Tag Archives: Arsenal

The block

1990, another world. My father and I have decided, seemingly without a word being uttered to anyone else, that it’s all very well attending Arsenal home matches but that expansionism is on the agenda. The previous year we took the train to Derby for a memorable (to me at least) 3-1 victory at the Baseball Ground and an end of season 2-2 draw at Carrow Road, Norwich, enlivened by a seemingly endless sing-song to pass the time as we were held hostage by the local constabulary before being released into the heat of the East Anglian summer. I can only assume my own extreme enthusiasm was the reason for an increase in the number of away games.

Regardless of why we were going to these games we were presented with a small but not insurmountable problem. The problem was that I was small and not insurmountable, and in those days away games meant standing on terraces with lots of fully-grown men. To add to the challenge I wanted to stand as close to those making a loud noise as I could.

Dad devised a novel solution. Possibly inspired by the ‘big step’ at the back of the old Clock End terrace at Highbury he used to stand on, he hammered together some old bits of wood that were lying round waiting to be repurposed. This is interesting in itself, as I am now not much younger than he was at the time and have acquired no junk wood, lying round waiting to be repurposed. The wood was fashioned into a block, maybe 50cmx30x20, just large enough for two feet to stand on. As if by magic, I now enjoyed a bonus in the height department when competing for airspace on terraces across the land.

‘The block’ (as in ‘have you got the block?’ And ‘you can carry the bloody block back to the car’) made its debut at Plough Lane, Wimbledon in August 1990. Its magical properties conjured a 3-0 win, including a corking half-volley from Perry ‘El Pel’ Groves. In the midst of this triumph were signs that the block might also prove to be trouble. When a goal went in, the crowd erupted, with the shoving and surging that went with it, and I went tumbling off the block and into the melee. Fighting my way back up to where Dad was stood we both realised the block had gone on its own little adventure and was nowhere to be seen. I went off to look for it and emerged through the bodies after a short time brandishing it in triumph. This happened every time a goal went in that day and on each subsequent occasion.

Taking such an item into football grounds also posed an interesting scenario for the local police. At Nottingham Forest’s away turnstiles, the block was sternly examined by a copper, who was clearly wondering why he should let in something that could be used as an effective projectile to be hurled at opposing supporters. We must have seemed like the right sort of chaps as he let us pass through the turnstiles, though not without admonishing me to grow, so that I could at some future point leave the block behind and not make his job any harder.

Yet it was not just me who found a leg-up useful. At several grounds I fought small battles throughout the match with those next to me who placed one foot on the block, and were clearly considering mounting a hostile takeover of it for their own ends. Sharp elbows and well-timed shoves – usually at exciting moments in play – generally dispatched these ne’er do wells. Go get your own block!

At some point that season we stopped bringing the block. I had grown enough inches to render it necessary, and though it always made it home safe it did add some complications to the simple joy of going to a match. And Arsenal won the league that season, losing only one game in the process, away to Chelsea, when as far as I can recall we did not have the block with us. Make of that what you will.


Wrexham. The word means only one thing to those of us who were there.

F.A. Cup third round, 4 January 1992.

Wrexham 2 (Thomas 82, Watkin 84)
Arsenal 1 (Smith 43)
Racecourse Ground, Wrexham
Attendance: 13,343

Unpacking memories of attending this game 25 years makes me feel not only old, but like I grew up in another age altogether. In January 1992 Arsenal were League Champions, having cantered to the title in 1990-91. Liverpool may have imploded after Kenny Dalglish’s resignation but we won it in some style, losing only one game in the process. Like the 1991-92 champions (Leeds United. Leeds United!) that season has been lost to the post-Premier League revisionist zeal that for some reason the media are happy to buy into. Bastard media. George Knows.

Wrexham had finished 1990-91 last in the entire Football League. They were spared relegation only by the expansion of the league that season.

And they won. To say this result delighted everyone that wasn’t an Arsenal supporter is something of an understatement. It was, and remains, the perfect FA Cup story. And it has Arsenal losing which always helps the media pick one out of many. They all hate us.

