By Paul Little (@PaulSLittle)
My Dad has always been good at surprises and keeping things up his sleeve, but in my lifetime, I doubt that any will live up to the one he gave me on a damp and foggy evening in London in the Autumn of 1976…
Having arrived home from the usually uneventful day at school I was sitting at the kitchen table, ploughing through a hearty plate of meat stew lovingly prepared by Mum when Dad suddenly came out with…. “I have a surprise for you boys, tonight we’re going to Highbury to watch The Arsenal”. My brother Chris and I looked at each other and then simultaneously abandoned the stew to sprint to our bedroom and begin to drape ourselves in all things red and white. In those days you hung a scarf wherever your body would allow it. One on each wrist, one round the waist as well as the standard neck scarf. This all served to smother the mandatory Arsenal shirt but was topped off nicely with the oversized Arsenal flat cap or bobble hat and a plethora of shiny badges. We didn’t care what we looked like, as long as everyone knew we supported The Arsenal.
I honestly don’t remember whom we played that night or much about the match itself. That wasn’t really important. What did matter is that we were going to be inside Highbury, watching the team that we had loved for every day of our then short lives. It was the whole experience that blew me away. The tube journey to Finsbury Park Station with standing room only and the muffled sound of cross-firing conversations about the team’s chances of getting a win on the night. It was the instantly recognizable smell of hot-dogs and hamburgers that hit like a sledgehammer as we left the station and began the walk down St. Thomas’s Road. The smell of stale beer was overwhelming as we edged closer to the stadium. We took a left onto Gillespie Rd, first right on to Avenell Road and there it was in all its glory: Highbury Stadium, the home of Arsenal Football club.
Only a pit-stop for a 25 pence bag of monkey nuts and the purchase of a match program delayed our entry into the stadium. From that point on, through rain or shine, when skies were grey, I knew that I would always be an Arsenal fan and that it would be the “club of my life”.
Everything about Highbury stirred emotion in me. It was what I would call a “proper” football stadium. It had a soul, it had character but it was never luxurious, especially for those of us that would queue early before matches to ensure entry through the under 16 and senior citizen turnstile at the discounted rate. The closest we ever came to being locked out was for the “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas debut in 1983. Chris and I had queued for hours and when the turnstiles actually opened all hell broke loose. I made a smart move, pulled us out of the queue and begged a steward to let us in through a side door. I did a really good job I guess as he took immediate pity on us and led us through a network of tunnels, past the police cells and brought us out pitch side right by the corner flag at the junction of the Clock End and the East Stand. What a treat.
Dad knew that we were hooked and at that point he undoubtedly took a deep sigh as he considered the financial impact our love for the club would have on him! He had always worked hard but pushed himself even more to be able to purchase 3 season tickets in the West Stand Lower Tier. At that point I really felt like I was a part of Arsenal and that immediately entitled me to more vocal opinions, both good and bad!!
A highlight for me in recent years has been traveling with Arsenal throughout Europe. I had watched us play up and down the country but the concept of one to two thousand Arsenal fans packing a bag and flying out of London before the sun came up on a bitterly cold mid-week morning never ceased to amaze me. My friend Danny and I always stayed for at least two nights wherever we went. We wanted explore a new city and it always helped provide plenty of stories for the Arsenal abroad back catalogue. From beautiful cities like Seville, Barcelona, Turin or Porto to the not so glamorous Bucharest, Moscow or Villa Real. They each have a place in my Arsenal history and it always made me proud to be a loyal travelling Arsenal fan. I’m also glad to say that for the most part, Arsenal fans behave impeccably in Europe and I for one made friends wherever I went. We would never hit the customary Irish bar, no, we wanted a proper drink with the locals so that they could learn about us, as well as us about them.
