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50 years only the game is the same.

February 28, 2015

I was going over Highbury to watch the Arsenal during the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s before ITV screened Spurs v Nottingham Forest and BBC screened Spurs v Manchester United the first live league matches on those channels. Then BSkyB started the coverage when the Football League Division one clubs quit the league to start the Premier League.

I was on the terraces and I saw the things that did not help the supporters of today, got involved sometimes too. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes inside the club because I was not really bothered and not sure many others were either. Not like today when everyone has to know everything and even those that don’t know everything going on inside the club think they do know.

Saturday was football day. 3pm Kick offs (remember them?). At around 1/1.30 we left home for Highbury from where My Dad and two older brothers lived in Southgate Court, it was simply a ritual. We would walk from Southgate Road up Downham Road – Rotherfield Street – Essex Road, through Cannonbury, over St Paul’s Road, up Highbury Grove and down Avenell Road to the Stadium.

Highbury (Arsenal Stadium) it wasn’t always packed back then, in fact having such large standing area’s a lot of the time it felt only 2/3rds full. Back in 1971 when Arsenal did the double for the first time the average gate was 42000. We used to stand on the Clock End and I either used sit on my Dad’s shoulders or sit on the stanchion (that was painful let me tell you, more so when cold). Arsenal didn’t always win; in fact they lost quite a few matches. However, I did have Dad’s memories about what it was like in the days when Arsenal did win things going backward from 1953. My Dad started supporting Arsenal back in the 1920’s, so there were loads of memories. Dad would be 102 if alive today.

Later in 1966 the family would move to Hilldrop Crescent off Camden Road, mates and I would get the bus 253 or 29 to Finsbury Park and walk along Plimsoll Road and there, hidden amongst the houses was Highbury Stadium. The North Bank, Clock End, both massive terraced area’s that could hold a combined 45000 plus supporters. The Art Deco East and West stands giving the stadium a 63000 plus capacity. It never seemed like a library to me back then.

Being a young lad in the 1960’s the first memory I had of winning trophies in football was seeing England lift the World Cup in 1966. On the domestic football front though it was different, Arsenal won nothing while Spurs did the double in 1961 and added another FA Cup in 1962, This was followed by Spurs winning the Fairs Cup in 1963, another FA Cup in 1967. West Ham even won the FA Cup in 1964, the Cup Winners Cup in 1965 and then the League Cup in 1966. Even Chelsea won the League Cup in 1965. the 1960’s was not Arsenal’s decade.

Arsenal up till 1967-68 had played West Ham thirty-eight times

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Arsenal up till 1968-69 had played Spurs sixty-five time

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I had to wait till 1968 and 1969 for my first Arsenal Cup Finals and Arsenal lost both to Leeds United 0-1 and Swindon Town 1-3 in the then League Cup. Though not far from Islington, Wembley was a long journey home after a defeat more so Swindon a game we were expected to win..

Then on 22 April 1970 I sat on the fence out the back of Hilldrop Crescent and listened to updates of the away leg in Belgium (no saturated TV coverage back then). Arsenal were 3-0 down, here we go again I thought three finals, three defeats. However, Ray Kennedy pulled one back – there was hope. Then on 28 April 1970 my mates and I went to Highbury for the second leg of the Fair Cup Final more in hope than thinking Arsenal could actually win the trophy. However, Arsenal only went and bloody won 3-0 on the night, (4-3 on agg). I like many others went mental. Arsenal supporters piled onto the pitch at the end to celebrate. Finally I had seen Arsenal win silverware – a night I will never forget. I took some grass from the pitch a shaving of one of the goalposts, naughty boy I had a pen knife on me. I kept that grass in a jar for ages.

The next season, I went with mates and brothers to almost every home match and quite a number of away matches. It was great following the Arsenal. At the time my eldest brother had a red and white Austin Cambridge we travelled in. Arsenal ended up doing the double that season. No longer could my Spurs mates mock Arsenal at school. My next eldest brother travelled away to Everton (2-2) that double season with a mate and they got hit by a truck leaving Liverpool and he spent a lot of time in Walton Hospital and missed most of the season. Alan now has one leg two inches shorter than the other for his troubles. Later he came with me in a stretch Limo to Anfield 89. Today he has early onset dementia, is in a home and remembers nothing. How sad is that? That’s a problem! Not losing a game of football or not winning something for eight years.