The aftermath begun immediately. Danny Baker, hosting radio phone-in 6-0-6, started his show celebrating the result, along what had been an awkward (as in ‘well, this is awkward’) draw for West Ham at non-league Farnborough Town, as proof that Zigger-Zagger – no, he really said this, more than once – the God of Football is real, and was meting out retribution to clubs who were punishing their own fans with unpopular bond schemes intended to finance the rebuilding of their grounds. The valediction was justified – the bond schemes were hugely unpopular – but he didn’t half go on about it. Or perhaps he didn’t and it just seems that way now, since the drive home which Dad & I knew would lead to at some point having mockery heaped on us by someone just drifted on forever. Memories of a Luton Town-supporting local neighbour leaving celebratory posters outside our house after their victory in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final led us to expect that kind of thing. Bastard Luton.

Beyond the scoreline, the journey. From London to Wrexham, north Wales, via a strange route I have been unable to trace exactly since, that seemed to pass through Monmouth. Going via that town makes so little coherent sense that we probably really did go that way. On the way there, of course, this was a jolly outing to a brave minnow who would roll over for the mighty Arsenal. We ate a burger outside the dilapidated stadium that tasted so bad I can still see, smell and taste it. It had ‘cheese’ on it. Our standing ticket admitted us to a paddock terrace in the away end that continued to step down significantly below pitch level. It had presumably been like that quite uncorrected for decades. The floodlights barely penetrated the murk, which in one way is just as well. This is why photos and footage of the game make it look like it’s being played in a dimly-lit stable. All very apt given we were at the Racecourse Ground. Despite this, we had a perfect view of all three goals. Our one was quite a tidy move. Never gets shown on TV.

On leaving the ground we found our way back to the car, parked in the field we had left it in. The field had not liked being used as a car park. Between us leaving and returning it suffered an inglorious breakdown and was now just mud. The wheels spun hopefully but inconclusively and I got out to push. As I shoved, the wheels spun further and coated me in rich Clwyd ooze. This might have been the highlight of the day: the car was released, and we had something to laugh about on the way home. That something was me. The journey back after a stinker of a game is usually more fun than you might think, with gallows humour and a siege mentality saving the day. It’s when you get home, to the shame of all football supporters who have been away from loved ones all day, that the funk really sets in.

I was 15 in January 1992 so was still at school, so must have been fairly mercilessly mocked for this result. If so, I do not recall that trauma in the way I do schoolboy ragging after, for example, losing 6-2 at home to Manchester United the previous season. Perhaps the absence of Wrexham fans in London, N2 meant there was less comment, but I doubt it. I have probably blacked out what cannot have been a pleasant occasion. Keeping the faith as I am helpless but to do the rest of the 1991-92 season, once we escaped a winless January was unforgettable for my Arsenal-mad teenage self. Sheffield Wednesday got beaten 7-1, Liverpool 4-0 and on the last day of the old North Bank Southampton were dispatched 5-1 with Ian Wright claiming the Golden Boot.

I still get a kick out of having been at games like Wrexham. I’ve supported a winning team all my life that have won leagues and cups and played in Europe. What do I know about supporting Wrexham? Plucky Wrexham as they’ll be known forever. Bastard Wrexham. And if you look closely as Mickey Thomas (the Welsh one, not our one) smacks in that free kick as Match of the Day show it for the 2000th time just before Ryan Giggs gets his disgusting hairy chest out in a montage of ‘best-ever’ FA Cup moments, you can see me, trying to digest that burger as the footballing equivalent of a bucket of excrement is tipped over the away end.

Özil in Sofia

Sofia is the Hellenistic word and concept of wisdom. A beautiful word, it graces the embodiment of the divine on earth, Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople, and names the capital of Bulgaria. I’d never visited before, but this week was in town to watch Arsenal. That means a slightly different trip to a regular exploration: a day trip, with an early start at each end, limited time to explore, and a focus on football as well ferreting out Ottoman and Cold War era things to see and do.

I doubt Mesut Özil concerned himself much with Alexander Levsky Cathedral and Icon Exhibition in the crypt, nor pined for the forest stew cuisine and live beer on offer in a side-street mehane. But that evening in the National Stadium he pulled off something no-one there will ever forget.

A few years ago I was spellbound by Tomas Rosicky’s goal to settle a North London derby. Six seconds of sprinting from the halfway line to beat the advancing keeper. It’s my favourite Arsenal goal of recent years. But Özil eclipsed that in ten seconds of mesmerising skill, grace and magic on this night in Sofia.

