The Arsenal and Me – Gary’s Dads Toe Story

A few of the “more seasoned generation” (or old as I am frequently reminded) had been asked to share some of their early experiences of The Arsenal and Highbury. Here are a few of mine whilst I can still reminisce and the rapidly approaching memory loss hasn’t taken full effect!

I was always destined to be an Arsenal fan, my Dad had followed in his Fathers footsteps to Highbury (even though they were from Bethnal Green), so my fate was really determined from birth. Even so, I had never entertained thoughts about another team, even though in 1969 that lot from Middlesex were still being talked about as the best team in London and loads of local kids supported them or Manchester United.

I asked for a football cake for my 4th Birthday and Dad must have thought I was ready, as my present was to attend my 1st game. However The Arsenal didn’t have another home game that season. Apparently I made sure he didn’t forget, reminding him every few days throughout the summer, until finally the new season arrived and I got to go to Highbury, to see The Arsenal play Nottingham Forest. Dad clearly expected me to enjoy the experience as he invested in a folding stool for me to stand on! We stood on the Clock End in front of one of the few barriers that were dotted about the terrace. I don’t remember much about the game, however we won 2-1. My abiding memory is that there seemed to be loads of people and that Highbury was massive.

Anyway I had been bitten by the bug and every week I pestered him by asking when we were next going to see “my team”. Its strange, I used to think Dad was a grafter as I hardly saw him. He worked 6 days a week and Saturday mornings he was up and out even earlier than normal. It was a few years later that I found out he used to go to the Greyhound racing at Hackney or Romford, we only went football when he won and felt flush!

However, we did start going more regularly (his luck must have been in) and a routine began to develop. En route to the ground we would:

• Either have Pie and Mash or visit Pellicci’s café in Bethnal Green Road
• Park near Highbury Barn
• Whilst walking to the ground would get a big bag of Monkey nuts from the green grocers

I used to love looking down Avenell Road, seeing the crowds and all of the people milling about.

Dad used the same turnstile every game. He put me in front of him, handed over the money (along with something extra for the bloke) and we went through together. Those were the days! I do wonder how much extra the turnstile operators made from the Dads bringing in their children. The actual attendances were well below the official numbers!

I attended my first away game at White Hart Lane in 1971, (yes that one!). Dad returned from work early and said we were going football. My parents had an argument about it (Mum thought I was too young at 6 to go to an away game!). However, Dad clearly got his way as we set off seemingly hours before kick off.

After finding somewhere to park we walked to WHL, where it was chaos, there were people everywhere. Dad saw a couple of faces he recognised and we joined the same queue. After what seemed an eternity with loads of pushing, arguments and shoving we somehow got through into the ground. The flights of stairs appeared to go on forever, however once at the top we were standing on the Shelf! However, we made our way to near the Park Lane, found a spot near the back, where I could stand on the trusty stool and wouldn’t get pushed over from behind.

There seemed to be Arsenal fans everywhere, Dad certainly knew a lot of people around us from Highbury. The rest, as we know is history, the game seemed to pass by in a blur, although I heard a lot of new words (even my Dad said a few and he rarely swore). Afterwards he said I shouldn’t repeat them at home, as Mum would stop me going again!

When the goal went in there was pandemonium. To this day I have no idea how in the melee I remained upright and didn’t get knocked over. Somehow I remained untouched as everyone around appeared to know I was there and avoided tumbling into me. At the final whistle it was the first time I had seen men crying, as happiness and relief swept over everyone.

Anyway, a few days later it was the FA Cup Final and we settled down to watch it on our new colour TV, which had been delivered on the Friday. Dad insisted he couldn’t get tickets for Wembley, though I now suspect his trusted 1&6 reverse forecasts at Hackney and Walthamstow (Thursday night greyhounds) had let him down.

The game seemed to be a bit of a non event on TV, nowhere near the thrills and excitement of being there. At one point, I was bored so I started playing with my wooden fort and soldiers (remember I was only 6). However, once extra time started I switched back to the game and was very disappointed when Callaghan scored. It seemed only as if seconds had passed when we equalised, was it George or Eddie, I didn’t care and still don’t!

We were now level again. Dad started talking about there could be a replay and if so we would definitely go. I found myself caught in a terrible dilemma, did I will us on to get a winner or hope the game petered out to a draw so I could go to the replay?

Sitting there not knowing what to wish for, good old Charlie George decided matters for me with that goal. He also managed to break Dads big toe as well in the process, as in celebration Dad jumped up and kicked my fort!. I remember him rolling around the floor in agony and then having to go and lie down whilst I watched us celebrate with the cup!

A game at Highbury I shall never forget was the 1973 FA Cup quarter final replay versus Chelsea. Outside the ground was heaving and inside the Clock End was packed. We managed to reach our usual spot, however the crowd was already swaying and pushing and it was quite scary. Dad decided it wasn’t safe to stay where we were, so put me on his back, and headed towards the stairs in the corner. He had difficulty getting through the throng, so he asked people ahead of him to pass the my standing stool forward. Eventually we made it to the safety of the stairs, however the stool was nowhere to be seen.

Unsure what to do next, we headed downstairs and stood by the television vehicles that were parked at the back of the Clock End (The BBC were recording the game to show the highlights). One of the vehicles side doors were open and Dad asked whether we could watch the game there. The grumpy engineer said no and closed them.
Dad then looked up and spotted the Police scaffolding gantry at the corner of the Clock End and an officer kept looking down at us. To our surprise, as the teams came out, he gestured for us to climb up!

I remember feeling petrified ascending the old rickety wooden ladder, with Dad in close proximity. The climb seemed to take forever, however suddenly I reached the summit and was up high over looking Highbury that was full to bursting (The official attendance was over 62,000 though I suspect it was many more). I sat with my legs hanging over the edge of the platform with the best view ever!

I will never forget the penalty, as George Armstrong was fouled inside the area near the West Stand, right in front of me. The referee wasn’t up with play (some things never change) and signalled for a foul outside the box. However the howls of derision from the crowd along with player protests, convinced him to confer with the linesman and he changed his mind. The penalty was given, Alan Ball stepped up and scored! The game was eventually won 2-1 and we were through to another FA Cup Semi Final daring to dream of Wembley and our 3rd consecutive final as we only had to play Sunderland. A certain Jeff Blockley burst that bubble and put paid to that one!

A grainy press photograph of the crowd showed a small boy sat on the scaffolding. It was yours truly! Sadly no copies appeared to have survived 😦

There are plenty more memories I could share, however I shall end my ramblings there as you are all no doubt bored by now!

Gary

 

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