So my early years watching football was one of excitement, one of affordability, one of turning up at a football stadium, paying at the turnstile and going into the ground. One of relating to the players who did not earn huge sums of money. Players who showed loyalty, players who the fans had songs for and loved. Also memories that if you didn’t go to the match and the highlights were not on the Big Match or MOTD or mid-week Sports Special then you simply NEVER saw the goals, ever! My Son was born in 2001 and I reckon with the club season DVD’s Luke can see every goal Arsenal have ever scored in his lifetime. I’ll never have that.

Ticket prices!!! Are they too high? For many YES!!! With the new football TV deal worth a staggering £5.136 Billion, more once the rights to streaming and radio are also sold.  Now is the time for clubs to use some of that money to bring the cost of tickets down, not simply give it to Chairman, shareholders, players and agents. I understand that football clubs can charge big numbers for certain parts of their stadiums which are priced to meet the customer needs for particular areas of the stadium, such as Diamond club, executive boxes, and club level. Clubs could even get away with getting some supporters to fork out £2000 for seats on the Upper tier half way line as prime positions could demand prime money for people with cash to burn and choose to sit in this areas of the stadium.

However, below this the normal supporters should not be not cash cows and paying around £35/£80 for a match ticket to a football match is a bit steep. It should be noted this is NOT only an Arsenal problem it’s a football problem. Football supporters want their clubs to be successful football clubs, yet the downside of this is in the modern football age, success comes with a massive price tag for the football supporter in turn the football supporter now has massive expectations. Once the club you support starts challenging regularly, reaching Cup Finals and all other expenses that go with watching football, replica kits, programmes, food, drink, travel the cost mounts up big time.

I got my first season ticket in 1988. I didn’t need one before that. I’m not even sure why my mate and I decided to get one in 1988 either as the ground could hold 57000 plus at the time. However, decided we did and we strolled along to the Marble Hall ticket office in Avenell Road, asked for two season tickets (the book type back then) and walked out with them. No long waiting list back then.

Arsenal was a drug (still is) and it got to the stage when I was travelling away with family or mates all over the place to watch Arsenal, what else were weekends for? I’d travel anyway I could get there.  Once I was with a group including brothers that went by a London Route Master bus to Leicester from Archway bus garage. The football special was a favourite mode of travel. A right piece of junk that was saved from the knackers’ yard, not even tarted up and put into service to carry cattle football supporters to matches. There was no catering served up by the rail authorities, oh no! That was done by the supporters clubs or supporters. They’d park up in what would normally be the mail or storage coach of the train and serve warm cans of drink, cheese and/or ham in soft rolls from black plastic bags. Did I care, of course not, I was on the way to watch the Arsenal. The train would get to your destination, the fans would be held up by Police to wait for any other trains that were coming, thus saving them making many trips. Sometimes mates and I would sneak off and make our own way. Nowadays you’re lucky of you can get a train back to London after a game.

Most of the grounds I went to were dumps that had been built decades before and only saw a lick of paint in the summer. As far as football clubs were concerned, the fans just turned up, throw anything at them. The food was horrible, pies and Bovril. Dr Marten’s, Ben Sherman, Levi’s and Harrington jackets we the clothes to be seen in, my favourite back then was two-tone mohair trousers and Solatio’s (basket weave and tassels) Good solid shoe if you need a kick and you could also run in them, mostly away 🙂

The fans would disembark the train to the chant of “Arsenal boys we are here shag your women and drink your beer, la la la la la la la…..” Arsenal!!! Arsenal!!! Arsenal!!!

Mob boys Johnny Hoy/Jenkins would lead the Arsenal away fans the rest would follow. Tottenham Yids, Chelsea head-hunters, Zulu’s from Birmingham just some of the other clubs mob names. Trouble/violence was following football clubs around. There were running battles, Supporters simply running amuck through cities/towns putting the shits up the locals who were just going about their business and Police in numbers having to control things.

