“Write something about Arsenal please, Dave. Ideally from the Highbury days, the ‘good old days’ they say. That should be easy for you!” That is 3Retro’s polite way of calling me old of course, but sadly they are not wrong, and my memory of Highbury goes back to my first visit in November 1976, aged 10. What they are looking for is nostalgia for a bygone era, and they have asked the right chap.
Football – certainly top-flight football – has changed irrevocably since I began making the pilgrimage to my place of worship, the North Bank, in the early 1980’s once I was allowed to go on my own. We cannot change what the Taylor Report, Sky and the Premier League have done, and ultimately most would not wish to go back.
However, that will never stop Gooners of a certain age reminiscing about the ‘good old days’! That said, the 1980s were not all good and the Taylor Report – post the awful tragedy at Hillsborough – was needed, as hooliganism was rife. Worse still, with the harsh years of early Thatcherism inducing a social divide and bitterness, the terraces were sadly rich recruitment territory for far-right and racist groups.
So, it was not all lovely attending football back then and there were hazards attached to standing as a teenager in the famous North Bank at Highbury. The risks for me were heavily outweighed by the sheer thrill of being able to say I was a match-going Gunner, and not in a seat, but standing with thousands of my peers, mostly far older than I. Sadly at current Arsenal, even if we do look at establishing a safe standing area, that feeling, and those experiences cannot be replicated today in the sanitised world of the Premier League. I reiterate this is not a criticism of what is, (because at 55, I am happy to take my comfortable padded seat), but more a nostalgia for what once was.
What I am talking about in truth, is the build-up to a match as a North Bank teenager, and the atmosphere created both pre-match and during the 90 minutes by standing ends of passionate supporters. The pre-match experience is so different today as all match tickets and seats are pre-purchased and allocated. Because of this, fans, myself included, (guilty as charged) will arrive from the pub, restaurant, or from home just in time for the kick-off. This is not conducive to an atmosphere build-up in advance of the whistle.
As a 16-year-old lad, I would arrive, pay at the turnstile with my hard-earned paper round money, at around 90 minutes before 3 o’clock – yes, they were pretty much all that way back then! I would be amongst the earliest because I was small and wanted to ensure I took up a position near the middle of the North Bank, halfway up. I would sit and read the programme, maybe eat some sweets purchased on the way or at the little kiosk by Arsenal tube. I might even buy some peanuts from the seller who would roam the terraces shouting out his singular wares. I would usually be with a pal from home, and we would discuss the team and who we hoped would play, but the moment we were killing time in anticipation for, was when our heroes came out to warm-up in front of us, because this was when the matchday vibe and atmosphere truly began.
Today, I will hardly ever see the players put through their paces in the warm-up – and even if I am in my seat, I will pay little heed to them. In 2022, they are millionaires who I hope will perform for the team I love, but in 1982 it was oh so different. The arrival of the players was the switch for the singing to commence. Each player’s name would be sung – each with their own chant – and as you might expect, there was a pecking order based on our affections.
So, we might begin with Rix (oh the irony), Charlie Nicholas, O’Leary or Woodcock and work down. We would not stop a player’s song until the individual concerned had acknowledged our efforts and our adulation. Once we had attained this, we could cheer and move on to the next player’s signature tune. With some players the acknowledgement might be a simple wave, but I used to love Johnny Hollins’ trademark little run towards us, one arm raised, with his index finger pointed at us to show his appreciation. It was this ritual that began the telling build up of atmosphere, buzz and noise, and it continued when the players returned to the dressing room for their final preparations.
Back then, being part of a proud North Bank faithful, who would sing against the Clock End, or in tandem with them, was everything to me. If I am honest, perhaps in hindsight, more important than the football in some senses. It must have been, because we arrived early and took that position slap bang in the middle, knowing full well that we would be surrounded by fulling grown mean, smelling of beer and fags, all of whom were several inches taller than us. You see, the anticipation of something special occurring in front of us was far more exaggerated back then.
The crowd would rise as one when an Arsenal attack looked to threaten the North Bank goal, and my mate and I would not be able to see a thing. We didn’t care because being part of that grown-up fan experience and excitement outweighed the small fact that we did not actually see the ball hit the back of the net. There were no big screens as I recall in the early 80’s – they came a tad later, so we would wait for Match of the Day, still basking in the glory of being in the mass of Arsenal humanity that rose, anticipated and celebrated in a surge and as one at the time.
It helped that Highbury, in comparison to other grounds, was compact and the atmosphere seemed accentuated as a result. I have no idea why the latter-day version became known as ‘The Highbury Library’. In fairness other grounds have retained some of the old pre-all seater atmosphere, and in comparison the library nickname was perhaps well-deserved. But that was not ‘my Highbury’, which in the 1980’s, even when the football was average at best, still boasted a loud crowd, or it did in my memory at least.
The Emirates is an impressive stadium and of late the crowd is certainly improving on the singing front. It is helped by performances on the pitch but at the beginning of 2021/22, ironically it was helped indirectly by COVID. The 2 for 1 beer offer to encourage fans to get in the ground far earlier certainly elicited a better pre-match atmosphere. Perhaps if the club made this a permanent thing in the hour leading up to the hour pre-kick-off we might get back to something like the old Highbury pre-match vibe. Because if the crowd is warming up with a re-installed player chat appreciation singing session during their warm-up – something not witnessed in over 30 years – my bet is that we would not stop!