The game had been exciting and still low-key in the first half. Ludogorets Razgrad, not exactly one of the great names in European football and shoed 6-0 in the reverse fixture in London had raced into a two-goal lead. Happy drunkards in the away section turned alternately angry and and then placated, yet rapidly getting cold and tired as Arsenal pulled back to 2-2 at half time.

The second half was pretty tepid, the falling temperature and mist rolling off Balkan hillsides not doing much to inspire, and we seemed to be heading for a draw.

In a flash everything changed. Mohammed Elneny’s instant pass sent Özil , not usually the player furthest forward, sprinting in on goal. The keeper came out, Özil stabbed an awkwardly bouncing ball upwards and over him, and as it spun to the ground he dropped his shoulder and nudged the ball to his left. He then feinted, accomplishing all of this in a second or two and sending two defenders to the floor, but flying in different directions. Now in space, after one more touch he swept the ball into the goal.

In the away end, a mixture of astonishment and delirium, and the moment was instantly shared with Özil who ran over to our section of the ground. A flare was set off, somehow, given the three searches carried out before coming in. I found myself yelling ‘you ***** beauty!’, standing on the back of two seats. I’m reading a book about the early history of football at the moment, which talks a lot about how football was not a passing game at first, with great skill in dribbling valued above all else. Those founding fathers, fond as they were of hacking away at each others shins, would surely have looked on in wonder that their basic game had reached the point where such a moment was possible.

Since then that goal and the moments before and after it have lodged themselves in the happy part of my brain, where they will long remain. Remembering it when getting up at 4am to catch the flight home puts as much of a spring in your step as is humanly possibly at 2am UK time.

Football, wisdom, wonder all in one moment. Simply wonderful.

Bayern Munich away

A European away trip is a rare pleasure, but when Arsenal drew Bayern Munich in the ’round of 16′ of the Champions League I was very keen to make it happen. Two reasons. First, I’d had a superb time here in 2003, when Arsenal lost 3-1 in the snow. Second: it’s not every day that you get the chance to visit such a dramatic stadium as the Allianz Arena.

Before the football, the railways. Most Gunners fans hit the pub upon arrival in the city, and stayed there all day. My Dad and I decided to do something else: a mad dash into the Alps to ascend Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak.


On arrival at Munchen Hauptbanhof we spotted Bob, part of the Bavarian mountain railway network. We took a lovely red chugger pulling over the Alps to Innsbruck for the 90 minute trip to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Here we boarded the Bayerisches Zugspitzbahn, the sort of wonderful mountain train you find all over Switzerland and it was a joy to discover on a quick jaunt from Munich.


This train chugs up past ski schools and Alpine farmsteads until it reaches Eibsee, at which potent it plunges into the mountain and zig-zags up through the rock before emerging at the top of Germany. We we both lacking time to get to the 2588m summit and any guarantee of visibility once e got there, so de-trained here.


Five minutes away was Eibsee itself, frozen and still in the snowy silence. Time to throw a few rocks, enjoy an unusual Alpine outing then start the journey back to Munich. No mountain spectaculars but plenty of atmosphere and the ever-pleasant feeling of doing something silly.

Back in Munich, we had time to have a quick beer a the Augustiner beer hall before catching the bus to the ground. Here history repeated itself. On my last visit I’d sat ate the only table not occupied by very jolly Arsenal supporters and been joined by two Bayern fans who were excellent company, speaking impeccable English and chewing the fat over the match to come. They also drank very large glasses of beer that made our pints look somewhat softie.

Off to the ground, striking from outside and a bubbling cauldron of noise from within – until we scored at least.



Pope Francis I was elected while we were in Munich. He nearly pulled off his first miracle in overturning an impossible deficit but it was not to be. After an exciting game, we headed back with sore throats and tired for the flight home, returning to a snowy Luton Airport. I returned to the following charming welcome at work the following day.


Arsenal away: the years roll by but nothing stirs the soul in quite the same way.

Arsenal 1990-91: the almost invincibles (part II)

This article first appeared in issue 215 of the Gooner. It looks better in print and you can find it here. The first part of this article was posted earlier this year on this blog here. If you don’t read that first, this one won’t make much sense!

