It started for me back in 1956 when I was eight years old. A friend of the family who we called uncle Norman, a Bolton fan, took me and my dad along to Highbury to see Arsenal play Bolton with the aid of some borrowed West Upper season tickets. I took my first look at the crowd, the grass, the stands and the players and was hooked. The noise when Arsenal scored was exhilarating. Instant addiction, instant love call it what you will but it was awesome and my eyes had been opened to a whole new world that was just made for me. I'd no idea really who the players were on my first visit but was told Derek Tapscott scored the first goal. Within a couple of seasons I was a dedicated regular on the North Bank, I could name our team, recognised all the players, had checked out our illustrious history, was aware of the trophies we'd won, and had found my first hero; Jack Kelsey. I even knew a bit about the opposition.
I don't really know why it was Arsenal that caught my imagination because as youngsters my mates and me would visit White Hart Lane almost as often as Highbury to get our fix of football. However living, as we did, less than two miles from both grounds allegiances were important. You could watch other teams but you could only have one you'd call your own. Somehow Highbury always had more class, and when you find the perfect match you just know instinctively that it is right for you. I've always been vaguely artistic and the symmetry of the delightful Art Deco East and West Stands has always looked spot on to my eyes. The East Stand façade especially looked to be from a different world and was obviously an very important place because it always had commissionaires in attendance. Buckingham Palace had the guardsmen and Arsenal had the commissionaires, obviously they were of equal stature. The clock always looked just so at the back of the open South Terrace and we always had floodlights along the top of the stands, which were so much neater than those crappy pylons seen elsewhere at grounds. Everything about Highbury was welcoming and yet classy with it. I was at home there almost instantly, and I've been at home there ever since.
My father wasn't a football fan; he'd played rugby and had supported the Harringay Racers Ice Hockey team before the days when he worked all the hours under the sun to bring up a young family. I played football morning, noon and night, it's what boys in North London did unless they were train spotting, running along the banks of the New River or getting into some other mischief. My mates and me would devour programmes, newspaper reports and Charlie Buchan's Football Monthly to digest all the latest football news, which was far less extensive than it is now. When we weren't up Finsbury Park or in the street kicking a ball we were playing Subbuteo on someone's front room floor, usually with the teams being Arsenal versus Real Madrid. It was acceptable to lose to Real Madrid back then because they were from another planet.
Although I wouldn't admit it Tottenham had the better team during my Junior School years and early teens. At a time when all my close friends were Arsenal supporters we had to endure the Spurs double season with great difficulty and we suffered agonies from the taunts received by Spurs fans. It left a lasting impression, which ensured that my attitude to Tottenham is forever fixed until I push up daisies.
At the time of my first match Arsenal had won seven League Championships and three F A Cups. The League Cup wasn't even a twinkle in a money-maker's eye and the European Cup was entering only its second season with a massive entry of some 22 teams. Arsenal shirts didn't even have a badge on, never mind shirt sponsorship. The edge of the terrace was separated from the moat and cinder track by a neat little iron fence because perimeter advertising was at the time unheard of. Shorts were vast and socks contained massive shin pads to ward off the boots which were more akin to the boots of a coal miner than a ballet dancer. The stewards wore a club tie and an armband to distinguish them from the rest of the crowd. The half time score boards were as you may have observed this season and the dugouts resembled a pair of Victorian green houses. Fans in these days were standing along both sides of the ground, in front of the limited lower tier seating and of course at both ends.
The players wore numbers one to eleven because substitutes were a thing of the future and squad numbers were decades away. Although players tended to wear the same shirt number fairly regally there were many that sported a variety of numbers from week to week, according to which position they might be playing. A right back was always number 2 and a centre forward was always number 9. 7 and 11 were for wingers and there always seemed to be out and out wingers whichever teams were playing at Highbury.
I never had to buy a match ticket, in fact I never even saw a match ticket for years. We just turned up and paid at the heavy clanking turnstiles. Although for the bigger games you had to get there early if you wanted a decent spot. For local derbies you sometimes had to get there really early if you even wanted to get in. The bogs were horrendous, the terrace fare consisted of roasted peanuts and great drifts of cigarette smoke perpetually drifted down the terraces. Safety gangways that were kept clear of fans, additional crush barriers, undersoil heating, a decent pitch, a decent PA system, piped music and good football were all things that would come in due course but were not around at the time. There were one or two women at games despite being few and far between but it was quite rare to see young girls. Most of the blokes attending in the late fifties seemed to wear hats.
