BY MARK BENNETT / @BaselGooner
The following entry is a compilation of mini blogs written during the final season at Highbury and first published on http://highburyfarewell.blogspot.ch/
So the 2005/6 season has started and I have to say farewell to what has been my second home for just under 30 years - Highbury or, as we Gooners say, THOF (The Home of Football).
Many clubs, for a variety of reasons, have changed stadium in recent years and I'm sure their supporters felt all manner of emotions when they did. This season-long blog will hopefully give you an insight into how I’m feeling about the huge forthcoming change in my football life.
Newcastle United / 14th August 2005 / Premier League / 2-0
Thanks to those lovely chaps at Sky we have the new season’s traditional curtain raiser at 1.30 on a Sunday afternoon. Just great - we have to get up much earlier on a Sunday morning, the pubs don't open until 12.00 and we only have an hour to drink pre-match.
The Bailey was, as usual, awash with barcode supporters - it is a regular away haunt for them, so I disappeared with two mates to Lily Red (ex-wig and gown) - not a great place BUT the cricket was on - August 14th, first game of the football season and we're only halfway through the most intense Ashes series in living memory. The back pages of the tabloids still have Shrek all over them though!
Oh the game - 2-0 (Henry -pen & RvP), not inspiring but a good way to start our final season at Highbury and I did see the first (or maybe I just can't remember any before) streaker at Highbury that I've ever seen.
Fulham / 24th August 2005 / Premier League / 4-1
If the landlord of The Bailey pub is reading this (unlikely I know) please ensure you have London Pride on for Arsenal games (my mates are getting p***ed off with the infrequency of its availability these days) - Thanks! The early season games are normally t-shirt affairs, this one wasn't - a wet & miserable autumnal feel greeted the fans last night. I like Fulham, nice club, try to play football the right way, nice little cottage at the ground and usually six points every season. Compared to their less illustrious neighbours they play attractive & entertaining football BUT we play it better and have now found a plan B - its big, bald and French and called Cygan! Only 181 goals to go Pascal...
FC Thun / 14th September 2005 / Champions League / Group stage / 2-1
A showdown with mighty FC Thun. What do you mean you've never heard of them? They came second in the Swiss league last season and have an annual budget of £2 million (approximately 1/3 of TH14's annual earnings!). We duly stuffed the mighty clockmakers 2-1 with a last minute goal from Dennis after RvP has been sent off for a slightly raised foot!
Everton / 19th September 2005 / Premier League / 2-0
Last night saw us comfortably beat the most uninspiring Everton side I can remember seeing at THOF (and there have been some bad ones). The memory of last season's two games against us seemed to instigate a 9-0-1 formation at times. Two goals from free-kicks (have we finally worked out that it is worth practising them?) - Sol heading in from Reyes on both occasions - meant we were 2-0 up and cruising at half time. Everton's response was to take off their most likely two sources of goals (Cahill & Bent).
This is now the Premiership norm, mediocre teams "rest" their best players against the "big" teams to keep them fit for the relegation "six pointers". Somewhere and at some moment in time clubs, players, managers & chairman lost the plot and the drive became the need to keep receiving Murdoch's lucre whilst completely forgetting the paying public. First people will stop (have stopped) going and, more importantly, then stop paying for SKY. At that point the brown smelly stuff will truly hit the whirly metal thing…
Birmingham City / 2nd October 2005 / Premier League / 1-0
On the way to this game (yet another Sky induced 1.30 kick-off on a Sunday) I had some time to kill and walked past the new stadium at Ashburton Grove. Despite our slow start and many pundits talking of a "crisis" it is so impressive to see my club being so progressive - even if the thought of leaving Highbury will makes me sadder with each day that passes.
Yes there was a game today as well. Not great and it took a rather lucky deflection from a Robin Van persie shot to beat the superb MOTM performance from the Blues' goalkeeper, Maik Taylor.
