Photographically, I have many regrets, especially in relation to those football grounds that have disappeared forever. But I’m super-glad I made the effort to get to Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium, before it shut its doors to football’s paying public.
Highbury Stadium has been part of the fabric of Highbury and Islington since the 1930’s. Many of those selling Arsenal memorabilia on Avenell Road used to set up their stalls in the small front gardens of the surrounding terraces, and for hours before the match the area was packed with supporters, who did their weekly socialising in front of Highbury’s main art deco East Stand facade – a fair number still do.
On those occasions I went to take pictures, the new Arsenal Emirates Stadium was taking shape in the background, which has turned out to be a pretty spectacular replacement.
But nothing compares to one of the last icons of a time when football was still the sport of the people. Such was the magnetism of Highbury that I even know Man United and Villa fans who bought tickets for the final season (in the home stands), to make a sort of last pilgrimage into a football past no longer present – in terms of what English football used to be, it didn’t get better (if at all).
The picture above, titled Highbury by Night, is from the 25th April 2005, when Arsenal played against Tottenham Hotspur for the very last time in a Highbury night match (did they win 1-0?).
Modern football grounds can be something of an illusion, relying as they often do on glowing night lights, to give their concrete and steel structures some life. The photo titled Arsenal East (below) is a slice of Highbury that focuses on the jostle of the East Stand turnstiles, and the simple brick work of the stadium and you can even see the old photocopier in one of the upstairs windows.
This image is a favourite of many fans who see it, especially older ones, capturing as it does the buzz and jostle of the match day atmosphere and you can almost hear the squeak-and-click of the turnstile.
It was taken from the upstairs window of one of the houses across the street, which at the time was being decorated. I didn’t know it when I knocked on the door (think I knocked on them all – you have to be cheeky), but at the time the house was empty and I simply asked for permission to sit at the upstairs window with my tripod and lenses.
Prior to kick-off, some girls in fancy dress had been collecting for charity on the pavement below and when the game was under way, a police van pulled up beside them. One of the coppers wound down the window and someone in the back shouted ‘any chance of a peek?…’.
The pretty girl dutifully obliged, to a roar of approval from the Tactical Aid lads in the back and whilst such laddishness wasn’t very PC of the PC, I nevertheless cursed my lack of a flash gun to snap what would’ve made another classic picture.
Irrespective of the direction, if you travel in to central London by train on any pre-or-post COVID Saturday, you’ll see shirts of many colours as both home and away fans head to football grounds across the capital, for their weekly therapy session of rage-and-roar.
Passing through Paddington Station, on my first visit to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, I wasn’t sure about the best line and tube stop, so I tagged along behind the first Arsenal shirts I saw and followed them onto the London Underground.
Those Arsenal colours belonged to a dad and his young son, who was about 5 years old, and as they walked hand-in-hand down the steps and onto the train, they stood as a sort of metaphor for the best of football. They also reminded me of match days with my dad and the unforgettable smell of tobacco smoke, which rose up with the roars from a thousand working men’s pipes.
When I first learned of the development of the old stadium into the Arsenal apartments, I didn’t foster much hope for Highbury’s famous East Stand facade. But when I saw the finished job, I had to concede that the way the general shape of the stadium has been incorporated into the Arsenal apartments’ design (or rather how the development has been shaped entirely around the old stadium) is very impressive.
It’s a little eerie standing on a deserted Avenell Road, listening to the team announcements echoing out of the Emirates in the near-distance, though its is a far more dignified end for a piece of social history than the hideous retail park that was once Burnden Park – uproot the stadium and the surrounding community often falls into the vacant hole.
The Emirates Stadium is well-worked piece of modernism and, unlike the developments that encircle many new football grounds, it has been built in the surroundings that gave its predecessor life and in which it can take root.
But there will never be a ground that represented the golden age of football as completely – and beautifully – as Highbury Stadium.