Arsenal have had a bigger stadium than Highbury for a few years, but this hasn’t translated into a bigger atmosphere. It was ‘the library’ at the old ground, but we have a crowd over 20,000 bigger now, so what’s the reason? In my opinion the biggest loss of atmosphere was when every match became all-ticket. As capacity was steadily lowered at Highbury at the same time as football’s popularity was on the rise, every match became a guaranteed sell out; as soon as there were enough fans willing to book in advance to fill every seat, there was a good reason for the club to make matches all ticket. I’m not sure there’s such a good reason now.
I can see the benefits to the club of an all-ticket policy when every match is sold out: guaranteed income in advance, fewer people in the area on match days, quicker turnstiles. But I don’t see any obvious benefit for the fans, and I can see a big downside to the atmosphere created.
When it’s not all ticket and every match is selling out, you have to turn up early on match day to be certain of entry, and even earlier to get a good place, so casual supporters, neutrals and businessmen on freebies are put off, leaving the hardcore support. Result: those who really want to go make the effort; those who can’t be bothered stay away. The supporters who get in are the ones who really want to be there, so the atmosphere immediately improves. As an added benefit, with far fewer tickets in advance circulation, most of the touts are immediately put out of business.
Even a crap game is better when it’s a full house. And if tickets were sold at the gate then those inside would know that there were others outside who were desperate to get in and failed, then so much the better. I don’t want to be selfish, so perhaps the ideal situation would be that all Arsenal fans managed to cram their way into the ground by kick-off, but a few thousand away fans, sadly, didn’t make it. Even if they were Man Utd fans who had come all the way from the other side of Surrey, tough luck. The atmosphere, even with everyone sitting down, would be the better for it.
Unfortunately we didn’t often have a great atmosphere at either Highbury or the new place since Arsenal matches went all-seat and all-ticket. Now we’re often getting empty spaces among the 60,000 seats. I know at the moment all tickets are still being sold, but this might not carry on too much longer. What is the atmosphere going to be like if the ground is a quarter empty on a regular basis? All-seater stadiums, full or not, rarely create the same atmosphere as terraces, and an all-seater stadium a quarter or more empty would dilute the atmosphere much more when it’s also all-ticket.
However many millions clubs make from marketing and TV, the crowd is still the heart and soul of football. Great games are played in front of great crowds. We’ve still got the big numbers – so far – but not the old excitement. If Arsenal want a ground that’s intimidating for other clubs to come to (and to sort out most of the touting problem at the same time), I think the solution is simple: abandon the all-ticket policy. Let people in half the blocks sit where they like; those who arrive first get the choice – even season ticket holders. Why not have all lower tier season tickets as ‘sit anywhere’? Even if the match wasn’t a sell out the chance of a good seat would mean that plenty of people would turn up early, so no last minute turnstile crush and there might actually be some atmosphere before kick-off for a change. It would definitely improve it during the match. What have the club got to lose?
One of the best football atmospheres I’ve ever been in was way back in the 1987-88 season, when, against the trend of the previous few years, Arsenal played in front of four 50,000-plus crowds at Highbury. We were jammed into about half the space of the new stadium in those days, and this was when Clock End and North Bank were still terraces. One of these big crowds was for the League Cup semi-final second leg against Everton, played in midweek. It was a dark February evening. We’d won the away leg 1-0 a couple of weeks earlier and expectation was high. I came out of the Arsenal tube well over an hour before kick-off to find the streets swamped with fans. It didn’t help that it was dark, but the police clearly weren’t expecting that many people and their horses struggled to keep any sort of order. I’m no lightweight, but I joined the queue for the Avenall Road North Bank entrance way back round the corner in Gillespie Road, and once in the middle of it I was swept along towards the turnstiles with little chance of escape even if I’d wanted to. My feet were hardly on the ground half the time. I don’t know how many got locked out that night (though my Dad was one of them), but the atmosphere inside the ground was about the most electric I can remember. I wouldn’t honestly like to be in a queue like that too often, but it did in a way contribute to the atmosphere – it wasn’t just the sheer size of the crowd, the importance of the game or even the fact that we won 3-1 and were never really threatened with being eliminated; it was the struggle that most of the North Bank and Clock End had just to get in. Being inside the ground gave a warm glow of triumph. Who feels like that now, strolling in to the new ground ten minutes before kick off with a guaranteed big comfy seat waiting? No wonder the crowd can’t be bothered to create a noise most of the time.