The Bluffer’s Guide To Highbury – pt 1

From The Gooner issue 161 in 2005, as we prepared to leave the great old stadium that many thousands of us had grown up with.

Several books are due to be published over the next few months that promise to tell the full story of Highbury’s history. You could spend 20 quid on one, but why bother? If you even read it, you’ll forget most of it anyway. So save your cash and just read this instead. Phil Wall presents his

Bluffer’s Guide to Highbury

Everyone knows Arsenal’s ground as ‘Highbury’, and this of course is where it’s situated. However, the true fan is well aware that the official name has been ‘Arsenal Stadium’ since the early 1930s. So how did Arsenal get to Highbury?

It’s no secret that Arsenal originally came from south London and began life playing on Plumstead Common and using local pubs as changing rooms. This arrangement didn’t last long, as neither Tony Adams nor Paul Merson was at the club at the time. By 1910 Woolwich Arsenal had been bought by Henry Norris, played home games at the Manor Ground, Plumstead, and were struggling in the old First Division. Crowds of 20,000 plus after promotion soon dwindled when Arsenal went from being the only London club in the Football League to one of five. Transport links to south London were rubbish, and Norris decided it was time to relocate.

After much searching followed by much negotiation, Norris organised the rental of a piece of land used as playing fields and owned by St John’s College of Divinity in Avenell Road, Highbury. (If anyone asks you when Arsenal bought Highbury, that was in 1925 for £64,000.) The move was made in time for the start of the 1913-14 season, and then began the development of what became the classiest stadium in Britain. St John’s College remained next door until it burnt down shortly after World War II, removing the last link with the previous owners of Highbury. The site of the college buildings was developed into the flats that now sit on the hill behind the Clock End.

Nowadays the four stands at Arsenal are the East Stand, West Stand, North Bank Stand and South Stand, or ‘Clock End’. But before we get into that, a few words about the other essential part of the stadium:

The Pitch

The Highbury pitch has become known for three things:

  1. It’s perceived as too small
  2. It has undersoil heating
  3. In recent years it’s looked like a billiard table all year round

The pitch size is 110 by 71 yards, which gives an area about 15 per cent smaller than Man City’s. However, it is of course bigger than those of Cardiff, Colchester and Tranmere, which are all 110 by 70 yards. The total grass area at Highbury is 115 by 76 yards, so making the pitch any bigger would mean losing a couple of rows of seats. But is it necessarily a bad thing to have a small pitch? Our recent home record is far better than our away record, and at least we’re used to playing on a narrow pitch whereas other teams aren’t. However, I look forward to Pires and Freddie waltzing down the wings to deliver crosses from the wide-open spaces of Ashburton Grove.

In the 1960s and 1970s, before global warming set in, matches were called off all the time due to bad weather – except at Arsenal. Electric undersoil heating was installed in 1964 and upgraded to a hot water system in 1970 at a cost of £30,000. While other pitches froze Arsenal played on and postponements were very rare indeed. Of course melting the snow and ice often had the effect of turning the pitch into a bog, but players were used to that in those days, especially those who’d ever played at Derby.

In the winter of 1985-86 the hot water system packed up and the whole thing had to be redone the following summer. One year later Arsenal got a new groundsman in Steve Braddock, and the Highbury pitch entered its golden age. Until Braddock arrived our playing surface was no better than average, but after two years of planning a radical reconstruction took place. If anyone asks, you can tell them that the reason our pitch is so good is that after the old pitch was dug up and new drains and heating pipes laid, the resultant trenches were filled with gravel topped by sand, then a mixture of sand and topsoil on top for the ‘root-zone’. This gives a light, free-draining structure that relies on the grass roots themselves to bind it into a durable playing surface. Apparently.

Steve Braddock won the title of Groundsman of the Year five times before being whisked off to Hertfordshire by Arsène Wenger to build the new training pitches in 2000. He left his assistant, Paul Burgess, in charge, and Paul has won the Oscar of the grass world in both 2002 and 2005. To quote Paul when explaining his methods to the Institute of Groundsmanship: “The Highbury playing surface is probably the oldest in the Premiership, having been constructed in 1989. At the end of each season it is scarified and receives between 20 and 40 tonnes of sand. This is then hollow tined and, after vertidraining, kiln-dried sand is worked into the holes before the pitch is seeded with MM60 hard-wearing ryegrass cultivars.” Like we didn’t know.

The East Stand

The East Stand is on Avenell Road and incorporates the main entrance to the ground. The original was designed by renowned architect Archibald Leitch, and was the only stand built when the ground opened in 1913. Actually, it wasn’t even half-built when the season started and couldn’t be used for the first game (a 2-1 victory over Leicester Fosse). Such was the state of the ground that fans could have got in easily without paying, but most were honest enough to form orderly queues. Even six months later only the roof of the stand was present, and the ‘walls’ were large tarpaulins. This was partly because the move to Highbury had cost so much that the builder was only getting paid by taking a share of gate receipts each week before continuing work. Meanwhile the club assured fans that they were trying to strengthen the team, but the players they wanted just weren’t available . . .

For the next 20 years the East Stand sheltered 9,000 people, while the rest of the crowd got wet on the shallow uncovered terraces of the other three sides. The East Stand roof had nine sections, on which were painted the individual letters to make up Arsenal FC. For some reason these were painted out again after Herbert Chapman arrived in 1925, and a minimalist white décor was adopted. However, plain white was far better than the adverts for Bovril and lung-busting extra-strength fags that adorned the stands at many other grounds.