As we all know, there have been countless significant moments in Arsenal’s history. In my lifetime alone there are many that stick out – the 1979 FA Cup Final, the disappointing era in the early 80’s, the appointment of George Graham and that memorable night at Anfield v Liverpool on the 26th of May 1979 to name just a few. What’s just as interesting is the development of Arsenal Football Club as a whole. It’s indisputable that as a business, AFC is run as well as if not better than any club in Europe. The “business” side of the club has become increasingly important and newsworthy as the years have passed and it’s safe to say that the development of Highbury and the move to The Emirates stadium is a hugely significant landmark in the club’s progression. I for one truly believe that this would not have been possible without the appointment of Arsene Wenger in 1996 and in turn his relationship with David Dein. In my opinion, as a club manager he is a visionary and putting team selection or transfer business aside for the moment, he has become a kind of architect for Arsenal and has mapped our future both as a business and as club that plays a particular and world-renowned brand of football.
All that said, the news that we were to leave Highbury left me physically shaken, and anxious for the future. Not so much about the new stadium itself but more about the fact that Highbury was to undergo major surgery and that those beautiful stands were to be amputated, so to speak. We debated the whole strategy for hours in the pubs, pre and post match. Was it a smart move? Could we afford it? Would the new stadium have atmosphere? Would it be affordable? Would we love it like we loved Highbury? I was never really sure of any of the answers to those questions but I’ve always trusted the club and so I guess it was more a case of “going a long with it” for me. Anyhow, 3 years and 390 million pounds later we had our new home and a new era for Arsenal Football Club began.
My first experience of The Emirates was for the Dennis Bergkamp testimonial on the 22nd of July 2006. It felt so significant as we closed the book on one of the most famous footballing careers in history and opened another in our new home. It was a smart move by the club. My brother Chris and I were nervously excited about the new stadium. It felt vast, the seats were massive but comfortable, the beer and food was expensive but the pitch was reassuringly plush, as we’ve come to expect. Everyone seemed a little bemused by it all but there was a certain amount of fun in finding our way around, heading to take a look at the seats that would become our regular match day vantage point and making sure we knew where the bathroom was and where we could buy a pint and a pasty.
It’s fair to say that from the outset our new home lacked a bit of atmosphere. In my opinion only recently has it really come to life. I’ve spent more time in the US in the last 18 months or so and therefore don’t get to as many matches these days. My brother however is still as loyal as ever and so I get full reports! When back home earlier in the year I saw us play champions elect Man City who we managed to defeat 1-0. We were magnificent, it was enthralling and I truly noticed a change of atmosphere at The Emirates. It felt like it had found its soul and for a split second I felt at home again. I really hope that it becomes the fortress that Highbury once was. No team had ever enjoyed trying to beat us at Highbury and we want them to feel the same intimidation when they walk onto the pitch at The Emirates.
This all started for me when I was 6 years old. Interestingly, I have a 7 year old nephew, Dominic, who has already experienced that moment of magic that is the first time you go and watch The Arsenal. We draped him in as much red and white as we could from the day of his birth ensuring that his loyalties were well placed before he even knew about it. I took him to his first ever match a little before his 3rd birthday. I couldn’t wait any longer. In 35 years time it will be interesting to get his retrospective on what is hopefully also the club of his life. If he can get a fraction of the enjoyment and experience as many emotional peaks and troughs that I’ve had as an Arsenal fan, then he’ll be a lucky boy.
As for the upcoming season? Well I’m actually quietly confident that we can finally cement the new era of our club with a trophy of some description. Overall, whilst the loss of Robin Van Persie is a huge blow, the new purchases certainly have pedigree and are highly rated. If anyone can make it all gel together Arsene Wenger can. I hope that we see a big improvement defensively and that Steve Bould can impart some of his vast experience as part of one of the best back 4’s in footballing history on our current defenders. In any case, as Arsenal supporters, we all know that we will be treated to a style and blend of football that other teams can only dream about producing. Let’s hope we can get over the line this season and get back to winning ways.
Born and bred in North London, Paul is a lifelong Arsenal fan currently in Austin, TX. Born in 1970, Paul is as enthusiastic about The Arsenal now as he ever has been, even from across the pond!