It is another of my old Arsenal-Land pieces that kicks off the close season, with thanks to Darren as usual. This appreciation of Highbury was originally penned in the week leading up to the Farewell to Highbury fixture against Wigan Athletic, relived by so many in the weekend just gone. It is my intention to produce a new weekly historical post during the summer.
I am told that if you had asked any football fan in the decades that preceded and followed the Second World War, ‘What is the most recognisable stadium in the game?’ the answer would invariably have been ‘Highbury’. What follows is an appreciation of one of football’s most famous theatres.
The story of how Arsenal came to be in N5 is a fascinating tale of intrigue and suspicion. In season 1912-13 Arsenal finished bottom of the first division after winning just three of their thirty-eight matches, and it was rumoured that the club’s bank balance had plunged to just £19. Henry Norris, later knighted, had taken over Woolwich Arsenal two years previously and failed in an attempt to merge them with Fulham. The problems facing the club have a familiar ring with many today. Rising transfer fees and falling gates made a move to a more populated area the only chance of survival. As the Mayor of Fulham, and later the Member of Parliament for Fulham East, Norris cultivated ‘influential’ acquaintances. He was able to persuade the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and an old friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury no less, to lease the playing fields of St. John’s College of Divinity for a twenty-one year term in return for just £20,000. Arsenal moved into the catchment area of Tottenham Hotspur and Clapton Orient. Crucially though the site, and nearby transport links, were closer to central London than either of its new neighbours.
Arsenal now faced a race to build the stadium in time for the new season. The builders, under the supervision of architect Archibald Leitch, made sufficient progress to enable the Gunners to kick off the 1913-14 home campaign against Leicester Fosse with a 2-1 win. A measure of the task was that the pitch had to be raised eleven feet at one end, and lowered by five feet at the other. A new stand, designed to house 9,000 spectators was not completed until later in the season, and for the first few games the players washed in bowls of water, pending completion of the changing rooms. The most famous tale of the construction, since dismissed as a myth, was that whilst tipping hardcore into the foundations of the North Bank a horse (complete with cart) backed into the cavernous pit and was buried alive.
Following the intervention of the First World War Norris was able to ‘engineer’ Arsenal’s return to the First Division and in 1920 the ground hosted its first international fixture. The arrival of Herbert Chapman as manager in 1925 heralded the rise of Arsenal to the pinnacle of the game. In the same year Arsenal paid a further £64,000 to buy the Highbury site outright. The purchase enabled Arsenal to play matches on the ground on Good Friday and Christmas Day. A condition of the original lease had prevented this from happening.
The 1930-31 season saw Arsenal clinch their first Championship with a 3-1 home win over Liverpool. As Arsenal’s fortunes were in the ascendancy, so the stadium began to take on the appearance we would recognise today. In 1932 the impressive £50,000 West Stand, with 4,000 seats constructed over a 17,000 capacity terrace was completed. The unique design of architect Claude Waterlow Ferrier, in association with William Binnie, was the symbol of the ‘Bank of England club’, as Arsenal were then known. Ever the innovator, Herbert Chapman insisted that the new stand should be equipped with floodlights to be used for training. His persuasion of London Transport into renaming the Gillespie Road underground station to Arsenal was even more forward looking and inspired.
On 9th March, 1935, a record 73,295 spectators witnessed the league match with title rivals Sunderland, the resulting draw contributing to the Gunners third consecutive League Championship. In the close season of 1935 a cover was erected over the North Stand, which led to the move of the now famous clock to the southern end of the ground. 1936 saw the completion of the new East Stand at a cost of £130,000. Almost identical on the playing side to its ‘opposite neighbour’, the art deco style structure included 8,000 seats in two tiers, and the most luxurious facilities in the game. The famous marble halls were decorated with a bust of the sadly deceased Chapman, and the changing rooms incorporated under floor heating.
During the final season before the outbreak of the Second World War, Highbury was to bear witness to another ‘first’. In the final home league match against Brentford the visitors wore white shirts and the match scenes were shot as part of ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’, a film based on Leonard Gribble’s novel of the same name. Later that summer Highbury became the set for the completion of the movie.
From 1939 to 1945 Highbury was converted into a home for Air Raid Wardens and used as a first-aid post. Barrage balloons were sighted on the training pitch behind the Clock End. This made the site a ‘legitimate target’ for enemy bombers. Two R.A.F ground crew were killed when the South terracing was hit by a 1000 pound bomb. Incendiary devices collapsed the cover of the North Bank, which would not be rebuilt until 1956. The ground was sufficiently restored for home matches in 1946-47, and was chosen to host football during the 1948 Olympic Games. Three years later ‘match’ floodlights were installed on the roof of both East and West stands and first used for a match between teams representing boxers and jockeys! 50,000 watched Arsenal’s first floodlit contest with Hapoel of Israel. Shortly afterwards 10.000 were locked out when Glasgow Rangers were invited for this novel evening experience.
In 1964 under soil heating was installed to ensure that the pitch was playable year round. During the preceding season Arsenal had made their bow in European competition, hosting Staevnet of Copenhagen before bowing out to Royal Liege in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Two years later another top sporting event came to the Arsenal Stadium as avid Gunner, Henry Cooper, attempted unsuccessfully to defeat Muhammad Ali in a non-title heavyweight boxing contest. In 1969 an additional 5,200 seats were installed in the lower West Stand, just in time to witness Arsenal’s first European trophy. The European Fairs Cup of 1969-70 was captured with a 3-0 defeat of Anderlecht in the home leg, following a 3-1 away defeat.
It was not only spectator facilities that were being improved. The old training pitch behind the Clock End found itself converted into an indoor training centre and car park. In later years this centre would also provide a popular community venue. The days of the Clock End as an uncovered terrace came to an end in 1989, as the current construction of executive boxes and additional offices were added. Four years later the seating was installed in two phases. The remaining terracing in front of the East and West stands was also converted to seating by this time.
The redevelopment of the North Bank, in the art deco style of it’s older neighbours, took just over a year from May 1992 to August 1993, during which time the backdrop was provided by a never to be forgotten mural of an artist’s impression of the finished stand. One of the most famous ‘ends’ in the country was replaced by the 12.000 capacity, two tier construction under architect Rod Sheard of the Lobb partnership, and mainly financed by the controversial ‘bond scheme’. When the all seating schemes, required by the Taylor report, were complete the capacity of the famous old stadium had been cut to under 39,000.
The advent of the Premiership, the Champions League, and digital televisions millions led to the inevitable investigation into a new larger home. Successfully filling Wembley for the early Champions League matches strengthened the argument for a bigger base. Watching the resulting elevation of the Ashburton Grove site has filled all with confidence for a healthy future. However, for at least one more generation, the spiritual home of this fabulous football club will always be Highbury. How good it is to see the main East and West structures, listed buildings both, and the playing area, being sympathetically incorporated into a new and lasting design for its future.
The atmosphere of days gone by has been recaptured during the farewell season. That Highbury feeling has always been more than just the bricks and mortar. The old half-time scoreboards that stretched around the south-east and north-west corners of the ground. The Metropolitan Police band and Constable Alex Morgan singing his heart out. The ‘Make money with Arsenal’ girls of the seventies and eighties. The terrace vendor with his sack, and piercing cry of ‘peanuts’. On and on the memories go. How fitting that the last few seasons of an iconic venue should have witnessed the teams created by Arsene Wenger. I think Norris and Chapman would have approved.
Thank you for your time.