Monday, 18 April 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Highbury

Our latest look through the history books takes us to Highbury with Graham Burt of You can follow him on Twitter @gdfeet4abigman

One of the few claims I have to a rather small amount of fame is that I am one of the final people to have run out of the changing rooms on to the hallowed turf at Highbury.  As a fully-fledged member of the Arsenal Scotland Supporters club and a reluctant but sometimes handy goal-keeper I had the honour of being selected to play in a tournament featuring all the supporters clubs from around the country.

Unfortunately heavy rain meant the competition was curtailed into a penalty shoot-out, during which I conceded all five shots and suffered the ignominy of having a nine-year-old girl scoop one beyond my grasp.  In retrospect, given the state of the goal-keeping at Arsenal since the move to the Emirates, it seems quite appropriate.

Despite my hopes of Highbury glory being royally quashed I fulfilled a dream that day.  Walking out on the same beautifully manicured grass (although rather soggy on this occasion) that Cliff Bastin, Charlie George and Dennis Bergkamp had all graced in the previous century with the North Bank rising up in front of me was just incredible.
I had first visited on the 6th April 1996 to watch Arsenal take on Leeds.  Despite having grown up as an Arsenal fan, most of my life had been spent in north east Scotland and the only ground I had visited was Pittodrie in Aberdeen.  For those of you not initiated in Scottish football, Pittodrie was built as close to the North Sea as possible in an area that has less verve than an England press conference.

In contrast, walking down from Finsbury Park and having Highbury's beautiful façade appear through the houses was just magical.  A lot of Highbury's (and now the Emirates') charm was always that it sat right at the heart of its loyal fan-base with the whole community buzzing on match days.

Then there was the stadium itself, which oozed class.  Although I didn't know it at the time Highbury's East stand was a listed building with its marble halls and Art Deco style.  At the sprightly age of ten I was overawed by the feeling of history and tradition when entering the stadium.  Desperate for an Arsenal win, I was overjoyed when Ian Wright popped up twice to send me home happy. 

I returned many times before Highbury was finally decommissioned in 2006.  Fittingly the final years of the stadium's tenure played host to a golden age at the club and which have left me with some of my most poignant footballing memories.  Being a goalkeeper, top amongst them was probably seeing Jens Lehmann brilliantly tip Raul's shot onto the post to preserve a first leg lead in the Champions League tie against Real Madrid in 2006.  You could hear the whole stadium gasp when they saw the slow motion replay on the big screen.

Building the Emirates was an engineering and logistical marvel.  With the modern propensity to move new grounds out to quieter areas of towns and cities it was an incredible feat of organisational power that has enabled such a footballing palace to be constructed again at the heart of the community the club has served since it moved across the river in 1913. 

The benefits of the move are obvious.  By allowing a further 20,000 fans to attend every home match, once debts are paid off from the building of the ground, the revenues will allow Arsenal to continue to compete at the top level.  The move was a necessity and the grand new stadium is befittingly of a club like Arsenal.

Despite this, a lot of fans, I believe, still harbour regrets about leaving Highbury.  Although it was never particularly noted for its atmosphere, sometimes being dubbed 'The Library' amongst away fans, its compact nature gave it a close and intimidating feeling that the Emirates sometimes struggles to recreate.  Maybe partly because of the more airy nature of the new stadium, or the recent, sometimes aggressively corporate focus, Highbury will always be remembered fondly amongst Arsenal fans. 

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Ninian Park, Cardiff

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