Manchester City / 22nd October 2005 / Premier League / 1-0
When you leave games like this you know one thing - this is a game that is going to be remembered for a long time…and not because it was a 4-4 thriller! We arrived to see Thierry Henry embrace Ian Wright and be presented with an award for becoming the greatest goalscorer in Arsenal's history - greatest player ever, we shall see? The game showed how Stuart Pearce has got his team organised and why they have reached a lofty position this year. They didn't threaten but they easily stifled our limp display. Not exactly a lot to be remembered so far, huh?
Suddenly Mike Riley sprang into life, correctly (despite some city fans observations) awarded a penalty for a foul on Henry by James, up steps Pires and 1-0 - a penalty efficiently taken. 10 minutes later another foul on Bergkamp leads to another penalty and then the moment which ensures the game will forever be enshrined in the memory of those who were there…for all the wrong (or funniest) reasons.
Our two illustrious Frenchmen have a chat, Bob steps up and then the strangest sight I've seen at Highbury takes place. Bob drags his foot over the top of the ball (just touching it), Thierry runs past and a Man City player boots it clear. Referee Riley then blew for a free-kick. What happened? Well it seems that Bob / Tel were trying to recreate the Cruyff/Olsen goal from 1982 (see here) and cocked it up. We weren't 4-0 up and at best it was stupid, in reality it was downright unprofessional. Vassell's disallowed goal a few minutes later was a lucky reprieve for the two players. Afterwards TH admitted it was wrong and promised to take all future penalties.
Sparta Prague / 2nd November 2005 / Champions League (group stage) / 3-0
I had to rush back from Paris, avoiding riots and burnt out cars, for this game and for once we had the possibility of an easy qualification for the Champions Leafye knockout stage. I think this is probably the first time we have ever made this task look simple, albeit aided by a particularly easy group. This game may also be the start of a good run for Van Persie. He scored two cracking goals and is beginning to look the part. The result from the Stade de France also helped the mood :-)
Sunderland / 5th November 2005 / Premier League / 3-1
Remember, remember the 5th November (as the saying goes) - well maybe not this one apart from the memory of one of the poorest teams to play at Highbury in its 93 year history. They did score from the only shot they had (from a corner) but otherwise were bereft of ideas and, more interestingly, spirit & fight. The game will have continued to help build confidence and we could be ready to surge forwards BUT we have YET ANOTHER frigging two week break for meaningless (for the most part) international matches. I think only Jose Antonio Reyes and Philippe Senderos have competitive matches with TH going all the way to Martinique to play in a friendly! Whoopee! Still it wasn't as bad as cheering on the Mancs the following day...
Blackburn Rovers / 26th November 2005 / Premier League / 3-0
Game not watched.
Reading / 29th November 2005 / Carling Cup / 3-0
I used the Carling Cup as an opportunity to sit somewhere different from my normal East Lower seat. Thanks to an incompetent Ticketmaster (they don't seem to recognise Gold Membership numbers - though this is no surprise as the club don't either!) and a VERY HELPFUL Arsenal Box Office, I got FRONT row seats in the North Bank Upper Tier. It made my normal seat seem quite poor in comparison but did give hope of great views of the new stadium.
The game itself was lively with a full house (including 7,000+ Reading fans) helped by excellent ticket pricing from Arsenal and a REDaction singing section. This game may have given Steve Coppell an idea of what awaits a likely promotion side next year. We played the kids but with the addition of RvP and JAR up front the difference in class was obvious. Maybe if Kitson had scored when it was 1-0 the score would have been different but minutes later Van Persie showed his class and confidence by getting a superb second goal. All in all a great night (shame I left my bag on a train!)
Ajax / 7th December 2005 / Champions League (group stage) / 0-0
Very strange arriving for the final Champions League Group game knowing we’d not only already qualified comfortably, but were also guaranteed top spot! With Ajax also certain to finish second the game was like a pre-season friendly and a missed penalty and Ajax fans shouting abuse at RvP apart - it was a non-event. However, text messages were relaying the events in Benfica which provided the most entertainment of the night. Gone are the days (did they ever exist) when you supported the "other English" clubs in Europe and so it was with great glee that the Mancs loss in Portugal was received. They didn't even make the UEFA cup!
