Friday, March 23, 2012

My First Trip to Highbury: From the Goonerboy Archives.

Instead of doing a match preview, I thought I'd do something a little different today, something a little more in line with the excellent Arsenal Collective site. (Please visit it and submit an entry to the 'Memory Bank' - I did.) I also felt a little inspired by Mr Stillman's great piece on Vital Arsenal.

My first trip to Highbury is one of the most profound memories of my childhood. As you'll see if you read my piece on the Arsenal Collective, I was a Londoner exported to South Wales at a fairly early age. I wasn't brought up in a family of Gooners - I became a Gooner and converted my family.

My first football match was in 1990 when I was extremely young. After I had been blown away by the World Cup of that year, my Dad took me to see Wales play Belgium at the old Cardiff Arms Park (the precursor to the Millenium Stadium - scene of so many Arsenal triumphs).

It's hard to emphasise how different that experience was to going to a game at the Emirates. Everything - and I mean everything - inside the stadium was filthy. When I went to the toilet at half-time, the entire floor was covered in an enormous pool of urine. No one waited in line. Men pissed against the walls, in the sink, on the floor.

The game itself was great. Wales came back from a goal behind to win 3-1. But my overwhelming memory of that day is of a ground which was a dark, concrete mess, and a field which was covered in mud.

The Welsh team of that era was actually pretty good, and I went to watch a lot of the Euro 1992 and World Cup 1994 qualifying games. I saw Wales beat the then world champions Germany 1-0 in 1991. And, over time, the surroundings didn't seem as gloomy, and the pitch even seemed to improve.

But my desire to go and see an Arsenal game was near fanatical, especially after I diligently watched every moment of ITV's coverage of our 1994 Cup Winners Cup triumph. My trips to see Wales were like a tiny appetiser that I devoured while waiting for the main course.

Finally, in 1995, my Dad and I took the plunge. He signed me up as Junior Gunner and got two tickets to a match.

Arsenal vs. Leicester, 11 February 1995.

Let's face it, we were pretty awful that season. We somehow managed to get through to the final of the Cup Winners Cup after some penalty shoot-out heroics, but we then lost in the final to the ridiculous punt up the field by Nayim, in a moment that I still consider to be the most painful in my Arsenal supporting life.

All that was to come. In February, the club was, frankly, in crisis. We were not doing very well in the league, and were on course to finish in twelfth place that season, just six points above the drop-zone (bear this in mind next time you complain about Arsene!). My favourite player, Paul Merson, had been admitted to being addicted to just about everything that's bad for you in November 1994, and had only just returned to the team. Tony Adam was struggling with his own demons, although he had not yet fully admitted the extent of his problems.

Another storm was brewing elsewhere, as rumours had begun to spread about illicit payments being made to George Graham as part of certain transfers. I vaguely remember asking my parents what a 'bung' was around this time. Georgie G was the only Arsenal manager I'd known, and it seemed incomprehensible to me that anyone else could do the job. Little did I know that I would witness his last home match in charge.

It was a rainy, Februrary day in North London. My Dad and I may have bought something in the shop - I honestly can't remember. We went through the turnstiles, and my first clear memory is, for some reason, the fact that my Dad's plastic pint-glass had an Arsenal logo on it, which I honestly thought was amazing. We had tickets in the still relatively new North Bank.

The atmosphere inside the concourses was completely different to that in Cardiff. People talk about Highbury being dank in comparison to the Emirates (and it was), but in comparison to Cardiff Arms Park it was a palace. They even had a band playing. Everyone mingled around happily despite our crappy form in the league that year. There was none of the gloom and slight menace that had pervaded my previous experiences at football grounds.

But the moment that truly stands out of that day, the one which I will never forget, was when I walked up the steps to take my seat.

Seeing the inside of Highbury for the first time was a truly once in a lifetime moment. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. The pitch was almost dazzingly green. In my mind, it's a colour which I've never seen replicated anywhere else. The pitch was also so close to the stands. When the ball went into touch, the players - including heroes of mine like Merson and Seaman - were only metres away from you if you were in the front rows, as I was. The famous clock of the Clock End was right in front of me. The other stands looked beautiful. The whole experience was probably the closest I'll come to a religious epiphany. It felt like I was somewhere important; somewhere that I'd always been destined to go.

Then I remember George Graham appearing on the Jumbotrons, and praising the fact that 31,000 people had turned out that day for the match. Leicester were bottom of the league, we were playing poorly, and the game hadn't sold out.

It wasn't hard to see why Arsenal were in such a mess when the team was read out. The likes of Eddie McGoldrick, Chris Kiwomya, and good old Jonny Jensen featured that day. Ian Selley also played, and I didn't realise until looking up the match on Arseweb today that this was actually the game in which he broke his leg - a significant injury from which he never really recovered. Keown replaced Selley when he went off injured, back in the days when he was still playing the odd game in midfield and was widely considered to be a bit rubbish.

Mostly, I just remember a lot of huffing and puffing, and not a great deal of quality. George had formed some of English football's finest teams in the late 80s and early 90s, but things had quite clearly fallen apart by 1995. To put it in perspective, Leicester were terrible, but we were really not that much better. It was also tipping it down with rain by this point, and, being sat so far forward, my Dad and I got absolutely drenched.

With the game goalless at half-time, we retreated into the relative warmth of the concourses, and had a few hot drinks. As the second-half started, we took advantage of the numerous empty seats in the stand, to sit further back in the lower tier.

Arsenal huffed and puffed some more and finally made a breakthrough. On a day in which not a huge amount of quality was evident, good old Merse put away a decent volley to put Arsenal one ahead.

Instead of then giving Leicester a drubbing, Arsenal seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence. Leicester's start player, Paul Draper, eventually picked his way through our defence to score an equaliser without, as far as I remember, a huge amount of time remaining. Seaman then had to pull out a number of saves to keep the game level, and the match finished as a rather disappointing draw.

But it had been more than enough for me. The whole day was easily one of the best of my life. Even the fact we were a bit rubbish just makes me even more nostalgic about the whole thing.

Indeed, to most other people attending that game, the match was probably just another low-point in what was a fairly disappointing season. But, for me, it was something infinitely more special, and a day I will never forget.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pretty sweet post mate. Nice one