Highbury memories

As Arsenal prepare to play their last-ever game at their historic home on Sunday, those for whom it has meant so much - players, fans, officials... and Henry Cooper - remember what made the stadium so special

Interviews,Matt Denver,Glenn Moore
Wednesday 03 May 2006 00:00 BST
Highbury will host its last game when Wigan visit on Sunday
Highbury will host its last game when Wigan visit on Sunday

ARSENE WENGER Arsenal manager 1997 to present

Highbury has that roof, with the metal posts coming down, that makes it a stadium from another age. The contrast with the pitch is nowhere better in the world. For me, that is something special. I sensed there was a special soul in the stadium, because it is a little bit strange, and you cannot have that feeling anywhere else. When you first arrive to Highbury, you do not expect it - you are saying, "Where is the stadium? Where is the stadium?" - and then suddenly you are in front of it.

You do not know why it is in the middle of the city. You are used to that here, but on the Continent we are not used to that - you see the stadium from three miles away. What I always like in England is that you feel the club belongs to the population around there - you can go out of the door and go to a football game. That does not exist anywhere else. That is specific to Highbury, to Liverpool, to the English game. They were built for the people.

ALF FIELDS Arsenal's oldest surviving player, now 88, played at Highbury in 1939

I was in awe, I was very young, just 20. The marble halls and heated floors were in place but it all looked very different. It created a terrific impression. Some grounds like Fulham were wooden huts. I was also in the film, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. It was a bit corny, but they took a few shots of us having a pre-match talk, all standing around talking. Then it was our job to pretend we were playing football. We had to re-enact Esmond Knight, the villain, trying to beat about three or four of us, which was a little bit difficult really. And I had only four words to say: "Yes, he looked terrible," but I had to practise them, mind! We got £50 per week for a month which was a lot of money in those days, if you consider that a first-team player was on £8 a week with a £2 bonus.

DAVID O'LEARY Arsenal player 1975-93

One thing I'll always remember about Highbury is the home dressing-room. The sheer size. The heated floor. And meeting Johan Cruyff when I was a kid and he was at his peak at Barcelona. One of my apprentice's duties was sweeping up. Cruyff took ages to get dressed, so I got my broom. Suddenly, he asked what position I played. I couldn't believe he was talking to me!

I'd been on trial at Manchester United before I came to Arsenal for a week, aged 14. I fell in love with the place; the sense of class and history. The longer I stayed, the more I felt that tradition. The marble halls were steeped in it, but it ran right through the place - and people.

My Highbury debut was in 1975, against Stoke. Bertie Mee told me he'd play me for a few games until I tired. I stayed nearly 20 years. My favourite match there was in the Uefa Cup against Hajduk Split. We won and I never played better. My one regret is being unable to wave farewell to a packed North Bank in '93 - it was the mural season [as the end was being rebuilt].

PATRICK MARBER Playwright and Arsenal fan

I'm pretty sure I saw Wenger tell Fergie to "fuck off". It was in April 2003 when United came to Highbury and forced a 2-2 draw. The night Sol Campbell got sent off, the night Ferguson intruded on to the pitch to applaud the United supporters in the far corner of the Clock End. It was wet at full time and I remember thinking, "I hope you slip in the mud and choke on your gum".

But he didn't. There was some remonstrating between the two managers during the second half, I forget when but both were out of their dug-outs, barking at each other across the "technical areas", the fourth official attempting to corral them back. Ferguson said something to Wenger and he responded with his customary, taut gravity, "Fuck off". The cameras never saw it but I did. For that and so much else, thank you Arsène.

GEORGE GRAHAM Arsenal player 1966-72, Arsenal manager 1986-95

The thing that always impressed me was the entrance, going up the stairs into that wonderful entrance, through those great double doors, to be greeted by a commissionaire in full uniform. It was just like walking into a five-star hotel. Then to be greeted by Herbert Chapman's bust there, trying to frighten and intimidate everybody. Especially when you're a new manager and you walk into the marble halls for the first time. That's quite a sight.