Chelsea / 18th December 2005 / Premier League / 0-2
Thankfully I can ignore discussing the game itself. We pretty much knew how it would go and even if RvP's goal had been allowed (as it should have been) I'm not entirely convinced we would have won the game, although we may have got a point. The Russians have bought another Premier League title and we have to move on with our own game.
And the main reason I can ignore it is because today was the day that I chose my seat for the new stadium. Although a 10.00am appointment was a little early (especially travelling up from Guildford with a hangover) - it allowed a large breakfast, a trip round the outside of Ashburton Grove and a reccy of new pubs for the next season. There were 5 of us (a group of three - me, Ian and Steve who had sat in the East Stand together plus two other mates - Andy & Steve) and we actually agreed on a location very quickly. So we're all off to the East Stand (lower) right on the halfway line! Have we made the right choice? Well we'll see next season.
Portsmouth / 28th December 2005 / Premier League / 4-0
Game not watched.
Manchester United / 3rd January 2006 / Premier League / 0-0
So as the Russians march away with the league, the two once-mighty armies met for a near meaningless battle. When the central midfield of United is Fletcher and O'Shea you realise how times have changed and with neither a Vieira nor a Keane to be found we sat down and watched the most timid of all Arsenal vs Man Utd games. Even the attempts at controversy were light, a dive by Reyes (?) a possible handball & sending off for Rooney, and a possible penalty on Cesc were all rather pathetic attempts compared to games of yore. Transition is an oft-used word…this season and this game pretty much defined the term.
Cardiff City / 7th January 2006 / FA Cup (3rd round) / 2-1
After the excitement of TH saying "I'm Staying (Ts & Cs TBC of course)", we had the joys of a 1.00pm kick-off (no doubt due the reputation of the Welsh fans), and a 3rd round tie with a number of players rested, injured or, thanks to the Ivory Coast FA, unavailable! With pubs seeming to be varied in their opening times and the avoidance of hardcore Cardiff fans a priority we ended up in the Lil Red on Holloway Rd - I've never seen it so quiet but it still is a horrible pub. Although Cardiff could have scored with their first attack, two superb moves and finishes from Bob effectively settled the game. I've read reports saying, "Arsenal weathered the storm after the Cardiff goal" - well can I just say that they scored with roughly five minutes to play. For the first three of those minutes we played keep ball, only being interrupted by a pitch invader from Wales.
Middlesbrough / 14th January 2006 / Premier League / 7-0
Strange how you approach a game thinking it could be tough - looking at two experienced centre forwards against our two teenagers - and coming away wondering how you could be so wrong. Perhaps that is why I'm not managing a Premiership club! This won't mask our poor away form (a tricky Bolton cup tie awaits after Everton) but it was a pure joy to watch and no football fan could fail to appreciate the way we played and the goals we scored today!
Wigan Athletic / 24th January 2006 / Carling Cup (semi-final, 2nd leg) /2-1 (2-2 agg. Lost on away goals)
Up until the 119th minute when Jason Roberts scored the goal (thanks to some defending that would have shamed schoolboys) that ensured we lost on Away Goals, this had been a most enjoyable evening. The losing of a Carling Cup tie, even with the "big guns" playing, is not particularly galling (sound arrogant?) although it did take the shine off a bit. Last night I sat in the luxury of the West Upper.
I had never been here before (only being in the West Lower once - my first ever game!) and despite the poorly designed corridors and access it was a delight to visit this part of the ground. The old signs look as though they’ve seen many years of service, the bars were small and badly located, but the toilets are still a mile better than the Lower East Stand! We even had the privilege of a near empty pub before the game. Some positives - Gilbert looks a fine ENGLISH prospect and Robin Van Persie is a class act. I never liked Cardiff in February anyway.
West Ham United / 1st February 2006 / Premier League / 2-3
So the main talking point after the game is the disappearance of Sol, something which deflects attention from a pretty tame performance against another decent, but not great side. West Ham (along with Wigan) have proven all the pre-season critics wrong but that is no excuse for the two awful goals we gave away and the hatful of chances we missed. There has been a lot of discussion about our "poor defence" but actually we have the third best in the league – it’s scoring goals that has been our failure and for that we can look at three senior players - Dennis, Bob and Freddie. They have collectively failed to deliver this year and despite the emergence of RvP we are short of firepower and so every goal we concede hurts us more than it should. Oh well - Intertoto Cup anyone???
