respects this is a new beginning for the club – and for similar reasons to those sought by Henry Norris 93 years previous.
Bruce, thank you for your time.
Thanks to Bruce Smith and Lindsay Farquharson of Mainstream Publishing.