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"It had an enormous impact on my life" - Jeffrey Freeman interview, Part One

Back in April, Jeffrey Freeman wrote for The Arsenal Collective about his lifetime support of the Gunners and how frustration with the quality of the club’s football in the 1960s led him to a confrontation with the board. 

A season ticket holder for nearly 70-years, there are few who have experienced so many of Arsenal’s highs and lows at such close quarters.

We were eager to learn more about the influence football has had on Jeffrey’s life, so we sat down with him for a chinwag about life on the terraces of N5, the players he loved, the parties he went to and how the game has changed over the decades.

Here's part one of our two part interview...

You’ve mentioned to us before that your birth was presided over by the Arsenal doctor. You must have felt like you were destined to become a Gooner...

I was indeed, by a Doctor Pepper. My late father was a very keen Arsenal supporter and I was born just before the Second World War started and we lived during the war in Finsbury Park. It was destiny.

Can you tell us anything more about this Doctor Pepper character?

I was reading about the death of Herbert Chapman recently. He took ill with a cold in January 1934. The medical advisor to the club, Dr Guy Pepper, advised him not to go to a third team game but he did so. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he died a few days later.

My father made a point of telling me about this name and that he had attended my mother during her pregnancy with me. I was born in 1937, so it’s reasonable to assume that it was the same Doctor Pepper who attended to my late mother during her pregnancy with me.

It was just after the war that your father bought you your first season ticket, talk us through your memories of that occasion…

The war ended in 1945 and we were living in Finsbury Park, my father and I walked up to the ground and he said he’d like two season tickets. I suspect they were about £5 a season, because I know in 1960 they were £20 a season. “Of course Mr Freeman,” was the reply from the ticket office. “Walk round the ground and choose any two seats.” We picked seats in the West Stand, Block W, Row F and I sat there until the last game at Highbury against Wigan.

And obviously a lot has changed since…

I don’t want to go on too long about this, but it’s all changed. Those days you could just roll up to a football match and get in without having obtained a ticket beforehand. There were tickets for everybody so consequently a lot of young boys, and girls for that matter, could go to football matches. It played a very important part in my life, influenced me at school – I was captain of the first XI because I knew a bit more about soccer - and in my own career. I even met my wife as a result of the club.

It had an enormous impact on my life. I do worry about the way football is run nowadays with the accent on commercialism – as opposed to being a sport. The availability of tickets, the way supporters are treated, the way shareholders are treated – like the Arsenal Fanshare scheme – I do worry that all that happened to me that was so beneficial won’t be at hand for youngsters.

You spent nearly 60-years sitting in the same seat at Highbury. It must have been a heart-wrenching moment saying goodbye to the stadium when we moved to the Emirates?

It really upset me. We had to move, I accept that. But Highbury had an atmosphere of its own that I don’t think the Emirates has got yet. I think it will have eventually, but Highbury was unique. During those 60-odd years we sat more or less with the same people. At the Emirates there’s a man who sits in front of me and he sat in front of me at Highbury. Now he’s very old and he’s got a great grandchild. I’ve seen all those people grow up and grow old, but the interesting thing is that we all became very close in terms of supporting the Arsenal.

Did you ever have arguments with your fellow supporters? Tensions obviously rise in the terraces…

Very much so. The person I have mentioned above - Fred - was, to say the least, excitable. He had strong views which were often different from those around him. He hated certain players and was forceful and loud in giving his views. He brought gesticulation to an art form. Emotions ran high and there were many occasions when fists nearly flew. 

However, the key is that we all had a tremendous bond. I remember that, for years, besides Fred and family, I was always surrounded by people I knew; John Greene, Terry Sparkes, the Flesch family, Phillip Steen and many others. In particular, I remember a Mr. Ryan. He sat next to my father and looking back on it, I'm sure he was a batchelor. He lived for the Arsenal Football Club. He told us that before a match he would go to church to pray for victory. He and my father became so close and it was suggested he come on a family holiday with us. He would not have anything to do with it. Arsenal was his life and although the friendship was strong and continued for many years it was only within the stadium; outside we all went our separate ways. I believe this closeness has now gone.

At the Burnley game this season the person sitting immediately to my left was a young man I'd never seen before; it was obvious from his attitude that he was a truly supportive fan. In front of me were some of the 'usual suspects'...members of Fred's family. There was also another young man seated nearby who spent the entire game looking at his iPhone. Behind me there were two sets of men - one to my left and the other my right - who throughout the match talked about their social life, the state of their finances...all sorts really. They didn't seem to be watching the match at all. 

