I was born a gooner - a fan of Arsenal Football Club. What I mean is it wasn’t really a choice. It was down to a lottery of location. North London was where I was born and grew up, and in Primary School or outside in the park, you were either Arsenal or Tottenham. Luckily, I was an Arsenal boy.
"I believe Highbury had a special spirit. It's a cathedral, a church. You could smell the soul of every guy that played there". - Arséne Wenger
I went to my first game at the age of ten. We played in Highbury Stadium then, often called the finest in the country. Not because of its size - it was incredibly small - but because of its art-deco style of architecture. A classy listed building it was with a creamy white exterior, long and narrow windows with red frames, and elegant steps at the entrance. It’s not often a football stadium looks like something out of The Great Gatsby.
I kept going back to Highbury stadium any time I could. It’s true what other fans say, it was quieter than other stadiums but nonetheless, the atmosphere really came alive when it mattered - in the important games. What I always loved about Highbury was not just the stadium but also the local area, the Victorian houses around the ground, the walk through the autumn leaves of Highbury Fields and the vibrant pubs before matches began. The stadium was like a temple that brought together the surrounding local community – Holloway, Highbury and Islington.
Built in 1913, Highbury was more than just the home of Arsenal Football Club. It also functioned as an Air-Raid Precaution Station during the Second World War when it was hit by a German bomb. In 1966, Muhammad Ali fought a world title fight here against Henry Cooper and won. But for Arsenal’s local fans, we have so many memories here that conversations about this old ground can last for hours and remind you of how things were in earlier phases of your life. This sentiment for the stadium and the club was the basis for Nick Hornby’s book "Fever Pitch", which sold over a million copies and has been made into a film twice. In 2006 however, Arsenal played their last game at Highbury before moving to the newly built Emirates stadium.
Football used to be more about community, before footballers were multi-millionaires. The big money started pouring in during the 90s and by the 00s the game had fully transitioned into a new world of sky-high ticket prices, TV deals and advertising money. When Arsenal left Highbury and moved around the corner to The Emirates, the old Highbury was converted into flats now known as Highbury Square. For us Arsenal fans this wasn’t a sad end to the story. In fact, it was a huge relief. It meant that even though we have a new home, the old one still stands, its façade still intact, our memories still have walls and windows, and of course, those steps at the entrance.
Tourists from all over the world come to London and visit the new Emirates Stadium, particularly for the Arsenal Stadium tour and museum. What I’d say to them is this; take a short walk around the corner to Avenell Road and imagine the raw energy and emotion that once filled the insides of those white walls. This was our Highbury.
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