The Bluffer’s Guide To Highbury – pt 2

Part 2 of this feature on our old stadium, originally printed in The Gooner issue 162 as we prepared to move.

Last time we looked at the East and West Stands. But wait! There are four sides to the stadium. Here’s everything you need to know about the other two.

The North Bank (Stand)

The northern end of the ground was originally known as the Laundry End, after the laundry positioned between it and Gillespie Road, though the club preferred the title ‘North Terrace’. The name Laundry End survived to the 1960s, when North Bank usurped both the others. It was originally open to the elements and was made of compacted earth. It wasn’t fully concreted until the 1930s, when the first stage of redevelopment saw all the terraces built up before building work started on the stands. Locals brought rubbish to use as landfill on the North Terrace, and a coal merchant famously backed up a little carelessly and lost his horse and cart down a big hole. Rumours that the carthorse climbed out and went on to set an inter-war appearance record for Spurs are probably unfounded.

In 1930 Herbert Chapman had the idea of placing a 12-foot diameter clock at the back of the terrace. This was new to England, but copied from continental grounds. Omega were turned down for the contract because they wanted to incorporate advertising in the design, and Arsenal were still too classy for that. Originally the clock counted down from 45 minutes, but the FA objected to this, believing that the referee’s authority would be undermined if anyone else actually knew what was going on. Despite the club’s protests the FA insisted on the change, so at a cost of £180 it was switched to a standard clock. In 1935, the North Terrace was covered and the clock was moved to the southern end of the ground, which then became known unofficially as the Clock End. The club still likes to refer to the ‘South Stand’, but no one else has used any name other than Clock End in living memory.

Hitler, who was possibly a Chelsea fan, arranged for the ground to be bombed during World War II, and the North Terrace roof was destroyed. Due to a shortage of steel after the war, it was not rebuilt until 1956, when Arsenal also managed to scrounge some cash from the War Damages Commission. Being big on tradition, the club built the new roof as an exact replica of its previous incarnation. The North Terrace/Bank/Laundry End then remained unchanged until the mid-1980s, when the facilities at the back of the terrace were upgraded. This reduced the ground capacity from 60,500 to 57,000, which was still the biggest in England. New safety regulations also meant that the capacity continued to fall gradually, and by 1987 it was 56,000. By 1991, when the North Bank redevelopment was announced, safety regulations forced by the Taylor Report had dropped it all the way down to 44,397. While the building took place during the 1992-93 season the capacity was the lowest ever: just 29,000. Rumour had it that once all the building work had finished capacity would be 32,000 – imagine the difficulty in getting tickets now had that turned out to be the case. (While we’re on the subject, the record crowd at Highbury is 73,295 for a match against Sunderland in March 1935, the same year that an ‘electronic turnstile counter’ was installed. There have only been a couple of other crowds above 70,000, the most recent being 72,408 against Northampton Town in an FA Cup Fourth Round match in 1951.)

For the North Bank rebuilding, the club kindly decided that they didn’t want us looking at a building site for a whole season, so they gave us a mural to look at instead. The mural made its debut against Norwich in August 1992, initially without any black faces on it – which was somewhat ironic as several leading lights of the team were black at that time. However, it did have adverts for the club’s newest moneymaking scheme, the Arsenal Bond. Exactly 12,120 Bonds were offered, to raise £16.5 million. Some Bonds cost £1,500, some £1,100; all were complained about at great length by supporters.

The new North Bank Stand was opened for the 1993-94 season, though with a few seats missing for the first game, meaning that some bondholders who’d just forked out their £1,500 for the privilege of buying a season ticket were forced to sit elsewhere. The seating was finished in time for a full house at the next game, but there was some debate about whether the atmosphere had been better with the mural.

The North Bank Stand has 12,400 seats (4,000 upper and 8,400 lower), but no escalators or public lifts, due to the lack of room behind it. Lovers of fast food, overpriced fizzy drinks and scaldingly superheated tea and coffee will be grateful for the 11 food outlets, three bars and a restaurant. The stand also holds the Arsenal museum, opened at end of October 1993 and said to be the largest collection of football memorabilia in the UK dedicated to a single club. There are also toilets that are a vast improvement on the previous facilities, which would not have looked out of place in a Turkish prison. The women’s toilets on the old North Bank were (I’m told) particularly bad, as not only were they too few, too dirty and too smelly, but the windows were always broken so there was the added fun of being spied on. So we gained some better facilities, but what we lost with the new stand was the corners of the North Bank. You’d have thought it was possible to have at least the lower storey of the new stand extending around to join the East and West stands, but apparently not.

The Clock End

The south end of the ground was originally referred to as the College End and had a relatively uneventful time between 1913 and 1988. It began as a shallow earth terrace and was built up and concreted with the rest of the stadium in the early 1930s. Until the West Stand was built and a couple of houses on Highbury Hill were purchased and demolished, the only entrance was from the east corner, unless you preferred a walk along the terrace from the North Bank entrance in Gillespie Road.