When Arsenal finally scored in the 70th minute the young man next to me along with Fred's team all celebrated joyously, exchanging high-fives and hugs. The guy on his phone and the guys behind showed no emotion at all, it was as if nothing had happened. Perhaps that's how it is these days. I feel like I have lost the camaraderie. 

What was your matchday routine like when you first started going to games with your dad in the late 40s and early 50s?

We used to travel by public transport initially, as it was difficult to get petrol after the war. When petrol rationing stopped we used to travel by car and dad would give a man two shillings who alwats had a parking space for us…I think that’s about 20 pence these days. We always got to the stadium early as we liked to soak up the atmosphere.

We used to watch the Metropolitan Police band who would march around the pitch and the guy at the front had this huge baton which he’d throw up in the air and catch. Of course, every so often he’d drop it and the crowd would go berserk! There were games at Highbury where there must have been 70,000 people; there were no crowd restrictions. If there was a problem with overcrowding, and I actually saw this, young boys would be passed down from the top of the crowd to the front.

The thing that is most different now is the foul language. There was none of that. It was more of a family outing. The conditions though were appalling and you certainly couldn’t get a decent sandwich. When I started to take my daughter she told me that in the West Stand there were only three cubicles in the ladies loos. These poor women would always have to leave ten minutes before half time to make sure they’d be all right! It was a much more relaxed, family occasion…unless of course I’m looking at it through rose tinted spectacles. You saw the occasional fight, but generally speaking it was a family occasion and you could just roll up to the match and get in.

Touching a little more on the atmosphere back then, were there chants or was it more polite applause?

There was no chanting per se back then. The crowd seemed to get much more vocal when it mattered, when there was action. I had two maiden aunts who used to live with us in Finsbury Park and whenever we came home they could always tell us how many goals Arsenal had scored because of the roar when we hit the back of the net. 

Tell us about your surroundings in Highbury’s West Stand.

There was nothing [in terms of facilities]. We sat next to what was known as the enclosure, which was, even by today’s standards, expensive. It was the top people in there and they had a bar and later on a restaurant. The stand was built in the 1930s so it had stones steps, about 75 as far as I can recollect. You used to walk up and then you were faced with this corridor that was far too narrow for the amount of people. You could get a drink there but you couldn’t get much by way of food. In the later years there was a small place you could get bagels.

The offices were in the East Stand by the famous Marble Halls. I didn’t in those days have any opportunity to go in there. I did in later years, but that was just before we moved. The toilets, even for men, were no better than that of Victorian standard. I used to hate going in there. It was primitive. This is where the Emirates does score – it’s much more civilised and user friendly. That being said, we were still one of the better clubs. Some grounds were even worse!

Between 1953 and 1970 Arsenal didn’t win any trophies. We’ve just come out of a nine-year drought and that tested the patience of a lot of fans. Did you ever stop going during that period?

Oh no…on the contrary. Attendances did drop, but I wouldn’t say significantly. It was different in those days and this will sound somewhat old fashioned, but people went to see a good game of football. Obviously it mattered if you lost, but it didn’t matter as much as it does today unless of course it was Spurs. People were more interested in the quality of the footballers and their ability to play. Today, everything is about success now. That didn’t exist then.

I’m on record as saying that those 17-years in the wilderness didn’t upset me at all because I was not brought up to believe you played sport to win. I was brought up to believe you played for the sake of the game and for sportsmanship. What really upset me was the standard of the football for a club of Arsenal’s stature. It was unbelievably bad and boring.

I wrote a letter to Denis Hill-Wood saying I just want Arsenal to play good football. There was not discontent about a lack of success, but a lot about the football. There were a lot people of a certain age who had seen Alex James, Cliff Bastin, Joe Hulme and other players of that calibre. They were then being served up dross.

Did you venture to many away games in your younger years?

Yes, quite often. I didn’t always have a ticket; I’d just turn up and get in. When I went up North and I saw what it was like it used to worry me. I won’t name the places…but I knew when they came back down South, these hard Northerners would always be thinking ‘We’re going to teach these soft Southern bastards a lesson or two!’ And they tried to, believe me…especially the Leeds team of Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter.

Did you sense much of a generation gap on the terraces?

I remember seeing Alex James sitting behind me once and everybody saying to him, ‘Oh, we don’t have players like you now.’ When you’re young you can’t stand that type of thing…you know, being reminded about the good old days when you weren’t there. But they did have a point. There was a generation gap, but I think that continues today maybe...


Part Two, available here. 

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