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That All Important First Game

BY GARETH STRINGER / @Gareth_Stringer

You never forget it do you? That first occasion where you go and see your team and get to experience a match day and everything that entails. It might seem a little clichéd to write about that for this great collective, but of all the highs and lows that supporting Arsenal has contributed to my life, that first game remains truly unforgettable.

It was Saturday April 11th 1981 when, aged just seven, my Dad, a lifelong Gooner, took me to Highbury for the first time. I was of course unfeasibly excited and, although I can’t remember exactly, probably hadn’t slept for days in the run up to the match.

Arsenal’s opponents that day were the mighty Leeds United – a far bigger force in those days although less than they would become a few years later - or indeed were in days before my time. Let's call it a transitional period. 

We followed what would eventually become a regular journey – drive to Potters Bar, the fast train to Finsbury Park and then that wonderful walk down from the platform to the area immediately outside the station, being jostled by fellow Arsenal fans, each following their own match day routine and heading for the ground, or the pub or whatever it might have been. 

The sights and smells were all new to me but even now, more than thirty years later, I can see them and smell them. The traders selling scarves and badges, the aroma of onions from the hotdog and burger stalls, the programme sellers, the banter, the “peanuts, roasted peanuts”, the singing. Most of all though, the anticipation that everyone seemed to share. A common purpose if you like. 

Seeing Highbury for the first time as we wound our way down from Finsbury Park raised my excitement to a new level – a kind of seven year old’s ‘Defcon Two’ I would suggest for those of you familiar with military parlance or films like Independence Day! 

I recall being slightly scared as I made my way through the huge, heavy wrought iron turnstiles, still reeling as I was from a quick walk to the main entrance to try and glimpse the marbled hallway. Everything was so big and so new and so exciting – was it like this at every stadium I wondered? No chance – because we were, and still are, by the far the greatest team, the world has ever seen. 

Nothing however could compete with seeing the Highbury turf for the first time. Of all my footballing memories, and I’ve got a fair few stored away by now, that is probably the one single moment that, at a push, I would select if I could choose only one favourite. It was like a carpet – so green, so lush and so unlike anything I got to play football on at primary school! It was almost all too much for my young mind to take in and, although this is the first time I’ve written about that day since, it all seems much clearer now. Strange. 

What of the Arsenal of that era? Well, I suppose like most eras the team had its legends and it also had those who, whichever way you look at it, made up the numbers. Names like Jennings, Sansom, Sunderland, O’Leary, Stapleton and Rix were my favourites – they are the ones, among others, who I remember most fondly, especially Graham Rix who was possibly my favourite player at that time. Less so the likes of Colin Hill, Raphael Meade and Steve Gatting – players who put their heart and soul in to every game they played I’m sure, but who failed to make any hugely significant mark on the Club’s history or my seven year old mind. 

Naturally I barely took my eyes off the Highbury pitch for 90 minutes, striving to remember every moment so I could recreate it in the back garden or the local park as soon as I got home. During spells of bad weather my friends and I even resorted to playing indoors with an Arsenal cushion at one point, using a fireguard as the goal. Alas it was impossible to score and when his dog chewed the cushion we had to cancel proceedings and call the Pools Panel in, but that’s another story. 

Back to the game and I seem to recall there being some trouble with the Leeds fans at the Clock End which was simultaneously thrilling and rather worrying, though the stewards and the Police soon got that sorted out and I was able to get back to memorising proceedings on the pitch. I was far too scared to sing up in front of those around us although I was forced to stand up quite a lot to see what was going on and I definitely learned some new words that day – additions to my burgeoning vocabulary that I genuinely had never heard at home or school before.

Best of all though was watching it all play out for real. You could see how quick the players were, you felt every tackle, practically dived for every save and yes, did manage to bellow at the officials, nothing’s changed on that front!

That first visit to Highbury was a truly life changing experience and one that will stay with me forever. It was the day that Arsenal stole my already committed heart, as if to say, “I know you love me already, but that’s it, we’re together forever now, don’t go leaving me for another club”.

As if I would. A lot has happened since then of course but, despite all the many incredible highs and the numerous desperate lows, I remain as committed as ever, albeit from afar these days as I rarely (sadly) make it to see Arsenal in the flesh. When I do it remains a fabulous experience and The Emirates is an incredible football stadium and Arsenal is still an amazing club with brilliant supporters. But, deep down, nothing will ever come close to that April day in 1980 when I experienced it all for the first time.

Oh, by the way, the match finished 0.0. Gutted.

Reader Comments (1)

Great story, thanks for sharing. I've only recently begun supporting the Arsenal and cannot wait to get to the Emirates for the first time. A bit disappointed I won't have the opportunity to see a game at Highbury, but I wouldn't trade this club for anything.

December 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUSA Gooner
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