Football: First Night - Arsenal - Highbury field forever?

Arsenal's departure from their spiritual home will have a profound impact
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The Independent Online
It has been an uncomfortable week for Arsenal fans. First they had to decamp west and south a bit on a dodgy night for London Underground to watch their team play at home in the Champions' League; then they had to digest the news that their most successful manager since Herbert Chapman had made his home in the no-go zone a mile up the road. The war cries from George Graham's press conference floated down the Tottenham High Road and echoed round the marble halls of Highbury. But the greater sense of unease stemmed not from Graham's blood transfusion - the Arsenal cells have clearly been erased - or the continued inability of their strikers to score a goal, as the long-term implications of the transition to Wembley, a concern shared for different reasons by the manager, Arsene Wenger.

Highbury is Arsenal's spiritual home and supporters able to look beyond the ends of their noses suspect the beginnings of a stealthily planned campaign to loosen the emotional guy ropes between the fans, the Clock End and the North Bank. Wembley, they believe, is a convenient and lucrative staging post to redevelopment, the first step on a road which will take Arsenal away from Highbury to a new purpose-built stadium worthy of a famous and wealthy club hosting similarly famous and wealthy clubs for the benefit, some would say, of the more famous and wealthy members of the community. Champions' League regulations regarding provision for the media, perimeter advertising and corporate hospitality had reduced the capacity of Highbury from 38,500 to 32,000. The move to Wembley, with tickets at pounds 10 or pounds 20, allowed those gazumped by Premier League prices (the most expensive ticket at Highbury costs pounds 35) to watch their team, but with Wembley being closed for refurbishment for three years from 1999, the solution can only be temporary.

An Environmental Impact Analysis is currently being carried out by an independent company to assess the feasibility of developing Highbury to 21st Century standards. The report is expected early next year, but the conclusions are already regarded by many to be foregone. Highbury is an old-fashioned inner city ground, so neatly squeezed into the neighbourhood it is almost invisible if you walk from Finsbury Park tube station down St Thomas' Road. The environmental impact of increasing the capacity to 50,000 would be incalculable and the prospect of Manchester United happily extending Old Trafford to a capacity of 67,000, a move announced to soothe fans' brows after the BSkyB takeover, only quickens the impetus for change. Arsenal cannot afford to be left behind, as their abortive bid to buy Wembley last season acknowledged.

Supporters with an acute ear for conspiracy theory might have shuddered at the propaganda spilling over the public-address system at Wembley on Wednesday. "A record home gate for Arsenal," cooed the announcer. "Congratulations to you all." And record gate receipts of over pounds 1m, though the club were coy about the exact figure. Quite what the 10,000 Greek supporters thought about their part in history is open to debate. Their high-octane support lent much needed vibrancy to the occasion, a reminder of the passions that used to flow - and too often overflow - from the terraces in the days before the Taylor Report.

Not many Arsenal fans were fooled by the notion of Wembley being home, nor should the statisticians count the gate of 73,455 - a suspicious 160 more than the previous record of 73,295 for the First Division match against Sunderland on 9 March, 1935 - as an authentic figure. Though for reasons of history and geography - Wembley and Harrow are designated by the police as Arsenal areas - Arsenal have a greater right than any other club to call Wembley a second home, no sleight of hand can justify such delusions of grandeur.

Yet Wembley, seconded to European club football for the first time since the European Cup final in 1992, cut an impressively statesmanlike figure on Wednesday evening. This was grand theatre compared to Highbury's repertory company. If Arsenal fans can feel at home anywhere, it is beneath the twin towers where they have won handsomely twice already this year. And it was BYO. Arsenal imported their own DJ to work alongside the regular Wembley announcer and the stewarding was a joint operation. The Arsenal crest beamed down in neon from the scoreboard.

"There is a strong affinity between Arsenal and Wembley," Martin Corry, the Wembley press officer, said. "It's not just geographic, it's social and personal. We hope every team that comes to Wembley feels at home, but the links with Arsenal are on a different plane. Apart from the delay to kick-off, we thought the whole evening a great success and we hope Arsenal fans did too." A letter from the club to the Wembley staff received yesterday seemed to suggest they did. It was not the club's fault that London Underground had an off night, causing the kick-off to be postponed twice and prompting an unusual flurry of anger from Wenger, who was told late about the rescheduling. At 7.45, the original time of kick-off, 30,000 people were still outside the ground. Before then, King's Cross station had been closed for a short time by the sheer volume of people heading across town.

Arsenal have been virtually assured of full houses when Dynamo Kiev and Lens come to town, and a minimum of two more fat pay days. Victory over Panathinaikos, rather harder won than it might have been, has put Arsenal in control of Group E, though not by much. At the back of Wenger's mind will be the thought of a daunting return trip to Greece in the final round of group matches. Without Denis Bergkamp in front of 70,000 in the Spiros Louis stadium, the Arsenal manager would not want to be in search of anything more ambitious than a point to qualify for the quarter-final stages.

As they showed in patches at Wembley, Panathinaikos are quick and technically gifted, quite capable of exposing Arsenal's ageing back line and the continued jitters of David Seaman. Happily for Arsenal, the traditional corner routine travelled well from Highbury, producing goals for Martin Keown and Tony Adams, but Wenger's delight at a precious home victory was tempered by the profligacy of Nicolas Anelka, the worrying anonymity of Bergkamp and, like Lens two weeks before, the sloppy concession of a late goal. "Any more like that and it can become a psychological problem," Wenger said.

The 10 extra square yards of Wembley are also a concern to Wenger. "It is physically very demanding. The extra space means it is much more difficult to win the ball back when you have lost it, particularly against a good technical side like Panathinaikos," Wenger said. "It is less easy to put the pressure on a player, you have to rely more on interceptions." Dynamo Kiev are just the sort of side to profit from the added yardage. The absence of Patrick Vieira, needlessly booked in the closing minutes on Wednesday, will not help the midfield patrol.

It is back to the favourite armchair and the battered slippers at Highbury today, against Newcastle. The Arsenal fans will be delighted to return to Dulce Domum and real home comforts. The problem is that the family house is bursting at the seams. Moving to Wembley is no longer a long- term option, but Wednesday night conjured up visions of an altogether more swanky future.