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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Highbury Memories

An article for The Gooner fanzine - the first I've written for them for years - about a football match I went to nearly two decades ago. On the cutting edge of current events, as usual.

Arsenal 3-1 Everton - League Cup - 24th February 1988

Team: Lukic, Winterburn, Sansom, Thomas, O'Leary (Davis), Adams, Rocastle, Hayes, Smith, Groves, Richardson

Three quid to stand on the North Bank. I thought it was the bargain of a lifetime then, and I still think so now. An exiled pauper, I pay ten quid to watch an older, fatter Dean Holdsworth warm the bench of my local Nationwide South outfit, five divisions below. There is no justice.

Outraged, I was, when the gate fee went up to four pounds, and I wasn't the only one. Gooner editor Mike Francis actually hurled himself bodily, suffragette-style, under a police horse in protest, later claiming "The bloody thing trod on my foot". Leading from the front as always, a martyr in the war against ticket prices. Naturally, you weren't a real fan back then unless you had an Arsenal/Celtic hat, could do an impression of the "Programme'n'Handbook" guy outside the North Bank, and had been attacked by a police horse. Poor, poor Mike.

The North Bank terrace played a special part in my life. So much so, that on the Bank's last day, I was one of many who stayed behind, making our point to club, authorities and bored-looking police in the most futile way we knew. We hung around for an hour, sang some songs, and went down the pub. I chipped off lumps of concrete from my favourite spot on the Top-Side-of-the-Bank with my car keys, which I now keep in my bedroom, much to the wife's annoyance. She has no idea.

The most memorable occasions in my life which haven't involved exchanging bodily fluids have happened at Highbury. I've sat behind Osama Bin Laden in the Clock End. (Now hiding in the one place nobody ever goes. The trophy room at White Hart Lane. FACT!) I've hidden in the ladies' toilets during infamous terrace battles. With my own eyes, I've seen a grown man drop his trousers and do a poo behind the North Bank. I've sold copies of The Gooner outside Finsbury Park Mosque. That's how I've lived my life. On the edge.

I saw the odd football match, too.

One game sticks in my mind, summing up those newly-confident days of George Graham's reign - a League Cup semi-final against Everton, in the day when they could still turn out a decent team. We were the holders, were 1-0 up from the first leg, and the other semi featured the might of Luton and Oxford. The Cup was ours for the taking, and this was what that lot down The Lane might call a Glory, Glory Night, if they had them anymore. The game fell just days after a manic FA Cup win over Manchester United, where Nigel Winterburn started his special friendship with Brian McClair. Result: a full house.

So high were expectations, that I have never, before or since, experienced so many people swarming to the ground. I actually drove my car (an Austin Allegro with a 'Go Go Gunners' sticker in the back window that had seen many an away trip) the wrong way down a one-way street and over a few kerbs to find a parking place on Highbury Hill, only a few yards from the Gunners pub. Trying that stunt these days and you won't see much change from two hundred quid.

For those of you brought up on all-seated grounds, how little you know of the thrill - not to mention the sheer bloody-minded terror - of standing on a packed terrace. The Everton match was one of these nights of camaraderie, of going with the sway and surge of the crowd, of "get your bloody elbow out of my face". No tickets for the North Bank, then. Not even for a cup semi-final, and the whole world and his gormless non-footballing mate ("Which one's Lukic?" "He's in goal" "I thought you said that was Neville Southall") wanted into Highbury that night.

I can't say it was all sweetness-and-light in those days, either. I when the entrance of Thomas, Davis and Rocastle was greeted with the shout "Bloody hell! there's half of Africa out there!" I just hope the twat who said that to get a cheap laugh off his friends is as ashamed now as the rest of the Bank made him feel then.

A scramble for the match programme. Not for the eagerly anticipated words of wisdom from George, but with cup final tickets at stake, for the token on the back page that proved you'd actually been there. That token could be the difference between getting a ticket from the cup-final ballot, or going without. Missing a crucial West Ham token or not, I was one of the unlucky ones. I got a ticket to see Caesar's Great Luton Woe.

On nights like that, you never actually saw much of the pitch from the top of the North Bank. Half the time, you weren't even facing in the right direction, and if Big Nose was on his usual perch on top of the crash barrier, you got a charming view of his arse and very little else. On a night of frantic football, defending an unexpected 1-0 first leg lead, much of the first half is erased from my memory. Such was the crush, I was almost certainly concentrating on staying upright and singing songs about the after-hours hobbies of David Pleat.

Half-time brought much-needed relief, not only from the events on the pitch, but also for the crowds on the North Bank, as many slipped away during their half-time constitutional, deciding to stand elsewhere for the second half. It's a relief for me, a notorious short-arse, that I can now actually see the pitch and not have to rely on others for a running commentary.

"Why don't you just go in the seats?" I was frequently asked, and my reply always questioned their sanity. I tried the West Upper once and once only, and by God, Hornby was right.

Goal. Micky did it, triggering a spontaneous explosion of joy. The hugging of complete strangers. The bemused looks from the police who never understood, rugger-buggers to a man. I have literally worn out my video of the moment Thomas's goal went in that night. The Clock End rose, as a man, about eighteen inches, and the roar caused a minor earth tremor up the Seven Sisters Road. A joy to behold.

Everton equalised, causing a minor panic amongst the hordes, and that nauseous feeling you get deep down watching from thousands of scousers leaping up and down with unbridled joy at the other end of the ground. Two goals from Rocky and Alan Smith killed the tie completely and sent us to the relative luxury of the Arsenal Tavern happy little Gooners. A quantity of the Tavern's specially engraved glasses were "liberated" that evening, and they are now living in happy retirement at my Dad's house in Cornwall, where they don't have football. I'll bring them back, just don't get the law involved, right?

Those last years of the 80s were the start of interesting times. The team was on the cusp of something huge, and we are still riding the wave now. Undeniably, there have been downs as well - Hillsborough (a day I also crashed my car and cried like a girl), the barren decline-of-George years, the sad death of one of our heroes of that February night; but it was matches like that which saw the greatest sea-change of them all. You were proud, at last, to be an Arsenal fan. I still am.

posted by Alistair Coleman at 9:59 PM

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