Watching reserve team matches on Arsenal Player prompts fond memories, and the differences between the set up now and when I first saw them are marked. Having said that the make-up of the U-21 side that defeated Reading at Underhill was much closer to the first Arsenal reserve sides I recall in the early sixties.
Back then a Saturday when the first team were away invariably meant we would drop Mum off at my Nan’s so they could go on the razzle at Chapel market at the Angel. That gave ‘holicdad and I a chance to take a leisurely stroll up the Arsenal. No point in getting there for the start and paying a few coppers to watch the stiffs when you could walk in the exit gate at half-time for nothing.
Back then of course substitutes hadn’t even been introduced so if you weren’t in the first team and you were fit there was no point travelling with them. That meant the team that took to the field in the Football Combination, the reserve league in those days, was very much a mixture of experienced first team squad players with a sprinkling of the best youth players who had worked their way through from the junior sides in the South-East Counties and Metropolitan Leagues.
Perhaps not surprisingly the first reserve game of which I have fairly clear recollections was against the neighbours. For some reason, don’t ask me why, the name of the Tottenham goalkeeper, Johnny Hollowbread, tickled my funny bone. That was probably in 1963, about the time I have my first memories of the senior side. Throughout the sixties we would repeat that trip, entering the open gate at the Clock End, checking which way Arsenal were attacking, and if necessary walking around in front of the West Stand to get to the North Bank to be at the right end. The gate that would be shut at first team games was left open for the reserves.
The crowd was never particularly large. Obviously the derby might pull in a thousand or so, but generally a few hundred were dotted around the terraces and the lower tier of the East Stand. There was one meeting with Tottenham at the end of the decade when both sides had players returning from injury. Funnily enough I cannot recall exactly who ours was, but Tottenham fielded Jimmy Greaves up front and from memory 29,000 people turned up, which was a bigger crowd than the first team played in front of that day.
The reserves also provided me with my first memory of ‘invading’ the pitch. In the wake of a 6-1 win over West Ham to lift the Football Combination Cup in, I think, 1970 a number of lads poured onto the pitch at the end of the game. I can still recall looking around from the centre of the playing surface at the magnificent surroundings. I yearned to play their one day, and eventually got my wish, but not sadly as the free scoring centre-forward for the Gunners that roamed my imagination that sunny Saturday afternoon.
Living in the Thames Valley I would also check when the second string were away to Reading and would invariably make the trip as you could get into the centre of the main stand at the old Elm Park ground and sit right behind the bench. I still remember the ‘crowd’, such as it was, turning on one of our cockier young kids at one game there. No names, no pack drill. He didn’t make the step up to the first team anyway, but after about an hour of him getting some serious stick the bloke a couple of seats away from me leapt to his feet and informed anyone and everyone that if anybody else abused his son they would get a straightener a bit sharpish.
By that time the club had made reserve matches free to attend but my gut feel was that attendances were on the decline until the reorganisation that brought about the Premier Reserve League. The moving of fixtures to Underhill was also a smart one, and the televising of fixtures in the early days of Arsenal TV seemed to be reasonably popular as well. The new set up based loosely on an U21 age group promises to be a forward thinking step to allow a more natural progression, and regular games, for those who haven’t quite made the grade at 18 and who might have been hurried out of the door in years gone by.
It was very unusual last night for such a strong representation of senior players to be included at this level, but with Jack Wilshere, Emmanuel Frimpong, and Bacary Sagna making their recoveries, Andre Santos and Francis Coquelin getting valuable playing time, those who made the journey were rewarded with a good look at some quality players. Mind you, it is a fair bet the talking point on the way home might well have been young Serge Gnabry, if the highlights on Arsenal Player are any guide.
I must try and get up to one of these games soon. I promise not to invade the pitch this time, honest guv.
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