As Autumn turned to winter a season of immense promise threatened to derail. We hadn’t lost a match, but lost ground in mid-November, when the FA, who were embarrassed by the Manchester United punch-up being broadcast around the world if not in England, docked Arsenal two points. We had, they argued, previous charges after a scrap against Norwich City the previous season. United, unbelievably at the time, lost only one point. The sense of injustice was huge, and the galvanising effect immediate. Everyone connected with Arsenal was convinced it was a conspiracy and at the next home game Southampton were routed 4-0. The next week Arsenal were behind again at Loftus Road heading into the last quarter of the game, before three late goals sent us all packed into that vile, poky away end into raptures. Our captain marked that win by reminding QPR fans how many bob their club and stadium was. Kevin Campbell was busy scaring the life out of defences.

The drama kept coming. In the League Cup Manchester United turned up at Highbury in their blue and white chicken suit shirts. If our goal led a charmed life in the league at Old Trafford, in this match every time United shot, they scored. Lee Sharpe in particular was rampant. At the time he was one of England’s brightest young prospects and he arguably made the greatest back five in our history look more ordinary than any other player in any other match that night. Even Danny Wallace got one, after we’d pulled two back and at one stage looked like we were going to get back into the game.

As agonising as the United reverse felt, Liverpool were the real enemy and our home match that Sunday was the biggest game of the season so far. 3-0 to us.  Listen up everyone, this result seemed to be saying: we were going to be top dogs this season. The numbers looked good. Still no defeats. Points deduction starting to look irrelevant. Two fingers in the air. What are you going to throw at us next?

The answer came quickly, and it came as a big shock. Tony Adams was sent to prison on 19 December 1990 for drink driving offences, four days after captaining Arsenal during a disappointing 2-2 home draw against Wimbledon. It was six days before Christmas and the courts were keen to send out a strong message.  No arguments with that. Unfortunately it cost us our captain. Years later, however, no well-known name has been sent to prison for a similar drunk-driving offence. Years later, no other team has had even one point docked for on-pitch fighting. See why we thought everyone was against us?

Adams’ plight presented fans with an ethical dilemma, but whatever the rights and wrongs of publicly idolising a man serving time in Chelmsford Prison, we stuck by Tony. ‘We’ve lost our Tony Adams’ to the tune of ‘You’ve lost that loving that loving feeling’ was a winter anthem.  The team responded with three straight wins. Andy Linighan was thrown into the team next to Steve Bould.

Considering the praise rightly lavished on the Invincibles team I still find it remarkable that this Arsenal side does not get more credit for nearly managing the same achievement 13 years before in far more trying circumstances. The unbeaten run lasted through January and fell at what was then the most rancid cesspit in the league, Stamford Bridge. Their ground today is a world away from what it was pre-Taylor Report. The away end was, like the Shed at the other end, thirty yards from the pitch. It had no roof and state of the art amenities: for 1905. Which was the last time someone had changed a lightbulb in the place. As if losing to them wasn’t bad enough, and seeing the small knot of idiots who used to congregate in the lower paddock of the West Stand  as close as they could get to the away fans – still fifty yards away – dance about like demented apes, we then had to wait for an age in the fading gloom of a wintry west London night to be let out. The queue for Fulham Broadway station was still an hour, even after all that.

Stamford Bridge looking its best, anytime from 1905 to 1992

But things were looking up and Arsenal were not to lose again in the league. Adams emerged from prison and, after a reserve run out attended by 8,000 supporters the same day as we finally saw off Leeds in the FA Cup fourth round replay, was back as captain for the return fixture against Liverpool. We headed up to Anfield for a very tasty away game on a crisp March afternoon. Stanley Park was warmed by early Spring sunshine and Arsenal’s away support was mildly mivved at being moved into the opposite corner of the Anfield Road end from the one we’d occupied in 1989. No matter, we were not messing around. Seaman made two magnificent saves from John Barnes, the media darling and perpetual man of the match. Then in the second half Paul Merson intercepted a wayward wobble from Peter Beardsley, advanced into the Liverpool half, swapped passes with Alan Smith and rolled it past Grobellaar. Behind the goal we sucked the ball into the net. It took and age to go in. When it did, it was party time. It felt at the time like we’d won the title and nothing could take it away.