Herb had grand plans for rebuilding, but his untimely death in 1934 meant that he only saw the new West Stand completed. It wasn’t until April 21, 1936 that some blokes with pickaxes climbed on to the roof of the old East Stand and started demolishing it. Eighteen months and £130,000 later the new East Stand was finished. This version seated 4,000 in the top tier, 4,000 below and another few thousand standing. “The East Stand is a noble thing, a building of wonder and unparalleled in Football,” said the matchday programme on the day of inauguration, October 24,1936. Those who now sit in the East Lower have plenty of time to reflect on its glory as they queue 30 deep waiting to get in, among the piles of horse sh*t in the shadow of the art deco edifice.

As well as the changing rooms, boardroom and administrative centre of the club, the new East Stand also contains the famous Marble Halls, adorned with the bust of the then recently-deceased Herbert Chapman by Jacob Epstein. Ever since, new managers have invariably been pictured smiling in close proximity to the likeness of the great man, which gives reporters the opportunity to make unflattering comparisons with Chapman’s record. Chapman’s ghost is said to haunt the corridors of the East Stand. If this is so, he’s probably come back to have a go at the Board for letting the place get a bit run down since he left.

The changing rooms are tiny by modern standards, and only look good when empty of people, hung with the shirts of the home team and pictured through a wide-angle lens. The size did not bother players of the past, who happily passed round the after-match ciggies in the communal baths, sadly no longer used.

The tunnel by which players enter and leave the pitch is in the middle of the East Stand. It is flanked by the dugouts, which until 1994 used to resemble greenhouses and were presumably almost as hot when the sun shone. They were then changed to resemble old goalposts, which may have been more comfortable. Nowadays the seats within them are placed so low that managers can almost check out the state of the undersoil heating. This may be part of the reason why Arsène Wenger never manages to see a contentious incident.

The directors’ box and press box are in the upper tier of the East Stand, where they face the afternoon sun. This gives the press the opportunity to snooze in warmth if the game is not living up to expectations. Jimmy Greaves once claimed that was the only reason the press turned up (nb. This was a very long time ago, when – believe it or not – Spurs rather than Arsenal were known for attractive football). The directors’ box has also long had a phone link to the dugout, which enables managers to sit ‘upstairs’ and observe the game while giving instructions to minions below. It is several years since Arsène Wenger has taken this opportunity.

The West Stand

Opposite the East Stand is, naturally enough, the West Stand. From outside the stadium, the West Stand is largely obscured by a row of houses on Highbury Hill. This is a pity, as the impressive structure was designed by respected architect Claude Waterlow Ferrier (all architects are either respected or renowned) and built for around £50,000, or a bit less than Ashley Cole gets paid per visit to the ground. It was opened on December 10, 1932 by the Prince of Wales (soon to be King Edward VIII, and soon to be off with Mrs Simpson), and featured seating for 4,100 up top, an electric lift and three flats. Figures for the original standing capacity in the lower tier vary from 17,000 to 20,000.

When the West Stand was built the club purchased a couple of houses on Highbury Hill, knocked them down and built an additional entrance to the new stand and the still clockless south terrace. It’s a shame the club couldn’t or wouldn’t buy the whole row, as that would have increased the size of the site to Ashburton proportions and removed the need for a move at all.

In the 1930s Herb Chapman had the bright idea of putting lights on top of the stands for training purposes, but it wasn’t until 1951 that proper floodlights were added to the East and West Stands. The first Arsenal match they were used for was a friendly against Hapoel Tel Aviv, but before that they were used for the first Boxers v Jockeys charity match on April 2. One thing Arsenal have never had is a fence to stop supporters getting onto the pitch. Despite requests from the Football League, Highbury was one of the few English top-level grounds not to put up fences when hooliganism was rife in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1969 seating for 5,500 was put into the West Lower at a cost of £80,000, still leaving standing room in front. The next exciting event was the inauguration of the Family Enclosure for the game against Man City on November 22, 1986. Junior Gunners were allowed in for half price, but if they stood anywhere else they had to pay the full £2.50. Prior to this special section being fenced off it was possible to wander the whole length of the shallow terrace that ran along the front of the stand. This gave fans the chance to move from one end to the other at half time if they desired. Away fans were traditionally allocated a block of seats at the southern end of the West Lower, so another reason for moving along the terrace was the occasional barrage of missiles and abuse from above.

In the summer of 1989 Arsenal finally gave in to the Twentieth Century and installed identical electronic scoreboards on the East and West Stands. If we weren’t the last top division club to do this, we were certainly in the relegation zone. Electronic boards were old hat everywhere from Piccadilly Circus to the Swedish second division by the time we got them, and several letters had been printed in the programme pointing out this deficiency.

The recommendations of the Taylor Report that followed the Hillsborough disaster brought about the final change to both the East and West Stands: the shallow terraces along the front became seating in 1993 (other than the bit at the south end of the East Stand which is for wheelchair supporters). The prospect of getting rid of all terraces led to fierce debate in the matchday programme letters’ page, which previously contained little more controversial than pictures of Gooners on holiday in places with Arsenal-related names, and requests for pen-pals from Polish teenagers (“all letters will receive a reply”). Actually there was one other letter of note: on December 5, 1987 the first known comparison of Highbury to a library appeared in correspondence from a T Madden of Islington. Blame him.

Next issue: The North Bank! The Clock End! The JVC centre! The wise words of Peter Hill-Wood!


Follew me on Twitter: @AngryOfN5

2 thoughts on “The Bluffer’s Guide To Highbury – pt 1

  1. Pingback: Highbury Home of Football « FOOTBALL IS BLOODY MAD I CAN TELL YOU

  2. Pingback: Arsenal won the Treble in 1935: Crowd celebrations | The Arsenal History

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