Margaret Thatcher wanted a football membership scheme and Her Minister for Sport, Colin Moynihan tried to bring it in but failed. David Evans of Luton introduced a membership scheme at Luton Town who had banned fans for four years after the battle of Kenilworth Road where Millwall fans ran riot. My brother lived in Welwyn at the time so I got a membership by using his address.

Football has had its disasters. Ibrox, a barrier collapsed, even Highbury had a barrier collapse under pressure one afternoon in a FACup 6th Round match against Derby County where over 66000 turned up but thankfully there were no injuries. The Bradford fire. The Heysel Stadium in Belgium where fighting between Liverpool and Juventus supporters left 36 dead. Then there was Hillsborough where sadly 96 lost their lives. I remembered leaving Highbury after beating Newcastle 1-0 and heading back to Stoke Newington Park Street where I had parked my Car. I was hearing snippets of what was happening at Hillsborough. I got in my car turned the radio on and could not believe what I was hearing. Just crazy.

Steve & Leigh Anfield 89

My mates and I later travelled to Anfield to pay our respects to those that died in and laid a red and white football wreath (above). We queued for ages and met fans from many football clubs all waiting to do the same. It was a very sad and yet poignant moment when I entered Anfield that day with mates to lay our wreath amongst the thousands and thousands already there and see all the scarves that hung from the barriers on the Kop. It’s a moment in time I would never forget. A moment in time that made me think…..  Hard! Arsenal won the league that season. I started a new job and still there and I met the wife and still with her.  It was time to settle down. I realised football was just a game.

Though football violence itself was not attributed to some of those incidents listed above, football violence was giving football a bad name and a stigma attaching itself to the game. This along with antiquated stadiums meant that the Taylor report would see all-stadia introduced in England for the top two divisions. The fences that surrounded some pitches and even penned in some fans would go. The huge standing terraced areas in football stadiums would disappear to be replaced by seats. Highbury had been rebuilt including the Clock End and North Stand the capacity was reduced 38500 from 63000. Being a reduced capacity all-seater stadium and with success the ground was selling out most weeks.

From 1986 both George Graham and Arsene Wenger brought success back to the club. With this success came the need for Arsenal to get a bigger stadium. Clubs like Manchester United had a stadium on land that could be developed easy and that’s what they did, slowly over a few years taking their capacity up to 75000. For Arsenal to compete with Manchester United they had to move. Highbury could not be re-developed big enough to compete with Old Trafford. I think the maximum seating Highbury could be expanded to was around 48000. So the Emirates was built.

With all clubs now having all-seater stadiums the whole nature of the game changed. Violence inside grounds stopped (well apart from Millwall) as close circuit TV could spot any trouble makers. Banning orders were put in force.  It was made illegal to enter onto the field of play. This meant Police not so much Police presence was needed as much inside grounds and instead the clubs would employ stewards. Police were still about outside the grounds though to stop any potential trouble.

Stadiums became a much more family friendly atmosphere with no violence. The whole demographic was changing. All-seater stadia were being made bright, clean, comfortable places to go to watch football. All-seater stadiums also meant higher ticket prices could be charged across the board. With violence being eradicated from stadia this also meant many businesses could now put their name in sponsorship to a football club without the stigma it might have created for them in the past.

Today there are clubs who are still at their original grounds though some, really just in name.  Tottenham’s ground still called White Hart Lane but it’s not what was their twenty years ago, neither is Stamford Bridge. Two stadiums redeveloped over the years on the site where the old ones used to be, have these refurbished grounds got soul? Tottenham always seems to have a decent atmosphere, in a smaller stadium yet they will soon build their own new 56000 seater Stadium, will that have soul or simply be a money pit?

The Premiership was born in 1992/93 and after small TV contracts to show live football with the BBC and ITV the newly formed Premier League choose BSkyB as the channel to show live football. This meant there would be no football on terrestrial TV. BSkyB TV threw money at football for live televised league games. With so much more televised football this meant businesses sponsoring football clubs could get huge exposure of their name and product by advertising in the grounds, on shirts, even naming the stadiums.

