I grew up in Hackney and so my team had to be either Arsenal or Tottenham. In the late 40s there was no TV, only sketchy reports on the ‘wireless’ and old newspapers if you could find them. So my only knowledge of football was from school mates who were lucky enough to have fathers. My Dad was lost in the 2nd World War and I had no uncles who were interested in football. I first learned about Arsenal as a young boy from my best friend Brian whose uncle was Len Wills the Arsenal right back.
I first went to Highbury on my own as a 9 year old in 1952 as I was desperate to go, Brian having moved away & I had nobody willing to take me.
I remember the great adventure I had getting the 236 bus from London Fields to Blackstock Road. The walk with the crowd & then turning into the top of of Avenell Road to be amazed at my first sight of Highbury looking down the hill. I think I paid 1/3d to get into the Clock End and made my way to the front just to the right of the goal which became my permanent spot for some years until moving round to the standing enclosure in front of the West Stand. I was filled with awe looking at this vast arena and sea of people, having never seen anything like it.
To my right in front of the East Stand there was suddenly music playing and my first encounter with The Metropolitan Police Band. This was like being at the Hackney Empire and I felt very special to be a part of such a big occasion. Then looking above them seeing what seemed to me like 1000s of rich people in big coats smoking cigars. How could I have ever imagined that I would become one of those elite many years later. I have been fortunate enough to witness that same first time wonderment on the faces of my children & grandchildren, always the same open mouthed gasp.
I can’t actually remember anything of the game other than thinking how loud it all was and how massive the players looked and that Jack Kelsey became my immediate hero as I was looking up at him for a whole half! I know I cast covetous eyes over to the enclosure by the tunnel as I couldn’t afford the 3/- to get in there!
Unfortunately I have minimal recollection of those early games, only flashback snippets like Cliff Holton with a rocket shot nearly hitting the Clock with a missed penalty, a flying Jack Kelsey save from a Sunderland long range shot.
Funny incident aged 10 arriving for a Christmas game with rosette, scarf and home-made rattle for an afternoon kick-off only to end up in tears outside as it had kicked off at 11 o’clock! It must have been v Blackpool as I know I had wanted to see Stanley Matthews! (28/12/53).
I often wondered why I found such a joy & comfort going to Highbury. Perhaps the Club was like a surrogate father figure as I had no real male role models or close male family and being in this world of men fulfilled my need for a feeling of belonging & sharing. A bit heavy but an interesting possibility.
After starting Grammar School I finally found friends to go to the Arsenal with. Indeed one of my best friends in those early years was a Tottenham fan named Roy & we would go to each other’s games every Saturday. Imagine that happening now?
I can remember my first away game was the FA Cup midweek afternoon replay at Bedford 1956. Bunked off school & my Mum never knew!
I do have memories of the 1958 Man U game. How packed the Clock End was, how fantastic they were, piledriver from Duncan Edwards, how did Tommy Taylor screw that one in, 3 down at half time, 3 all 10 minutes into the second half then 3-5 then 4-5 with my hero Tappy scoring & me seeing so many goals close up.
I can remember coming out of school on the Wednesday after to see the newspaper seller’s billboard announcing the Munich plane crash with none of us having the money for a paper so just asking everyone who did buy one what had happened. Just so unbelievably shocking.
Funny story about Derek Tapscott was when he was sold to Cardiff in 1958 one of my friends was so upset that he went over to the dark side where he’s dwelled ever since, poor soul. An extreme reaction I think!
By the time I started work I’d become a very dedicated fan never missing a game & with a new set of friends started regular away trips.
It was so easy in those days as you just decided to go, turn up & queue.
Obviously I have a million memories of games over 64 years as we all do but it’s interesting remembering some of stand outs. In 1963 against Tottenham ending 4-4 after coming back from 2-4 in the last 5 minutes with the equalizer by “cushion head” Geoff Strong in the last seconds of the game in front of 68,000. Funnily enough the same thing had happened the season before at their place 2-4 down & ending up 4-4 as it did as well in 1958 at Highbury again after being 2-4 down.
I actually had a conversation recently with an ex. Tottenham chairman, a friend of a friend, about those games.
The away trips to strange places like Darlington in the FA Cup where we ran across the pitch to get to our supporters then on to 3rd division Peterboro’ only to lose to Derek Dougan’s winning goal 2-1.
