It hit me like a blow to the solar plexus, so how does it feel to Arsenal fans?
I had not been back to Highbury since the absurdly beautiful Arsenal Stadium was converted into residential flats and very nice they are too. Walking into the pleasant urban square that once was that expanse of greenest green, I looked up and around and saw myself on the North Bank as Adrian Heath scored a 120th minute goal to send us to Wembley in 1984 – and there, standing next to me, was my now dead father, as excited and proud as ever I saw him. I barely registered his birthday last week, but Goodison and other grounds trigger his involuntary memory like madeleines did for Proust.
I pointed out to my son where I sat to watch Everton being torn apart, as they seldom were in those days, by Perry Groves (of all people) in the Littlewoods Cup Semi-Final 1988 and where I had stood to watch my first match at Highbury in 1981 (Brian McDermott the scorer and our nemesis as Reading manager in the FA Cup 29 years on). I showed him where I sat to watch my last match (in 2003) at the old stadium, much my favourite football ground, when we had lost again. I spared him the detail of Anders Limpar’s extraordinary performance in 1991, laying on four tap-ins for Ian Wright as five goals were scored in the first 26 minutes and we lost again. Nor did he get the story of the 1-0 defeat on 31 March 1991, after which I cycled straight into the aftermath of the Poll Tax Riots, which had happened five miles away but might as well have happened five thousand miles away in those pre-mobile phone, pre-internet days.
Twenty-five years ago, I lived opposite the turnstiles for the North Bank, so I would pop-in at three-quarter time (if I wasn’t in the pub) and have a look in at The Library. Saturdays were fun, with the smell of fried onions and burgers wafting in from about 11.00am; but night games were the best, the rush for the 7.30pm start enhancing the crowd’s anticipation and the lights bright bright, even in the middle of London’s urban intensity. One evening, police were everywhere and helicopters whirred overhead. I checked ceefax and there was no fixture, so I went outside to ask the nearest constable about the siege conditions. “FA Youth Cup – Millwall innit”. I left the Londoners to their private battling.
Once I ducked in to see the reserves play on a Wednesday afternoon and my eye was taken by a few players of whom you may have heard – Tony Adams was a shouty teenager, already playing for the first team often and probably captaining the stiffs; poor old David Rocastle was waif-thin, but could pass and move like the player he became. I think John Lukic might have been in goal and I recall Paul Davis playing too, probably on the way back from injury and maybe mad Paul Merson was in the XI – what would he be worth today?
With all that swirling about in my mind, I took my boy into the marble halls and there was the window at which I queued for a ticket for one match or another back in the 80s. Herbert Chapman’s bust is still there and so is the unmistakable feel of big-time football. It’s wonderful that you can still go in.
You can buy a flat in Highbury Square for £1/2M – and I would, if I could. These memories, of course, are, as the advert has it, priceless – and I’m so, so pleased to have them.