Bolton Wanderers / 11th February 2006 / Premier League / 1-1
Rarely can a last minute equaliser against a team such as Bolton (trying not to sound arrogant and giving them due respect) have been greeted with such joy. The much maligned Gilberto Silva scoring the goal we patently deserved in the 92nd minute after another MOTM performance from an opposition goalkeeper.
The goal and draw only tells part of the story as Bolton could easily have been 3-0 up in the first 15 minutes of the match and deserved their 1-0 lead at the break. In the second half we dominated but yet again failed to finish. This result indicated to me that we won't get 4th place and we won't be in the Champions League next year - a bit of a shock after eight years, but that's football and too many Arsenal fans have taken for granted our recent success! We need a dose of reality. At least the new stadium is looking good!
Real Madrid / 8th March 2006 / Champions League (1st knockout round, 2nd Leg)/ 0-0 (1-0 on agg.)
Of course, having won the away leg most people would have you believe that the second game at home would be easy. This, of course, doesn't take into account the fact that a) we're the Arsenal and never do it the easy way, b) We're playing Real Madrid, Los Galacticos, Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldo et al and c) it's football.
Thankfully we survived one of the best 0-0 draws you could hope to see (or shred your nerves watching in my case) with a bit of luck (Raul hitting the post), some excellent keeping (Jens from Raul again) and, maybe, we could have sneaked a win (Pires nearly scoring from the halfway line!).
So "one team in Europe" has become the sound - despite the petty xenophobic sniping from Pardew and Taylor regarding the so-called ‘Englishness’ of our team. I'm sorry boy, but we don't care about passports or England winning the World Cup when we watch Arsenal play - we do care about our club being successful and playing the most beautiful football in the country. Here's to the next round - you just know we're going to get Vieira back here at some time!
Liverpool / 12th March 2006 / Premier League / 2-1
I was at the airport when this game was on and only saw the last few minutes of the first half (thanks to the coverage of the Rugby) and had to go to the gate as the second half started. I did manage to see the score - thanks to Blackberry technology so the flight was more enjoyable knowing we had managed an important win. I didn't, however, know that we owed a huge debt to the vision and passing ability of Stevie Gerrard to win the game!
Charlton Athletic / 18th March 2006 / Premier League / 3-0
It was approximately 0 degrees Fahrenheit today and that was without the wind chill factor! Thankfully for Thierry and co. I was skiing in Stowe, Vermont and the weather was a little milder in the UK. I never like missing home games and normally manage to arrange trips so that I only miss one game, maximum, but this year it went horribly wrong. Not only did I miss two matches, but also the final game at Highbury to fall on my birthday – a weak link I know, but this last season will be full of "last evers....". Apparently this was a stroll in the park - as has often been the case in recent seasons with Charlton (and thankfully after that horrible 2-4 a few years back). I'm looking forward to Tuesday now - not a bad return after my holiday.
Juventus / 28th March 2006 / Champions League / quarter-final, 1st leg / 2-0
So Patrick returned and in one of those "changing of the guard" moments that often happen in football a young 18-year-old Spaniard took control of midfield as the Highbury crowd got a glimpse of the future. This match truly epitomised the values of Arsene Wenger - youth, athleticism, technique and pace. Not many Arsenal fans can say they’ve seen anything quite like the performance we put on tonight.
It’s strange to awake to the resounding noise of praise from all quarters, but then it was a great team display that certainly puts us in the driving seat! The only thing that concerned Arsene was us not getting a third goal. Not bad for a back four that we stumbled upon, a bunch of kids and a 4-5-1 system that we sort of tried and now seems the perfect approach for us in Europe.
