It brought a smile to the face, reading tales of Dads dropping off and collecting their offspring at the weekend’s sleepover on the pitch for the Junior Gunners. It must be a terrific treat for the youngsters, and one only possible at this time of year with the pitch awaiting relaying after the Coldplay concerts in a couple of weeks.
During the season proper at any time of any day if you wander onto the playing surface you face being hooked very quickly. It is only with reluctance that groundsman Paul Ashcroft accepts the right of the two teams to warm up on the playing surface before games. Other than that only he and his staff get to venture onto the brilliant green carpet. Quite right too.
During the last few years the surface at Highbury was protected similarly. However, although I have only ventured a yard or two onto the hallowed turf at the Grove, I did have the good fortune to get a good look at the famous stands of our spiritual home a few times from the pitch. The first time, and I stand ready to be corrected about the year, was 1969, I think.
The occasion was the Football Combination Cup Final, our reserve team against West Ham reserves. Being only twelve I was only allowed to travel to London games on the train, and so I decided to watch the mixture of kids and old pros lift a Cup with, again if memory serves, a 6-1 win. A couple of thousand turned up to witness it, I suppose, and at the final whistle most of us climbed over the fences and ran onto the pitch.
What do twelve year olds do in such circumstances? I’ll tell you. They pretend to be Peter Storey and trip the eleven year olds. They imagine themselves to be John Radford smashing a half-volley into the roof of the net in front of the North Bank. Then as finally the one commissionaire in the place strolls on to attempt to evict the ‘invaders’ they have a good look around at what the place looks like to the fortunate few who have the privilege of pulling on a red and white shirt and get paid for it.
The next pitch invasion was another high-spirited affair after we had beaten Anderlecht to lift the European Fairs Cup on that unforgettable night in May 1970. The by now just a teenaged ‘holic needed to remain by the side of the driver, ‘holicdad, at the back of the Clock End to witness one of the great celebrations.
There were a handful of incursions in the seventies and eighties, and not always as harmless as those I have already described. I had by 1981 had the chance to look around the old girl on a couple of official tours, so was becoming old hat at viewing the place from the inside. However my second, and last, Highbury pitch invasion followed the final home match of the season. We defeated title-chasing Aston Villa 2-0, but Ipswich were beaten 2-1 by Middlesbrough, so the Brummies won the main prize. Onto the pitch they came from a packed Clock End to celebrate, onto the pitch we poured from the North Bank to join them in their happiness, but somewhere along the line I turned into Peter Storey again. A story best left for another day perhaps. Spirits were high and no real harm was done.
I last set foot on the magical patch of North London shortly after the Highbury Farewell in 2006. The annual Supporters Clubs Fives tournament. 49 or not I was going to be there. To cut a very long story short non-stop rain and heavy demands had turned the lush green carpet into a mudbath. The tournament was washed out and replaced by a penalty shoot-out in front of the North Bank. Those teams waiting to play sat behind the goal and cheered on those having their moment of glory.
I can still see me being invited to walk forward from the running track onto the pitch to ‘spot-up’. I was already old enough to have a good look around as I prepared to hit my one attempt at scoring a proper goal at what had been a second home for me throughout my life. Thirty years earlier I was a master of the ‘Storey’ penalty, Approach as if to hit the ball into the bottom left, open the body at impact and sidefoot it into the opposite corner.
Now I know this might sound a little silly now, but because of the situation we had not had the opportunity to practice. Thus I ambled up to the ball with a vision of a twenty year old ‘holic producing that last minute contortion of the skeleton to thoroughly befuddle a hopelessly beaten ‘keeper. Instead the almost half-centurion, in the attempt to open his stance at impact, felt a creak and heard a crack as backbone refused to obey brain and my attempt for the bottom right hand corner set off more centrally than planned.
It is at this point that I have to offer up thanks to goalkeepers everywhere, but in particular the one who faced me that day. I would like to think that, completely thrown by the gyrating geriatric in front of him, he guessed wrong and threw himself to his right to save the piledriver that was surely thundering his way. Instead a less than crisply struck effort bobbled across the top of the mud, skidding apologetically into the centre of the goal. I’m pretty sure the custodian had time to get up, throw himself back to his left, and make a comfortable save. Instead he took pity on the creature now cavorting around in front of a slightly less than packed North Bank milking the adulation of the assembled few.
The urge to pull on the boots one more time has, rather sensibly, been cast to one side since that day. Is there a better way to bow out than plant your last serious effort in the net at Highbury? Of course not. The kids at the weekend will never forget camping on the pitch at the Grove, and this big kid will always have that one last goalscoring memory at God’s stadium.
I wish I had bought that ‘keeper a pint. I wonder if he will ever understand the depth of my gratitude?
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