Book Review: 'Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N5'

Last updated : 02 May 2006 By Brian Dawes
It's from Ted Drake, one of the numerous Highbury Legends contributing to this volume and he put it like this: ‘For all the thirties grandeur of Highbury it's still only bricks and mortar at the end of the day. Magnificent stands provide the backdrop to a splendid house. But it's the people within – the fans and players – that have made Highbury a marvellous home for the Arsenal'. And for me that is really what Highbury is all about.

I've visited and worshipped at the stadium on a regular basis for nearly fifty years now and have invariably regarded it as my second home. I've always felt comfortable there and it's always been so much more than just a place to watch a game of football. It's that rarest of places that you just know was meant specifically for you personally the first time you view the lush turf and the admire the symmetry of the classic east and west stands. You may share it with thousands of fellow fans and the generations of Arsenal followers who preceded you, but Highbury is your spiritual home. The history of the place grabs you by the throat in a way that compels you to learn all there is to know about all the great players who've ever graced the hallowed turf. Highbury is an ongoing home shared by players and fans alike and each cares for the place with their own personal memories.

On another level it's more inspiring than many of the great cathedrals of Europe, the imposing East Stands rises from amongst the most improbable North London terraced setting and yet that somehow makes the grandeur all the more accessible. Highbury is about so much more than the bricks and mortar as Ted Drake so aptly put it and in this book Jon Spurling probably gets as close to capturing that essence as it's possible to do in black and white.

When you think of all the people involved with Highbury both over the years and on any particular match day the numbers are massive and their involvement amazingly diverse. Although there is much interesting stuff to be found in the book on the Stadium building itself and the playing surface, which has transformed from the late ‘80's swamp to the pristine bowling green of recent years, it is the people that make the place what it is and what it has been. This is the essence of the author's approach and as a result he's produced an Arsenal history of a type that is unlike any other in my ever expanding Arsenal book collection. This is an admirable volume that I'm certain will endure the test of time and should stand as a very worthy historical social record.

Commencing with a very much warts and all section on the man who made it all possible, namely Sir Henry Norris, this volume goes on to explain the principle reasons Spurs hate Arsenal before following a decade by decade approach to the many trials, tribulations and triumphs of Highbury and the Club. The coverage is ambitiously extensive in that it even encompasses such diverse individuals as the builders of the original ground, fanzine editors, a noxious tout, groundsmen, commissionaire, a lawyer acting against Arsenal's move to the ‘Wengerdome', AISA, ICS opposition to move, programme sellers and many more. Prominence however is afforded to the fans eye view and the players who've made it all happen. Players have been interviewed over a number of years going back as far as George Male and Ted Drake, via Joe Baker and Gerry Ward and through to Edu and Patrick Vieira. Over forty in all have contributed whilst others have been quoted, as have managers and coaches. Contributions from fans are also rife and hold back few punches. The quotes include a plethora of gems, are usually extremely pertinent and certainly put Highbury's progression into perspective. They are also used to pinpoint the vast majority of the key moments in its history to good effect. But I've deliberately not included any of the numerous and sometimes delightful one-liners dropped in throughout the text, simply because to do so might spoil your pleasure.

Apart form all the individuals, as mentioned above, the book also manages to cover such diverse topics as St Totteringham's day, cult heroes, the pitch, the Invincibles, racism, multiculturalism, foreign players and the ‘y' word. There are sections on those responsible for singing and chanting, our wartime absence, hooligans, visiting fans, terrace punch ups, ghosts, boo boys, the mural, the demise of the North Bank, the planning the new North Bank, consultations or the lack of them, right on through to RedAction and how Highbury's replacement stadium came about.

Some would argue that a building cannot have a soul; I'd beg to differ and would suggest that Jon Spurling has found it.

Rebels For The Cause : The Alternative History of Arsenal Football Club
Jon Spurling
Published by Orion
Price £18.99

You should be able to order this title from any decent bookstore if you quote the following reference number ISBN 0 75287 344 X or no doubt your favourite online bookstore will no doubt also oblige and Amazon have it available for £12.53 at the time of writing.