Aston Villa / 1st April 2006 / Premier League / 5-0
The euphoria surrounding the performance in midweek against Juventus was still in the air before and during this game. There was the emotional remembering of a legend with the reminder that today was five years since the death of "Rocky". It was also great to see that fans can appreciate the true geniuses that transcend club rivalries - Aston Villa fans heartily applauding when TH was substituted after yet another 2 "great goals" worthy of goal of the month. Just for good measure RvP popped up with a gem of an individual goal. So an easy win but a tinge of worry as both Cesc and Eboué went off injured - fingers crossed for Wednesday.
West Bromwich Albion / 15th April 2006 / Premier League / 3-1
We're getting to that point of the season when every game is a "last" of some sort or another. This was the "last" 3pm Saturday kick-off - something that has been more and more of a rarity in the Sky era. The walk down Avenell Roadwill only be taken three more times and each ahead of an incredibly intense game. During this game the players' (and perhaps the crowd's) minds seemed to be on Wednesday and the CL semi-final. It's always dangerous and is very worrying considering who we play between the two legs of the semi!
Thankfully, class told and the day designated as "Dennis Bergkamp Day" was made complete when he rolled back the years to make one before scoring one of his trademark curlers (well pre-2002 it was trademark) to finish off a lacklustre West Brom. It was also nice to hear Bryan "man of the match" Robson whine on & on at the end of the game....
Villarreal / 19th April 2006 / Champions League / semi-final, 1st Leg / 1-0
Well we've one foot in the final but the Spanish side showed enough quality (if not much punch) to suggest they will make it very hard in a week's time. I arrived early to take a last walk around the old stadium and it's a very different place three hours before kick off. The scarf sellers are out in force (do they all have every scarf of every club in Europe?), the stalls are setting up and, strangely, the stadium reverberates to the sound of the Champions' League theme music!
As for the game, this was a different animal to the previous two knockout round home legs. Villarreal are a predominantly South American side who play with a defensive outlook and love the dramatic arts of diving and time-wasting. We had an early goal disallowed (wrongly), they had a good claim for a penalty (only seen after on TV) and we scored the vital goal at a good time. 1-0 was about right and certainly better than the potential 2-1 if the two decisions had been different. So a clean sheet from the greatest European defence ever(!) gives us a 60:40 chance in the final. I hope my Eurostar tickets haven't jinxed it!
Tottenham Hotspur / 22nd April 2006 / Premier League / 1-1
Okay let's be upfront and honest (as hard as it is to say it) - Spurs deserved a point, maybe more, on Saturday. They certainly played the better football until we finally decided to bring on pace and power in the form of Henry, Cesc & Eboué. Eboué has been a revelation since the African Cup of Nations returning with confidence and willingness to drive forward, as well as the pace to be a sturdy right back.
As much as we all love and respect Arsene Wenger, and as much as we hate all things Spud-related, I'm not convinced on this "they should have kicked the ball out" argument. At the time I shouted, "cheat" as much as the next man, but Arsenal’s players stopped and failed to react to the situation. Considering how upset Freddie was on kicking the ball out against the Spanish cheats last week perhaps we need to rethink all this "honour" bollocks.
So the dream of winning the Champions League and taking 4th may now be our only option. Even if Spurs drop points to Bolton or West Ham I'm not expecting us to win our last three games, especially if we get to the Champions League final. Let's face it this may never happen again so let's concentrate on Tuesday’s away game at Villarreal and worry about qualification for next season’s tournament later on.
Wigan Athletic / 7th May 2006 / Premier League / 4-2
Well if you're saying goodbye to a friend of over 30 years it's a good idea to make it one hell of a party. It's also essential that everything goes to plan…and yesterday the football gods worked in perfect harmony!
We did, of course, have to win the last ever game at THOF and thanks to our own earthbound god we managed that part. It was also part of the plan that our neighbour’s attempts to hold onto fourth place (and the Champions League spot) were derailed. For that second scenario we need to stand up and salute the chefs at the Marriott hotel in London, as well as our friends from Upton Park.
And so it was that we said our farewells to ex-players, we reacquainted ourselves with the old marching band and finally departed the stadium for one last time.
Thank You Highbury you will never leave my heart...