It was possible to walk from one end of the ground to the other, and many did at half time. For smaller crowds, and we had a good few of those, fans could stand under umbrellas when it rained without impeding anyone's view because there were often huge gaps on the terraces. Few people wore colours other than maybe a rosette for Cup-ties and possibly a red and white bar style scarf. There was no Club shop and the hawkers selling favours (colours) stood outside the ground with portable stands. Enamel Club badges were also on sale but the choice of styles was limited, my very first was that the of the Arsenal Supporters club. The only thing remotely resembling a fanzine was the Supporters Club's ‘Gunflash' magazine but it was nowhere as lively or comprehensive as it is today.
There were no colour photos in the slim programmes although if you were lucky you might see four fairly nondescript black and white photos from a previous match. Telephoto close ups of players in action had yet to arrive. Television highlights programmes and even live radio broadcasts were something for the future. There was hardly any football on TV and live TV games were limited to the Cup Final and England Internationals. Which is why the Cup Final is still regarded as such a big deal. It was always a big deal because it was the only game you ever saw on the telly. Not that we even had a telly when I first going to Highbury (cue the classic Monty Python sketch).
Sunday papers were essential for all football fans. But news of results was gleaned from the radio on a Saturday night or a choice of evening papers that rushed out a late football classified edition. They could do special classified papers every Saturday because football was universally played with a three o'clock kick off on that very day for the entire professional game. That's why the sight of three p.m. on our famous clock is still so nostalgic for so many punters. You'd spend maybe an hour on the terraces sitting down on cold concrete waiting for the big hand to creep around to the twelve. It was always the most magic minute of the week.
Prior to kick off we endured the Metropolitan Police Band playing a variety of marches and a few unpopular ditties that the bandleader or some old tosser in the board room thought enjoyable. At half time the band tramped up and down on an already knackered pitch and made the surface even worse. Only if it was already an unplayable quagmire would they be made to stay off the pitch. Le Boss would have gone mental. Back then however most of the season was played out on mud and sand rather than lush grass. Mainly because the Football Combination matches (reserves) and sometimes Metropolitan League (third team) games were also played at Highbury. Not to mention the later rounds of the South-East Counties Cup (youth team).
Since those austere, happy, days of half empty terraces when tickets and forward planning were never a problem we've had a footballing revolution and I've had the honour to see probably over half the first team matches ever played at The Home of Football. I don't know how many exactly but it's at least a thousand first team games. It has been a wondrous journey during which I haven't missed an F A Cup tie at Highbury for decades and have missed, so far as I recall, just one European match of all those ever played at THOF. I count myself very privileged.
Football for me changed beyond all recognition when I got to see Real Madrid play Eintracht Frankfurt live on the box in the European Cup Final. Like many others who viewed on that night I realised football could also be an art form. Watching it again now the game seems to have been played at half pace, but at the time Real Madrid were light years ahead of anything we'd seen in real life in English football. That's why my trip to the Bernabeu this season was a pilgrimage to the footballing Mecca and why the result meant so much to so many old time fans such as myself. Europe and later world football has revolutionised Arsenal in stages. The revolution started with Chapman, before even my time, but thankfully continues with Wenger.
I'm lucky because I've stood and sat in every single area of both the old and revamped ground that is know to one and all as Highbury, except the boxes. The North Bank is still my spiritual home but I'm happy to hurl abuse at officials from my current West Lower Stand seat. After the terraces erupted into regular open warfare in the mid-seventies I spent a few years towards the back of the East Lower with a pillar box view. Later I took time out along the East and West sides with my kids in the Junior Gunners sections and finally moved to my current position when the mural came down. We've always sat somewhere different for League Cup games because Highbury is a very special place and deserves to be seen from all angles. It has to be savoured from every aspect.
Highbury has played a unique part in my life and will always rank as one of the most special places in the entire world I've ever visited. It's one of the few places in the world where I've undergone what can only be described as a religious experience and holds far too many wonderful memories for me to note down here. The flip side is that I have of course also seen it through some pretty gritty times, with the Billy Wright era featuring high on that list. I know I'll hardly be unique in missing the old girl but I think her of her as being very much my own personal patch of North London. It's my place, my home patch that I've shared with many generations of family and friends for almost fifty years. It was my Granddad's patch before it was mine just as it was Chapman's before it was Wenger's.
My, or should I say our, second home will be fulfilling its final function of note this Sunday and it's going to be a difficult day to endure for us all. But hasn't it been a marvellous place in which to enjoy the beautiful game and haven't we all been so supremely lucky to be part of it. My intention is to think of the afternoon as a celebration of great times past, a series of memories that can never be eroded. At some point I know I'll crack up but hopefully I can still enjoy the wake along with all the other members of the Arsenal family in our fabulous old home for the final time.