Football:We're (not) all going to Wembley

FAN'S EYE VIEW NO 245 HIGHBURY
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The Independent Online
"We're on the march, with Georgie's army. We're all going to Wem- ber-lee!"

Five years ago the Arsenal fans were singing this song every week. Led by the seemingly infallible George Graham, the Gunners were closing in on two Wembley finals and an unprecedented domestic cup double. They damn well did it too.

Arsenal played four times at Wembley in the 1992-3 season, beating Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final and Sheffield Wednesday in both the FA and Coca- Cola Cup finals, the former in a replay. For a lad who had stared disbelievingly at the telly as the Gunners pulled off a miraculous 3-2 win over Manchester United in the FA Cup final of 1979, being present at Wembley to see the Gunners lift the trophy in '93 was a dream fulfilled.

Now comes the Wembley nightmare: Arsenal Football Club plan to leave Highbury and make Wembley their new home. Unthinkable? To the fans, perhaps, but not, apparently, to the club's directors, who are attempting to buy the national stadium.

Arsenal's need for a stadium with a minimum capacity of 50,000 has been well documented, but until this week the majority of supporters believed that the club would eventually resolve its differences with Islington Borough Council and find a way to redevelop Highbury.

On Thursday, Arsenal confirmed that a bid for Wembley Stadium had been made. It is the worst news that Arsenal fans have heard since George Graham was sacked in February 1995.

The club insist that they wish to remain at Highbury. Fans are left wondering why plans to rebuild Highbury have been blocked, and whether relocating to Wembley is really the best option open to the club.

Highbury has been Arsenal's home since 1913. There is so much history about the place; the elegant East and West Stands, both listed buildings; the famous marble halls; the bust of the great Herbert Chapman. This grand old stadium is a big part of what makes Arsenal a great club.

Football fans love tradition. Many Arsenal fans are still mourning the loss of the old North Bank terrace, impressive as the new North Bank Stand is. To leave Highbury altogether would break many fans' hearts.

Wembley is the most famous football stadium in Britain, but would it ever feel like Arsenal's home, or would Arsenal fans feel the same disillusionment as the Wimbledon fans forced to watch their team's "home" fixtures as tenants at Selhurst Park?

The atmosphere at a Wembley cup final is something to savour, and it is conceivable that Arsenal could fill the stadium for Premiership games against the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. However, for a midweek game against Southampton, Wembley would be half full at best and, as certain England friendlies have proven, a half-empty Wembley is a soulless place.

Arsenal fans want their club to compete with Europe's best. But leaving Highbury for Wembley will not only leave Islington poorer both culturally and economically; it will also test the loyalty of the Arsenal's most devoted fans.

Ultimately, it is not the prospect of a move to Wembley that fills the supporters with dread. It is losing Highbury, a place that Arsenal fans call The Home Of Football.

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