Things changed when I became manager. It went from "George" to "Mr Graham". The commissionaire who was there for years and years, Nobby was his name, he called me "George" and then the day I returned it was instantly: "Good morning, Mr Graham".

The one Highbury match I would remember was beating Anderlecht in the Fairs Cup 3-0 in 1970.

THIERRY HENRY Arsenal player 1999-present

It's something special when I play there. It's difficult to put into words the feeling I have. For me it's difficult to talk about Highbury. You need to go out there, feel it, smell it, play on it and score a goal to understand what it means. I have scored a lot of goals at Highbury and there is something special about it. It's kind of strange because the pitch is so small compared to other ones and normally I need more space to run into. But I always find myself happy there.

What I like about Highbury is the grass is usually amazing. Elsewhere, you must take three or four touches to control the ball then lose your momentum. At Highbury, you can take one touch. When I miss a chance or a cross I'd love to blame the grass but you can't.

NICK HORNBY Author and Arsenal fan (from 'Fever Pitch')

I loved the different categories of noise: the formal, ritual noise when players emerged (each player's name called in turn, starting with the favourite, until he responded with a wave); the spontaneous shapeless roar when something exciting was happening on the pitch; the renewed vigour of the chanting after a goal or a sustained period of attacking...

In 1989 I bought a season ticket for the seats, after standing on the North Bank for over 15 years. These details do not tell the whole story. I got tired of the queues, and the squash, and tumbling half-way down the terrace every time Arsenal scored, and the fact that my view of the near goal was always partially obscured at big games. I didn't miss the terraces and in fact I enjoyed them, the backdrop they provided, their noise and colour, more than I ever had when I stood on them.

HENRY COOPER British heavyweight champion, fought Muhammad Ali for world title there on 21 May 1966

What a night. It was great because I was an Arsenal fan at the time because I lived in that part of London. I had the home dressing-room which was marvellous. I looked around and I thought "Cor blimey" because I didn't realise footballers had such large dressing-rooms like this. It must be the greatest decor I've ever changed and dressed in.

The atmosphere that night was fantastic. We had 44,000 people there, and you could cut the tension with a knife, it was that thick. Sitting in the dressing-room we [Ali was in the away dressing-room] could hear the crowd chanting beforehand. "Hen-ery, Hen-ery, Hen-ery."

The ring was in the centre-circle and we had to walk out through the tunnel, just like the footballers, and on to the pitch. The crowd was all around the ring but they only used the side stands, the East and West stands, not the North Bank or Clock End. This was due to rules that are specific to boxing - you have to have so much space per person.

It was a warm evening and we got into the ring about 9.30. It was dark outside but the lights were glaring down and it was just brilliant. I had two fights with Ali and they both basically finished in the same unlucky way. I got a cut eye. For the first two or three rounds at Highbury I was a little bit short with my punches. I hadn't landed a lot on him because he was so quick for a heavyweight. But then the last couple of rounds I began to land my punches on him.

I was just getting my stride, getting my reach and distance. And suddenly - wallop! He slung a punch, I think I knocked it down, and he came across my eye and caught it with the edge of the glove, which opened it up. The referee then had no choice but to stop it. The cuts I got from Ali were the worst I ever had, because with Ali he would cut you, he was a "flicker".

LIAM BRADY Arsenal player 1973-80

Walking up the stairs to the changing-room, sitting there hearing the crowd outside, gives you a real buzz. You looked out of the window, which the players did sometimes, you wanted to know whether it was going to be a 40,000 plus crowd or not. And playing in front of 40,000 is exciting. I will miss the pitch. It was a marvellous feeling running out from the tunnel. My one regret is that we didn't win a trophy at Highbury. As a 17-year-old making my first team debut against Birmingham City in a 1-0 win in 1973, it was one of my favourite memories as a player, because the FA Cup final [in 1979] was played at Wembley.

IAN COOK Worked at Highbury since 1979

Probably the best memory for me was winning the title at Anfield in 1989 because we were working and watching it in the museum and after the match there was literally, like in Nick Hornby's book, an impromptu party in the street.