The biggest event was the arrival of the clock, which for the next 50 years sat on what looked like a temporary bit of scaffolding, as if they hadn’t quite decided if it was going to stay. In March 1987 the clock stopped, and it wasn’t repaired for a month. This period coincided with a run of four home games without a win, which raises the possibility that if we don’t take it to Ashburton we could be in for a pretty lean time.

The next bit of modern technology to hit the Clock End was Britain’s first big video screen in a football stadium, the Mitsubishi DiamondVision, which arrived on October 20, 1984. It lasted for just seven home games, disappearing after the New Year’s Day game against Spurs (we lost 1-2) to go to the Nordic Ski Championships in Austria. The FA were still in the 1920s at the time, so it was no surprise that they banned instant replays, live simultaneous transmission, and virtually everything else even half interesting. However, the matchday programmes for this period invariably featured a picture of the screen showing the score, with the words “Here’s how the screen saw it.” The programme’s editor was probably equally amazed by Walkmans and CDs.

Originally the Clock End had an open half-size training pitch behind it, on which a 1,000 lb bomb fell in World War II. (How anyone knows the weight of a bomb after it’s exploded I don’t know.) The open pitch was eventually converted into a covered sports hall with bare brick walls and the minimum of equipment, which in 1982 was upgraded to become the ‘JVC Indoor Training Area’, aka ‘JVC Centre’. (Soon after this, signs appeared on the East and West Stands saying “JVC and Arsenal – The Perfect Match”, and thus began the slippery commercial slope towards removing the sacred word ‘Arsenal’ from the stadium name altogether.)

The Clock End remained open to the elements until the 1980s, when prawn sandwiches were invented. Shortly afterwards executive boxes were invented to house those who ate them. Arsenal were slow in jumping on this bandwagon. Planning permission was obtained for a stand in 1986, but it was summer 1988 before the clock itself was put into storage and building work began. In January 1989, before a home game against Spurs, George Graham and Terry Venables unveiled it in its new position, shoved incongruously in the middle of the cantilever roof above the new boxes. There are 54 executive boxes in two rows, though strangely all the literature at the time claimed that 48 were planned.

Boxes aside, the Clock End was for standing on until 1993, when the terrace was converted to seats. (Actually most people still stand on it, but now there is some degree of choice.) The away fans corner opened as seats in September 1993, followed by the rest of it on November 27. At this point Highbury became all-seater for the first time in its history. The combination of box building and conversion to seats also meant that the outer edges of the old terrace ceased to be used, though part of the terracing itself still remains behind the big screen on the east side, a sad reminder of the days of 50,000 plus crowds.

What used to be the corner of the terrace adjoining the East Stand now contains the medical centre and St John’s Ambulance post, officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester on December 3, 1990. The other corner, on the west side, has the media centre (ie where Richard Keys sits on Sunday afternoons rubbing his hairy hands together and trying to trick Alan Smith into badmouthing his former club, usually successfully), which used to double on occasion as the ‘Chapman Lounge’. Starting in 1994 this offered a private facility for 20 people to watch the game at £2,000 plus VAT. The police and security office is also part of the same building, and the electronic scoreboard at that end of the ground has now been moved from the West Stand to the front of the media centre.

The club may claim that the architectural style of the Clock End stand fits in well with the art deco on either side of it. Personally I’d say that’s crap, and it’s the one ugly part of the ground that no one will miss. It’s not as bad as the corrugated iron fence that appeared all round the back of the Clock End in the 1980s, but strangely the design does still seem to feature some nasty grey corrugated iron in the roof. However, one advantage of the boxes is that away fans who occasionally inhabit the whole Clock End no longer have the chance to climb up to the clock and move the hands around, as naughty Spurs fans did in the 1980s.

The last major change was the return of video screens to Highbury, almost exactly ten years after the short-lived presence of the first one. In October 1994 two Jumbotron screens were installed in opposite corners of the stadium, north west and south east. By the following season there was a full two-hour programme of pre-match entertainment being shown, though it took a bit longer for the FA to agree to instant replays. Arsenal being Arsenal, even now there is no sign of replays of contentious incidents that might inflame the passions in the crowd to such an extent that riots would no doubt ensue. You have to ask whether they are interested in improving the atmosphere or not. The Club also claim that if they relayed the whole game as it happened, players would be distracted due to the screens being in their sightlines. Obviously they haven’t seen the moving adverts at Man Utd. This, like previous bans on inflatable bananas and giant flags, shows that the Arsenal Board still live in some strange parallel universe that other clubs always seem to avoid.

And finally . . .

As we know, stadium development costs money – over £22 million for the improvements between 1988 and 1993. But at the end of it Ken Friar claimed, “We’re building for the 21st century. I think you can compare these developments with the building of the East and West Stands in the 1930s. We believe our new stands will stand the test of time just as well.” Hmm. His mate Peter Hill-Wood said at the same time, “We won’t raise prices above the level of inflation, certainly not for the foreseeable future.” You may therefore wonder why a good seat in the North Bank Stand doesn’t currently cost £16. As my old mate Malcolm Glazer would say, you do the math.

Twitter: @AngryOfN5

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One thought on “The Bluffer’s Guide To Highbury – pt 2

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

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