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The Ghosts of Highbury

BY PAUL TUVEY / @BuxtonGooner

I met my oldest football mate Jay at half ten at Arsenal tube station. I walked up the quiet windy tunnel, still grinning from the words of the tube driver...

"This is Gillespie Road, also known by another name, but due to my North London heritage, I cannot bring myself to say it."

Our brief plan was to have a peek around the old ground before the match at the new one. We have both moved far north of London in the last five or six years, and this was our first close-up look at Highbury since we’d left.

Instinctively we headed to the North Bank entrance on Gillespie Road and squinted through the gates. Jay was right – as you looked, in your mind’s eye, you could see the turnstiles and you could imagine the walk up the steps to the terrace. It seemed as real as the last time we’d done it together, stopping at the top, drinking it all in before the bulldozers came to visit in the sad summer of 1992, our faces replaced by painted expressionless ones on the mural as they booted us down to The Clock End.

Turning right up Highbury Hill, we paused at the entrance to the West Stand, that little deco oddment that led to the great stand behind where I saw my first Arsenal home game in 1981.

Up the hill, and left onto Aubert Park, and straight up to the corner of Avenell Road.  Looking left and down to the East Stand, my favourite view of the old girl. We’d switched to drinking at The Bailey sometime in the mid-nineties, and this was the sight that greeted us after a bit of nip and tuck following the yomp over Highbury Fields.

Looking down, again, it was hard not to imagine our usual journey down amongst the hordes of red and white on matchday filling the road, or the misty glare of the floodlights in the early evening, the smell of the smoke from the ropey hot dogs and burgers, the breath of the horses in the cold night, skipping over their shit towards the entrance of the new North Bank.

We glanced up to where the changing rooms had been, nestled tightly in the bright white grandeur and Art Deco beauty of the stand. Ian Wright hanging out of the window, arguing with supporters after  that home defeat to Blackburn, or throwing out his kit after better times. The Commissioner outside the entrance to the MarbleHhalls, the crowds gathered around waiting for the players, the programme and fanzine sellers, tucking copies of The Gooner and One Nil Down Two One Up in our back pockets before another quick pint in the North Bank bar and a listen to some shit band.

‘It’s all about the ghosts’, Jay said.

And they swarm the place.

The players no longer with us, the legends gone, whispering through the gardens built upon the old pitch, Bastin, James, Drake, Hapgood – and the ones that are still around  that left their mark so indelibly on the plush grass. The sounds, the smells and the emotions are still tangible if only for an instant. The goals, the roar of the crowd, the surges forward in the massive North Bank, being lifted off your feet, the madness of the celebrations, the panic amid the smoke bombs, and the tears on the final day.

The faces and the personalities we’d miss, so Arsenal – The Bear, Rip-Roar, the shrieks of Maria. The undercover Spurs fan selling peanuts ‘PEANUTS! ROAAAASTED PEANUTS!’, back further, the Police Marching Band, and then the bloody Shamen at the start of the Sky Sports era.

Its heritage, of course, means that some of it will be preserved forever. Walking up to The Emirates just before kick off, I smiled. Truly a great stadium, and I believe, one we’re lucky to have. But luckier still, the old one lurks behind and always will.

Reader Comments (1)

This a wonderfully evocative piece. Thank you for taking me back to some of the happiest days - The sweet shop under the North Bank. the line for the khazi under the North Bank, the open Clock End before the gentrification, scarves on wrists etc etc.

It is my history

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBig Raddy
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