PETER HILL-WOOD Arsenal chairman 1982-present

There's a lot of other memories. We've had some very famous visitors including a lot of royalty, and not just our royal family. The King of Tonga used to come regularly. We had a special chair for him because he weighed 26 stone. When Joe Frazier came I took him to the dressing-room and the players' mouths dropped open. He was only about 6ft 1in but he was so big across the shoulders and chest. When he wrote his name in the visitors' book he put his telephone number down.

My chair in the boardroom is unusual, it has five legs. The story goes that one of my father's predecessors [possibly his grandfather, Samuel Hill Wood (sic)] was in the habit of pushing himself back in a rage during meetings and once tipped himself over. So he had another leg put on to prevent a repeat.

ALAN DAVIES Actor and Arsenal fan

On April 15th 1989 Arsenal were chasing the title for the first time in 18 years (that's first place Tottenham, not fourth) in a home game with Newcastle. Spectators were asking for news of the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsbrough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest where the kick-off had been delayed because of crowd trouble. People rolled their eyes and tutted when they heard that. English clubs were still banned from Europe after the Heysel disaster four years previously. Then word went round that someone had been killed. Before Arsenal completed a 1-0 win the word was seven or eight were dead. The true horror of Hillsbrough unfolded later. Such a tragedy could never have happened at Highbury. Around 1982, at a game versus West Ham, a smoke bomb had been let off on the North Bank. From the back of the terrace through the clouds of coloured fumes could be seen hundreds of people spilling onto the pitch. They were able to do so because there have never been perimeter fences at Highbury. Ironically, the FA had told the club that no FA Cup semi-finals

would ever be staged at the ground again unless fences were installed. Arsenal refused to cage their fans and Highbury has always been the better for it.

STEVE BOULD Arsenal player 1988-99 and current youth coach

The marble halls are not that great really, are they? Not as grand as I thought they would be when I first came to Highbury to sign. Very tasteful, very correct, very Arsenal. Just not as big as I expected. On my way up to George Graham's office I saw the Herbert Chapman bust. That was awe-inspiring. The place made you feel you were upholding a tradition. It was never just "Arsenal" but "The Arsenal".

My debut at Highbury was actually for Stoke. Coming down Avenell Road and seeing the clamour around the entrance was special. I remember walking out as Stoke's 13th man in the days of one sub. Our manager, Richie Barker, said: "You better get used to this, son". Spooky. I ended up having 11 years there.

For me the best game there was after we won the title in 1991. We played Manchester United on a balmy evening, with flags everywhere and an old-fashioned atmosphere. The Clock End development improved the ground's look. But the North Bank was a bit of a myth after it went all-seater. It was nicknamed "the Highbury Library".

The mural at that end was weird: all those silent, painted faces staring at you. First game with it there, we led Norwich 2-0 and lost 3-2, which summed up how it felt to play in front of it.

The Arsenal stadium history, from controversy to conversion

Highbury was the inspiration of Henry Norris, the Mayor of Fulham and chairman of Fulham FC. He bought Woolwich Arsenal in 1910, tried to merge the club with Fulham, then move it to Craven Cottage. After being rebuffed he moved the club - despite objections from Tottenham, Clapton [now Leyton] Orient and Woolwich fans - across the Thames to Highbury.

Norris then engineered the club's controversial 1919 promotion, ahead of higher-finishing Spurs, but was forced out before the new stadium was developed.

That began in 1931. The West Stand was completed in 1932, and the East Stand, for a record £130,000 in 1936. Arsenal were plunged into debt but the landmark stands cemented the club's status. Indeed, the ground became a star in its own right, as the subject of Leonard Gribble's book, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, which was later made into a film.

During the war Highbury was taken over by the RAF, and was twice bombed. Post-war, Arsenal were among the first to install floodlights, and in 1966 Highbury staged a title fight between Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali. The ground was largely unchanged until 1989 when executive boxes were added on the Clock End. After the Taylor Report cut capacity, the North Bank was redeveloped.

All this will now become flats, with the pitch turned into a communal garden. But the listing and retention of the East and West stands mean, unlike other outgrown arenas, it will always be recognisably a football stadium.

Glenn Moore

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