SWOL Arsenal Month: The Story of My Final Farewell to Highbury

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Thierry Henry of Arsenal on the Final Day of Arsenal's time at Highbury (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

No matter where I lived, Arsenal’s stadium at  Highbury was always my second home; the place where I learned lessons that would stand me in good stead in later life. This was my cathedral, and within it I developed a faith of sorts.

The news that we were moving to a new stadium just across Drayton Park was inevitable and exciting. The whole thing became real during the 2005-6 season as the huge structure in Ashburton Grove became visible from the North Bank and East Stand at Highbury.

As the end of the season approached, we were involved in a fight for a Champions League berth with the neighbours, whilst progressing to the continental final for the first time. As if that didn’t get the adrenaline rushing, the realization that few more pilgrimages would be made to the home of football was sinking in quickly.

By the time that May 7th, 2006 arrived, I was determined to soak up every moment of what was bound to be a spiritual experience at the ground. So much rested on the result that day, but nothing was going to distract me from taking in as much of the old girl and her surroundings as possible.

Getting to Highbury in the late morning, I was staggered to see so many people had the same idea. There would be no mind numbing pre-match session in the Twelve Pins (my pub of choice back then) on this day.

I negotiated the various barriers to walk all the way around the famous old stadium. I re-enacted the stroll down from the top of Avenell Road that I remembered from my childhood , when dad used to park in Highbury Fields. That last view from the top of the hill is embedded in my mind. The old club shop, the back of the Clock End, and the iconic facade of the East Stand.

Was any approach to a stadium as surprising and as magnificent as that? Who could believe that a mass of concrete and steel could be the cause of so many tears being shed long before kick-off?

The gates opened one last time and I was inside. I rushed to check out my seat in the East Lower, where for so many years we had a couple of season tickets. There was my seat, row 1, and taped to it the farewell tee shirt.

I just stood there and looked around the place, savoring those last images. Then, it was time for one last Bovril and pie downstairs by the corner where as kids you could transfer from the schoolboys enclosure to the North Bank if you could persuade an adult to pretend to be your dad!

I walked the length of the passageway to look one last time at the door where the players would disappear into the bowels of the stadium after parking in the old indoor training centre behind the Clock End. Back in the sixties and seventies, this was the place to get autographs and wish the players good luck for the game that followed.

Ghosts were everywhere. The legends passed down from fathers to sons had walked this corridor, and played on that lush green turf down the steps. Back in my seat with an hour to spare, I studied each stand in detail.

The West Stand, where I stood at a North London derby next to the visitors section for the immaculately observed minute of silence for David Rocastle.

The Clock End looked very different from the night in 1970 when we ended a seventeen-year trophy drought in the European Fairs Cup Final against Anderlecht. The back step was a great place for a young lad to watch his heroes with a sixpenny bag of “peanuts, roasted peanuts”.

Then, the North Bank. A place that hosted many a rite of passage for Gooners, long before we were given that moniker by the neighbours. When it was a terrace, and full, a moving wave of humanity swayed up and down the steps. A later memory, the sight of the upper tier of the new stand “bouncing” as Everton were beaten to secure the first leg of the double in 1998. On this day eight years on the bounce would be repeated.

The match that followed raced by in the blink of an eye. The emotions ebbed and flowed as news filtered through from the neighbours game at Upton Park, and Arsenal gave us one last heart-fluttering roller coaster of a game. Tottenham Hotspur were ahead; we were behind. In the end we had won, Spurs had lost, and the Champions League place was secured. That added, yet seemed secondary to the occasion.

There followed a superbly choreographed farewell celebration. Constable Alex Morgan singing his lungs out, over eighty players from past eras parading, Roger Daltrey performing “Highbury Highs”. Then the presentations with Thierry Henry joining the great and the good on the platform causing thirty-five thousand voices to chant in unison, “SIGN, SIGN, SIGN”. The sight of the players sitting on the edge of the stage after it had all finished, soaking up the atmosphere one last time, will stay with me forever.

Then it was over, and the time arrived for the farewell party to start in the Twelve Pins after a slow walk up Blackstock road where it became apparent how many thousands of fans, unable to get a ticket, had spent one last afternoon as close to the old lady as they could. It sunk in how privileged I was to have secured a seat for a never to be forgotten day.

The team had to move. But, for us fossils, the new stadium will never have the character, atmosphere, and presence of Highbury. Obviously future generations will get to experience highs and lows at the magnificent bowl that is our new home. And, I hope this helps them to develop the same bond with it that we had with its predecessor.

It was a unique place.

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