BY DAVID LINTOTT / @davidlintott
I was born an Arsenal fan, way back in June 1989. I had no choice in the matter, it was foisted upon me by my uncle who, within minutes of my arrival into the world, sped round to my parent’s house and stuck an ‘Arsenal Supporter’s Room’ plaque on my bedroom door. Unlike most contemporaries in my decaying seaside hometown Eastbourne, there was to be no Man United glory-hunting or Chelsea-come-lately-ing for me.
My formative ball-kicking years were spent reimagining myself as Ian Wright with school friends in the playground, or alone in my depleted back garden…much to my dad’s chagrin. I was made to wait until I was 7-years-old before my dad took me to see my first match at Highbury, presumably as penance for my grass-ravaging sins.
I finally saw Arsenal in the flesh on 12 April 1997 from the North Bank, when Arsenal faced Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City. It had been a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait: Tony Adams opened the scoring with a diving header before David Platt sealed a routine 2-0 victory mid-way through the second half.
I went to loads of matches from 1997 to 2000, when my family were members of a local Arsenal membership club and tickets were easier to come by. Perhaps the stand-out memory from this period came on Boxing Day 2000, again versus Leicester, when I witnessed Thierry Henry score his first hat-trick for the club in a glorious 6-1 win.
Like many fans who didn’t own a season ticket, I struggled to get to Highbury in the last five years of its existence. I became resigned to the fact I may never return to see a match of any real significance at our grand old ground. Between December 2000 and May 2004 I only saw Arsenal in the flesh once, when my Dad managed to snap up a couple of spare tickets to the 2003 FA Cup final versus Southampton under the Millennium Stadium’s roof. Witnessing the club lift a trophy was obviously amazing, but I desperately wanted to return to Highbury.
After a three-and-a-half-year exile, my family purchased Clock End tickets for Martin Keown’s testimonial in May 2004. An exhibition match, the most noteworthy moment came when Ruud van Nistelrooy had his tame penalty saved by England’s then sixth choice keeper Robert Green. There may have been no YouTube, but I managed to catch the moment on my Sony Eriksson K750i for posterity all the same.
It was nice to return home, but I felt I had unfinished business with Highbury. Time was running out, and I entered the final redcurrant season hoping, nay praying, to get the chance to bid the Marble Halls adieu. May 2006 came around and I’d long given up hope. I spotted a quiz competition run by Arsenal’s lead-sponsors of the time O2, who were giving away 50 pairs of tickets for the final match at Highbury against Wigan. I almost didn’t bother entering as I’d never won a competition before. My family never had much luck either, the most my parents had won before was a ‘luxury’ hamper from M&S, which seemed to consist exclusively of shortbread and fudge.
I only went and bloody won a pair!
On the train up to Victoria we’d heard rumblings that all was not well in the Spurs camp. And so it proved to be: a dodgy lasagne playing havoc with their players’ bowels. Surely they’d now lose at West Ham and gift us the coveted fourth spot.
They did just that. After a scare in the first half, Arsenal fought back to beat Wigan 4-2, and I witnessed another Henry Highbury hat-trick. Pundits later wrongly asserted that his penalty-spot kiss was definitive evidence that he would be leaving the club in the summer, but it didn’t feel like that to me from the North Bank. It seemed like King Henry was providing some iconography to adorn the walls of the soon-to-open Emirates Stadium.
The carnival atmosphere was electric, despite Roger Daltrey’s best efforts to dampen the atmosphere with his dreadful self-penned song, Highbury Highs. Arsenal may have only secured a place in the 2006/07 Champions League qualifying round, but it was a privilege just to be ushered in from the wilderness to experience Highbury’s last hurrah.
Picture courtesy of @arsenalfrance