A blend of Art Deco grandeur and ordinariness that meant it fitted perfectly
Some stadiums, especially of the modern kind, appear to have been dropped from the skies almost at random. An example: architects, club directors and planners must have had good reasons to build Bayern’s Allianz Arena where it stands today, so far away from the city centre and from any decent public transport hub, but these reasons do not immediately spring to mind when you finally get there. It is possible that the aim was to allow the structure to impose its presence, its identity, commercial, sporting and otherwise, over all its surroundings as well as on the crowd which fills it on match days. If that is the case, it has succeeded admirably in its purpose, much more convincingly than the overwhelming majority of bowls which have sprung up all over the world in the past 20 years. The Allianz Arena proclaims “I am a stadium,” with a distinctive and seductive voice, which you can hear from a long way away, especially at night, when the red lights come to life. It is a bold statement, enunciated with confidence and style, in which it is true to Bayern’s history. For all its beauty, however, it stands in isolation. It dominates its space to the extent that it defines it in totality and, by drawing attention so forcefully to itself, becomes an inward-looking stadium. It is an enclosure. I find it beautiful, and suffocating.
Highbury was different. Highbury didn’t proclaim “I am a stadium.” Highbury proclaimed “I am Arsenal Football Club.”
The old Arsenal ground was not the most elegant, the most beautiful or the most atmospheric of stadiums; in my footballing atlas, these distinctions were awarded without a second thought to the Egyptian Army Stadium in Alexandria as soon as I entered the oldest football arena in Africa for the first time, a decade ago. One of the few stadiums genuinely to deserve that name, as its dimensions match those of a classical Greek στάδιον exactly, Alexandria’s second ground is bookended on its west side by a monumental arch, which our guide assured had been transported from the 1904 Saint Louis World Exhibition (and Olympic Games), on the east by one of the very few remaining sections of the city’s Roman walls. The rows of seating are made of long, light-grey marble blocks while the window panes of the Royal Box, in which the faint scent of cigar smoke still lingered at the time of our visit, are made not of glass but of rock crystal.
It is as if the gods, having grown weary of Olimpia, had decided their Games should be held in the city of Alexander the Great and be given a worthy setting. Highbury, much as I loved it, could never compete with this, just as Herbert Chapman could not compete with Zeus the Thunderer.
The gods grew weary of Alexandria too, alas. A few years ago, after Egypt had failed to win the right to host the 2010 World Cup, the authorities decided to rejuvenate the old stadium. Thousands of blue plastic chairs were bolted into the marble terraces. The result is not pretty. Sacrilegious, yes, far more sacrilegious, in fact, than the transformation of Highbury into a desirable address for well-to-do Arsenal supporters (and Robert Pires, who bought a penthouse in the new development) at the end of the 2005-06 season. Highbury, at least, had been spared disfiguration. It was demolished. Football had, literally, moved on.
I still feel a pang when I walk past the façade of the East Stand, but nothing as strong as I feared it would be when we said our goodbyes after playing a drunken 20-something-a-side on the abandoned pitch on the night after Henry scored a hat-trick against Wigan Athletic on 7 May 2006. There’s a photograph of me somewhere, sitting with beer in hand in Peter Hill-Wood’s presidential armchair. In the home team’s marble bath too. Arsenal FC had given a free pass to all-comers on that night, and what a night it was, what a wake. Today, it’s more a kind of peaceful and not unpleasant melancholy, and gratitude to have known and loved the grand old stadium when it was the orchestra pit for the greatest team ever to wear our colours. What is left is the gravestone of an old friend at peace, nothing to feel too sad about, in fact. The graffiti celebrating the club’s doubles, scored by anonymous hands in a number of sewer grates and paving stones on Highbury Hill, are far more poignant to me.
Perhaps it is because Highbury could not be reduced to four banks circumscribing one of the smallest pitches in English football. I was fortunate: my own introduction to it had been propitious. It was an evening game, late in the autumn, played under a steady drizzle, which increased a feeling of familiarity with surroundings which I’d only visited in my imagination until then. Rain is reassuring. This, I thought, is the kind of weather English football should be played in. As we walked out of Arsenal station, I unrolled my umbrella, which joined several hundred others to bob up the Avenell Road; we, the football legionaries, composed a very English version of the Roman testudo. Then came the realisation – what a thrill it was! – that thousands of others had walked on the same pavement for well over half a century and that I’d truly become one of them, no more distinguishable from the mass than a raindrop among millions of other raindrops. However, each of us was irreplaceable and dispensable at the same time. In a word, we were fans.
Highbury itself was a short stroll away, but somehow, we were already within the ground. It may have to do with the stadium’s architecture, a mix of Art Deco grandeur and ordinariness, and how its true creators, William Binnie and Claude Ferrier, managed to create a design – which utterly transformed Archibald Leitch’s original conception – that was so enmeshed in the fabric of the working men’s cottages which line those streets that, to a first-time visitor, it was hard to distinguish what constituted the stadium and what did not. In that, again, Highbury was proclaiming “I am not a stadium, I am Arsenal Football Club,” a meeting point between the proles and the patricians which, regardless of the social incongruity it may suggest today, didn’t feel in the least artificial or absurd to me (and, I am convinced, to those who had preceded me). All of us had a share in the ownership of this magnificence. Highbury was the expression of a cross-class connivance which, today, would probably seem suspect. It doesn’t to me, not for a second. That’s what a stadium can do to you when this stadium expands far beyond the lines of its plan, as Highbury did, and becomes shorthand for belonging.
Older Arsenal supporters reminisce about the daring cobweb patterns of steel on each side of the East Stand, which are still extant; the Marble Halls, which were made of terrazzo – a posh version of concrete – and are now unrecognizable in their new guise as a reception area; more to the point, the closeness to the pitch, which every footballer who’s ever played at Highbury will mention to you. You could have slipped a sixpence in Ted Drake’s shorts pocket if you were standing by the corner flag, and suchlike. That has gone too.
But that, to me, is not the greatest loss. Tempting as it is, there is no need to adopt the tone of a Betjeman, mourn splendours past and compose a football elegy of that sort. Highbury, for all its presumed nobility, was first and foremost a commercial concern, much as the Allianz Arena is today – or as Lord’s, to which it has been compared so often, was as well. Henry Norris, the former Fulham owner who uprooted Arsenal from Woolwich to bring them to North London, cared very little, not at all in fact, about what we now call ‘heritage’, a notion that would have made him and his contemporaries frown in incomprehension, then double up with laughter. He cared about money and political clout, a great deal. For all this, his intuition was right, and thanks to the genius of Chapman, the vision of a couple of architects and the loyalty of a new audience (for whom football was just as new a concern at the time as it is today in so-called ‘emerging markets’), a club was born at Highbury.
It didn’t die there either. But I wondered for a while if it had. Highbury wasn’t dropped from the skies, you see.