Bye-bye, Highbury

IN THEIR LAST SEASON AT HIGHBURY, the Gunners had one of their most talented teams ever put together, with the minimum of Englishmen, by their shrewd French manager Arsene Wenger.-AP

On Sunday, May 7, Arsenal played their last ever game at Highbury, 93 years after they had moved there across the River Thames from Plumstead. For many of us former Arsenal fans, it was something of an emotional occasion. I myself had been watching football there since August, 1946, when the Gunners were enabled to move from their temporary accommodation down the road with their historic rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. The need for the temporary accommodation arose because Arsenal Stadium, during the Second World War, was taken over for an Air Raid Precautions centre. Which meant that I, turned into a passionate Arsenal fan by my Irish father, had watched the Gunners from 1942 only at White Hart Lane.

Spurs were incensed when Woolwich Arsenal, as they then were, arrived on the grounds of what was then the St. John's Theological College, feeling their North London hegemony had been challenged, as indeed it would turn out to be, by upstart rivals who had taken root just a few miles away. Though, as it would significantly transpire, Spurs in 1901 had become the first southern professional team to lift the FA Cup, Woolwich Arsenal (founded in 1886 in the Dial Square workshop of that mighty munitions centre) had joined the Football League earlier.

If you ask most people who was the greatest mover and shaker in the history of the Gunners, they would surely reply, Herbert Chapman. The legendary Yorkshire manager arrived in 1925 from Huddersfield Town, where he had won the last two Championships, to revolutionise a previously mediocre club. Chapman was a superb innovator, the shrewdest practical psychologist, winner of two Championships and the FA Cup before his premature death in March 1934.

Yet I would disagree. For me, the salient figure in Arsenal's imposing history must be Henry Norris himself. An autocratic, even domineering, figure, it was Norris, after all, a wealthy Fulham area estate agent and developer, who brought the Gunners to Highbury, though his first desire, rejected by the Football Association, had been to amalgamate them with the Fulham club, which he also controlled. And it was Norris, in 1919, who so controversially, even deviously, got the Gunners back in the 1st Division out of which they had slipped ignominiously just before they came to Highbury.

In 1915, when League football was suspended during the Great War years, the Gunners had finished only 5th in the 2nd Division. Which meant that though the 1st Division in 1919 was due to be expanded by two clubs, they should have had no case for promotion. Spurs and Chelsea had finished in the bottom two places in the 1915 Championship, but because expansion was due, they were expected to be confirmed in the 1st division.

It was now that Norris got together with "Honest" John McKenna, the Chairman of Liverpool and President of the Football League, working out between them a contorted formula whereby Arsenal (who had dropped the "Woolwich" by then) would be preferred to Spurs, because they had been longer in the League! For that matter, so had Wolves, who had finished above Arsenal, but Norris had his way and Tottenham seethed.

But by 1927, Norris had been drummed out of football by the FA for various malfeasances. Notable among them and often cited was the affair of the club's motor coach, but only when I discovered the court report of Norris' abortive libel suit against the FA in 1929 did I know the full truth, wondering whether by then the formerly wealthy Norris had fallen on hard times. For it was shown that he had sold the club's motor coach for �130 — worth a whole lot more, then — endorsed the cheque with Herbert Chapman's name; and put the money in his wife's account!

Under the aegis of Chapman, Arsenal quickly developed the 3rd back game, devised by the illustrious Charlie Buchan, the inside right who'd left Arsenal pre-War over the matter of 11 shillings expenses and gone on to fame with Sunderland. Chapman now brought him back under a remarkable and expensive arrangement of �100 for every goal he scored. The Gunners now took wing, and Chapman brought such future stars as the teenaged Cliff Bastin, who wasn't keen to sign from Exeter at all, and the elegant left back, Eddie Hapgood, who strangely enough had been playing non-League football for Kettering Town disregarded by clubs in his native Bristol. They were two players who would become international stars.

Arsenal used mud excavated from the building of the then nearby Piccadilly underground line to erect their first terraces. But in 1932 and 1936, they erected two superb grandstands, a triumph of Art Deco, which survive to this day and will remain as preserved buildings when next season the Gunners move virtually across the road to the huge new Ashburton Grove stadium. Alas, it was impossible to stay at Highbury, whose capacity was reduced to a mere 38,000, after the Lord Taylor Report demanded following the Hillsbrough semifinal disaster that grounds become all seater. So crowds of up to 62,000 — before the war, a record of 72,000 — became no more than a memory.

The Gunners had to move. With, beyond doubt, one of the most gifted teams they have ever had, put together, with a minimum of Englishmen, by their shrewd French manager, Arsene Wenger, the jewel in the crown being another Frenchman in the centre forward Thierry Henry. In past years, the Gunners had twice done the League and Cup double, had paraded a panoply of stars: Ian Wright, Alex James, Jimmy Logie, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank McLintock, Charlie George, Jack Kelsey, Patrick Vieira. What ghosts will stalk the abandoned but preserved pitch at Highbury, in the years to come!