BY MATT KING / @King_G_O
I could tell you I remember the football played on April 1st 1995. But in truth everything that day was just about Highbury Stadium. Being there was a dream. I can still recall experiencing so many startling revelations that day: the grass was so green; the whole place so vast; where was the commentary? Did they not play the voice over the tanoy for the crowd like on television? How would I know which player had the ball? The early Arsenal goals were so much louder than on Match of The Day, and so unexpected. I usually knew the score before Saturday night – but this really was…live! I was only 6, if that all seems a bit dim witted.
Just looking around I was fascinated. We were so high in the North Bank upper. The views to the East were rows of rooftops, to the South the Clock End and nestled in behind blocks of flats, to the West there was an empty wasteland immediately but beyond that you could see across Holloway and North London for miles.
But then their fans (who I did not know would be there) were celebrating. I found the rather muffled delirium confusing, at such odds with the tuts and sighs at our end of the ground. I hated that moment, seeing them happy at my expense whilst I was trying to enjoy myself. I’m told that I spent much of the rest of my first game at Highbury almost entirely hidden beneath my coat, peeping out to check there was no chance of having to go through that terrible experience of conceding a goal unexpectedly again.
Despite my fears, Arsenal won comfortably, beating Norwich 5-1. Two goals for Hartson, a rare strike for Lee Dixon, an obligatory Paul Merson goal and an own goal put the Canaries to the sword, who had replied at 3-0 through Jamie Cureton. To think I’d thought it such a disaster!
I was hooked and going to Highbury became a more common occurrence as I approached my early teens. I remember the day Wenger joined, I revelled with boyish delight at his first double season, and sobbed with despair at the near misses throughout 1999, 2000 and 2001. I became more of a regular in 2001/2002 season when my older brother departed London for university, and my uncles tended young families at the weekend. I was a fully qualified home regular through Wenger’s second double, to the Invincibles and beyond to the the wonderful Champions League run of 2006. I knew whenever I came that Henry would combine with Pires, or Bergkamp or whoever time and again. I knew it could easily be 4, 5, 6 whoever the opponent. Highbury was my favourite place in the world. I loved it more than music, more than my teenage sweetheart (now disposed), more than anything.
I had grown up from 6 to 17. During that crazy final season of 2005/6 the wasteland to the West was now dominated by The Emirates Stadium, our new “home”. This brings me to my final goodbye to Highbury. With three tickets between 6 or 7 big Gooners, I was always unlikely to make the final game, such was the occasion. So I bowed out as I had entered, with victory over a side famous for their yellow strip. However, the 1-0 victory over Villarreal was much narrower and much more significant, though of course it only represented “half-time” in the overall fixture.
One of our troop that night was heavily pregnant in the seat next to me, but that did not stop the goal being celebrated with due gusto, I was chuffed that Kolo Toure, who had become a massive personal hero of mine, slid in to give us that vital winner. As I roared “ONE-NIL TO THE ARSENAL!” into the chilly black sky, and glanced back one last time at that incredibly green grass under the flood lights, I felt there was no more suitable score line with which to sign-off from the North Bank and Highbury itself.
And so it’s fair to say I’m a member of a large and well established generation of Arsenal fans, a swell of Gooners currently somewhere between their late teens and late twenties (I’m 23). We are quite literally the “Wenger Boys”; now in the prime of adulthood, we went from kids to teenage men under the stewardship of St. Arsene, the Knowing. We are a tribe whose most vivid memories of Arsenal glory have been concentrated within the decade between 1996 and 2006.
We probably don’t really remember the day Dennis Bergkamp signed for Arsenal, but we remember (with tears) the day he left.
Bergkamp is our Brady. Pires our Paul Merson. Henry our Ian Wright. Patrick Vieira our Paul Davies.
We were nought but toddlers (or less!) when we were crowned Champions under George in ’89 and ’91 respectively, and we have little or no recollection of the cup double in ’93, or the 1-0 in Copenhagen in ’94 that were to follow. Personally, I just about remember Sampdoria in 95’ (Seaman!) but not the final (Seaman…). We will always be burdened with huge jealousy against any Gooner who can remember vividly those great moments, Big Tone is his prime, Rocky.
We grew up, as Highbury grew old. But the many, many brilliant moments we enjoyed there have us swarming to The Emirates, and our generation will not rest, in voice or in attendance, no matter what the score or the position of the club until we drop. A lifetime of support could not repay half of the joy I was given during my early days as a teenage Gooner.