A solid series of wins and draws in March and April, including a 5-0 win over Aston Villa with David Platt taking over in goal at the end, and solid progress in the FA Cup once we’d got rid of Leeds after three replays had us dreaming of the double. You might want to look away now. We lost the first all north London FA Cup Semi Final at Wembley on April 14. I’m sure you know all you want to about that dark day. Before that semi-finals weren’t held at Wembley. Now we’re stuck with it.  Another legacy of that unhappy day. Let’s move on.

Kenny Dalglish’s heart wasn’t in managing Liverpool after Hillsborough, and though he made it throught the 1989-90 season on auto-pilot he had no stomach to take on George Graham’s ruthless pursuit of his sides title and he quit. Graeme Souness, the first but not the last Manager to win everything in Scotland and fail miserably in England, arrived to succeed him but there was no stopping the Arsenal juggernaut.

Four games after losing to Spurs, and a few days after that rainy trip to Sunderland we were champions. In fact, it happened without a ball being kicked. Liverpool’s loss to Nottingham Forest meant we couldn’t be caught and the return game against Manchester United became a procession, albeit one livened up by the return of the big red ‘Champions’ banner and the sight of Robson, Bruce and the rest of Ferguson’s drinking club applauding us onto the pitch.

If there was any hangover, and there surely was, then the players didn’t show it the following sunny Saturday against Coventry City, when an Anders Limpar hat-trick and another whack from Perry Groves brought the house down.

A 6-1 win in front of 41,039 was the perfect way to end the season. There were dark clouds that day – the launch of the bond scheme and the plan to make Highbury all-seater – but they couldn’t detract from a season of rich achievement, one of the greatest ever and certainly one of the most eventful.  In the league our final stats read played 38, won 24, drew 13, lost one, goals for 74, goals against a miserly 18, and 83 points with a big fat asterisk next to it marking the two deducted points.  Twenty years on there are lessons from the class of 1991 in guts, character, determination and the fine and hopefully not quite lost art of Arsenal defending.

Thanks to all the excellent people on YouTube who thoughtfully uploaded videos of this season.

An early summer visit to Craven Cottage

Craven Cottage
In one corner stands the cottage, unique
A reminder of an earlier age
An age before the violence
Before the air was full of vile oaths

Opposite, sits the brash new stand
Overlooking the Thames
Smug, expensive, empty
There’s an electronic scoreboard to gaze at when the play gets dull, which isn’t often
Fulham play an attractive brand of football
£4.50 to get in* and the beer is great

Three English Football Grounds by I, Ludicrous

I, Ludicrous may have written these words in 1987 but I’m sure Craven Cottage would get a glowing write-up again today should the boys decide to pay another visit**

In one corner does indeed stand the Cottage (rear view)

As football in London goes it doesn’t get much better than an early or late season trip to Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham. There’s lots to enjoy about coming here: the lovely walk through Bishop’s Park, with the green, narrowing Thames to your left; London’s oldest football stand fronting the Stevenage Road entrance to the ground; the prospect of a waterside beer at half time and the old-fashioned layout which generally ensures a large and vocal away following.

One English football ground (Stevenage Road Stand to right of picture)

The most recent addition to the attractions of the area is surely the oddest sight at any English league venue. The statue of Michael Jackon, erected by Fulham’s owner Mohammed Fayed, is a long way from the usual bronze effigy of ex-legend found at Old Trafford (Best, Charlton, Law), Elland Road (Bremner) and the Britannia Stadium (Matthews). For starters it’s in colour, and secondly, Michael Jackson may have attended a few Fulham matches but he was hardly known for his extensive Panini sticker collections. No matter, says Fayed, who walks on water in these parts after bankrolling the club into the Premier League and returning Fulham to the Cottage after converting the ground to all-seater for the start of the 2004-5 season. It gives travelling fans a giggle, which is no bad thing as they’re much less likely to come away with a result than they used to be. Fulham are no mugs at home and are an established Premier League club. Not bad when you consider that Fulham were second bottom of the entire Football League in January 1996, and lost away to Torquay United, the one team below them. Cha mon indeed.