Going to Blackburn 2 weeks running 1st the league then the Cup both ending in defeats. Can remember having to walk along a canal to get to the ground in the snow as well.
Trips to Liverpool & Everton with the kids asking to “Look after your car mister”. It’s ok son it’s insured…….not against fire Mister! They still do it today! On the way to Everton this season I told that story and as we parked 3 lads came up and said it!
1966 v Leeds on a Thursday night in the rain in a crowd of 4500! Leeds were the dirtiest team ever and I remember poor George Eastham getting kicked to bits by Bobby Collins and Billy Bremner until he had to be carried off. We lost 3-0 to end a really awful season of poor football & very low gates resulting in Billy Wright being sacked.
Finally getting to Wembley in the League Cup in 1968 & it had to be against the hated Leeds and duly losing a brutal game. Nothing new there.
Then the next year Wembley again but this time we must win against 3rd Division Swindon.
Oh no this is the Arsenal. Their goalie Downsborough had the game of his life of course and we went behind, then Bobby Gould got a 90th minute equaliser. Surely we’d beat them in extra time. We were run ragged by Don Rogers and lost again.
My level of expectation at Arsenal matches was quite low so winning was always a bonus. I think that it was at this game that I first had those feelings of going from the depths of despair to the heights of ecstasy and back again, unfortunately something that I still get today.
But we now had the makings of a good team and the next season proved it when I saw us win our first trophy for 17 years by winning The Fairs Cup v Anderlecht in 1970. There was an unbelievable atmosphere at Highbury that night with the crowd behind the team non-stop. I remember arguing with the bloke next to me after the first goal went in as he was complaining that it was only 1! A bit like in Fever Pitch, you can’t score 2 until you score 1!
Then the elation of Jon Sammels smashing in the winning goal from the right hand corner of the box, the realisation that we had won our first trophy after so long & the joy of celebrating on the pitch with the players afterwards. Unless you were there it is impossible to describe that feeling of sheer ecstasy after watching so many years of dross.
This is why I get upset at the modern fan who constantly criticises the Arsenal without ever having had to suffer countless years of awful football & failure.
You can’t appreciate the good until you’ve suffered the bad. Football, as in life.
That next season 1970/71 was such a wonder. We actually were now a very good team, tough to beat. So many memories of course, being at Stoke and getting beat 5-0 coming back so depressed but then going unbeaten for so long.
The Monday night at White Hart Lane started with queuing at the ground at 3 o’clock and the gates being locked by 6 o’clock with 50,000 inside & as many outside. No live TV of course and I remember the Finsbury Park Astoria being refused permission to show the game live. I stood in front of the shelf for some reason and like everyone spent the whole game eaten up with nerves. The joy of the goal followed by the awful feeling that an equaliser would give the title to Leeds. A win or 0-0 that was it. The ball in the Arsenal goalmouth Bob Wilson diving on the ball Mullery and Gilzean kicking at him. The final whistle the elation of running on the pitch dancing and going mad collecting a piece of grass for whatever reason. People forget that it was every bit as dramatic as Anfield.
That amazing feeling that I’d finally seen my team win the league after going for all those years. How surreal that it was at the home of the enemy.
Then came the drama at Wembley on Saturday which is so well documented but what an unbelievable experience.
How lucky have I been to have actually seen us win 3 doubles.
It was very unusual to now be among the favourites for honours for the next few years but Bertie Mee broke up the team far too early & stopped it fulfilling It’s true potential.
The FA Cup replay v Derby in 1972 during the 3 day week when 63000 people had the afternoon off made for the most uncomfortable squashed experience ever especially with the broken crash barrier which decided me to get seats from then on.
I got my 2 season tickets in 1974 in the East Upper which I had until the end of Highbury.
Just so many match stories but I’ll stop there before it gets boring.
The 1978 season was the first complete one for my late son Dean. When we lost in the Final at Wembley and he just cried and never said a word for 3 hours I was so proud as I knew he had the passion. He sat with me in those seats every game until he was tragically lost in 1999.
So that is My Arsenal Story and I’m still there every game with all the modern fans and their ‘must have now or it’s the end of the world’ philosophy which depresses me so much.
But if I was younger would I feel the same?
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