Football: Highbury's growing pains

Arsenal's London palace is too small for a club aiming to join the kings of Europe.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ARSENAL may or may not set up home beneath Wembley's Twin Towers, but one thing is plain. They have outgrown Highbury. This is a club which measures itself not against Chelsea or even Spurs. The yardstick is Manchester United, or the foreign aristocrats like Milan, Bayern or Real Madrid - and for a club that sees itself as a founder member of any European Super League the comparison is shaming.

San Siro in Milan holds 75,000, Old Trafford 56,000, and Highbury just 38,000. United's turnover of pounds 88m for the 1996-97 season eclipsed Arsenal's pounds 27.2m; its gate receipts, at pounds 30m, were three times as great. Very quickly, this translates into the power to pay the wages needed to maintain a top- class squad. Ultimately Arsenal will simply be unable to compete.

Basically there are four options: do nothing (and invite second-class status); adopt a minimalist "fill-in-the-corners" solution at Highbury, that would lift capacity to 45,000 but leave the ground's "footprint" intact; rip down the existing South and West Stands and remake Highbury a state-of-the-art stadium holding 50,000 or more; or move elsewhere.

Among possible destinations, the two front-runners are a "brown field" site on derelict land near King's Cross Station, costing perhaps pounds 75m, or Wembley, for which Arsenal is reputedly bidding up to pounds 100m.

But why, it may be asked, all the fuss about crowds of 55,000 when in the pre-Taylor days, crowds of 60,000 plus for big games were commonplace? One answer is that, in fact, average attendances used to be lower than is fondly remembered. The expectation now is that a 55,000-capacity ground would be sold out for every game, be it against Liverpool, Manchester United or Barnsley. By contrast, Arsenal attracted only 41,000-per game in 1971-72, despite having won the Double the year before.

And then there is gentrification. Not only the gentrification of football, as terraces once reeking of beer and urine have been turned into family- friendly seated enclosures and the Premiership has been transformed into one of the most glamorous leagues in the world. But also, more problematically, the gentrification of the neighbourhoods around Highbury too. Blairland N1 is but a mile away; a nice terraced house in N5 can fetch pounds 350,000- plus - fully three months wages for Dennis Bergkamp. Had Highbury remained the working-class preserve of yesteryear, expansion would have gone through on the nod. But these are residents who demand a quality of life to match their mortgage.

They are, for instance, unamused at having their streets taken over by the cars that have replaced the bus and underground as the modern supporter's preferred mode of transport, and render their streets unusable twice at weekends and a couple of evenings a month. "It's a bit like a siege," says Alison Carmichael of the Highbury Community Association (HCA) which is leading the residents' revolt. "You get big cars with chauffeurs, who keep the engines running for two hours while their boss is inside the ground."

And, the HCA wonders, would 50,000 or 55,000 be the end of it ? Ken Friar, Arsenal's managing director, has let slip a guess that the club's potential regular attendance could be as high as 65,000.

It is only 10 years since the old Clock End was redeveloped, and just five since the gorgeous pounds 20m stand which replaced the North Bank opened for business. And now, talk of another makeover. Who's to say that a few years down the line, especially if a European Super League takes off, Arsenal don't come back asking for another 10,000 seats?

But even filling in the corners, or rebuilding the West and South sides of the ground is only part of the story. The pitch itself, at 110 yards by 73 yards, is one of the smallest in the Premiership, ineligible for international games. Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has lamented a playing area "made for old English football... Teams come to Highbury and defend deep and wait for mistakes... Long ball, good header, deflection, goal."

That is not the style Wenger likes to play, though some would say it brought George Graham a pile of silverware. In any major rebuilding, the pitch would be both widened and lengthened. Some 30 houses immediately behind the West Stand would be demolished - several of them communities of elderly tenants living alone, terrified at the prospect of moving.

It is by no means certain that the bid for Wembley will succeed, but if it does it poses the question as to what would become of Highbury. The council is keen that it remains a leisure facility, so a lucrative housing redevelopment would appear to be ruled out - though even if that were allowed one estimate is that the land is worth only around pounds 10m. One intriguing alternative has been mooted recently: that Arsenal sell the stadium to Wimbedon, currently billeted at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park.

That would surely risk alienating Arsenal's local support and, all other things being equal, the club would like to stay at Highbury, its home since 1913. But a long wrangle looms with Islington council and local residents, even assuming permission finally is granted for an expansion that would satisfy the club. The neatest solution would be King's Cross, relatively close and with excellent transport links. But again, traffic problems could thwart it. The siege of the chauffeurs is set to continue.