I’m sure the violence back in 60’s/70’s/80’s had a huge effect on the way football is today. So while some may complain about how the game has been sanitized, how supporters can’t stand up to watch football matches and how things are not what they used to be, it’s partly football violence that has had a hand in the change. The authorities were looking for excuses to change the way people attend football.

TV has now just about almost taken over the game and the sanitation of football is great for TV, great for companies who can sponsor football and pay for advertising. Great for the clubs who could make stadiums all-seater and charge more. Great for players whose agents can get a large slice of the pie for their clients. Also benefitting ex-footballers as they scramble for being experts on TV by the bucket load. It’s said Thierry Henry was paid £24m for his five-year contract with Sky Sports. However, many loyal supporters are being forced away and therefore the atmosphere in stadiums is suffering.

TV has also taken over the fixture list and for many big clubs fixtures are chopped and changed around at will. No thought at all is given to the supporters who have brought season tickets or match day tickets to timing or travel. Of course TV and the clubs say they do think about the supporters, but it doesn’t really show, does it?

Today I pay £3000 for two season tickets at Arsenal so my Son and I go to Arsenal.  For this I get twenty-six matches, yet once TV has messed the games around I miss quite a few. When I first got my season ticket, you were basically guaranteed a ticket for the Cup Final should you reach one. Today with 44000 season ticket holders at Arsenal, that is no longer the case as the FA do not give out enough tickets to participating clubs. I’m struggling to think of an advantage of having a season ticket apart from making sure I can get to home games when I can TV allowing.

For those of us who both attend live matches and watch on TV, you’re left with the over analysis of matches on TV, where expert after expert is called upon, sometimes four or five for one match, to tell us about what we have already seen as if going to football for donkeys years I have learned nothing and need to hear the wise words of these so-called experts so I can make sense of it all.

Today I take my Son Luke to Arsenal like many other fathers, even mothers do. Some parents even take their daughters as many women now go to football now as it’s much safer. The Emirates is Luke’s’ second home now, like Highbury was mine. Luke only ever went to one match at Highbury and that was the last ever match against Wigan. I loved Highbury as much as the next person who spent year after year watching Arsenal there. I miss the old ground, however, football has moved on and so have Arsenal and I live with that. One day my Son will have been going to the Emirates for forty years and hopefully by them Arsenal would have won a few trophies and the stadium will have its own history and soul and not be the lifeless bowl some call it today.

However for that to happen the atmosphere inside the Emirates needs to be improved. This can only be done with the club and the supporters working in tandem with each other. Their needs to be areas for both home and away supporters, behind the goal, not in corners of the stadium. these seats need to be cheaper and given to supporters who want to make the noise that creates the atmosphere that has a large part in the game. Stadiums also need safe standing areas to be re-introduced where supporters can create an atmosphere. Any game can be exciting, but it’s 50% better when there is also an atmosphere created by home and away supporters

I started out a young lad in love with the beautiful game and fell in love with Arsenal FC. The good times, the bad times, the very average times and what a ride it’s been. Mee, Howe, Neill, Graham, Rioch, Arsene, Cup Finals, titles, great mates.

Today I’m still in love With the actual game and with Arsenal, that’ll never die, but my love for much of what surrounds the beautiful game today I’m not so in love with.



One Comment leave one →
  1. Dusty Kart permalink
    September 26, 2016 18:41

    Great read mate I was a Hoxton boy who traveled the same route also Solatios what a shoe used to get mine from brick lane as well as my brogues my brother used to run with Johnny Hoy in the late sixties told me many a tale also he moved to Harlow only lasted a year there said it was too quite moved back to Hoxton opened a cafe in whitmore road sadly died about 5 years back oh well must move on.
    Be interested to read any more stories if you can think of any but football isn’t what it was that’s where lifetime friends came from not like now never been to the Emirates sadly it’s not Arsenal any more.

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