For various reasons I failed to get a photo of the statue – there are plenty here – but some waggish Arsenal fans’ song, produced below, raised a smirk:

Your statue is shit
Your statue is shit
It should have been Jedward
Your statue is shit

A large and vocal away following, today

The other famous feature of the ground is the Cottage itself. This unique pavilion is as old as the Stevenage Road Stand and dates from 1905. Legendary stadium designer Archibald Leitch put it up after forgetting to build changing rooms into his plans for the ground. I’ve never been inside but I hope they bring you cucumber sandwiches and tea at half-time.

Earl's Court platform indicator...

...and Putney Bridge station's elegant facade are two things to keep an eye out for on the way

*It costs rather more than £4.50 to get in to Craven Cottage these days. The beer is cold, which remains shamefully the best you can hope for inside any football ground in Britain.

**In fact, of the three grounds reviewed in the song, Craven Cottage is the only one still standing. Burnden Park and The Den, the homes of Bolton Wanderers and Millwall, have both been replaced by modern all-seater stadiums. Fulham FC kept their terracing later than any Premier League club to date, with standing in the Stevenage Road paddocks and at both ends until the end of the 2001-2 season. I paid the ground a visit in 2001 for the first time since 1994 when Arsenal visited, coming away with a 3-1 win that was closer than the score makes it sound. As with other visits to grounds with terracing it weren’t like the old days.

Arsenal 1990-91; the almost invincibles

This article originally appeared in issue 214 of the Gooner. It looks better in print.

Part two appears in issue 215, currently on sale, and I will post it here once that issue is no longer current.

It is Bank Holiday Monday, May 4 1991, and it is raining at Roker Park, the home of Sunderland. The ground has seen better days, and Arsenal’s away followers are massed on an open terrace with our backs to the North Sea, which is chucking everything it has at us. We’re here to see the championship won back off Liverpool, who we handed it back to rather limply last season. The rain and a fairly dour display by Arsenal mean that 0-0 is a fair result, and the title would have to wait until we’ve dragged our soggy bodies back to London.

Of more immediate concern is the mob of angry Wearsiders occupying the standing enclosure and, highly unusually, the upper tier of the stand to our left. From the moment the gates open they’re making a huge racket, one clad in a Hummel-era Spurs top just to irritate. The rest of them dredge up every 1970s chant about what they’re going to do to us outside. Combined with the poor football on show it’s like stepping back 20 years. Just as we’re all wondering how fast a fat man from Sunderland can run after us the mood changes. Possibly aware they’ve just seen this year’s Champions, or just to show they were only messing when they were threatening to tear us several new ones, the Sunderland lads suddenly want to be our best mates. They break out in song, swap scarves through the fence and shake hands, wishing us well for the run-in.

It was just one event in a very eventful season.

Home of the Champions, 1990-91

The George Graham years, and indeed the entire history of Arsenal from 1980 to 1996 revolve around one moment: Michael Thomas’s immortal surge through the Liverpool defence  (click for video, go on) and flick past Bruce Grobbelaar to take the 1989 league championship. The drama of that season, and that defining goal, overshadow much in the memory of everyone connected with Arsenal of what came after. But 1990-91, which was twenty years ago this season, offered thrill after thrill, and twists and turns to keep us all gripped from the moment the first ball was kicked.

It was a big season for me, too, my first of following Arsenal away pretty much everywhere. I was an Arsenal obsessed 14-year-old and life revolved around Saturdays, home or away, heading up the motorway with my Dad and some friends.

So much has changed in twenty years. England had just reached the World Cup Semi Final and the humdrum reality of league football seemed to contrast with the glamour of the tournament in Italy. There was one ITV game a week on live if you were lucky, and no European football at all.

We were playing for the Barclays League Championship, an ugly triangular shaped thing with the graceful Football League trophy, now awarded to the winners of the Championship thrown in as an afterthought. Ian Wright was playing for a youthful Crystal Palace side that would finish third and impress everyone in the process. Highbury was, apart from the recently-erected executive boxes and roof over the Clock End, pretty much unchanged in fifty years. The Taylor Report was soon to change that, but as the teams ran out for the first home game of the season, an evening match against Luton Town attended by 32,723 the players applauded the West Stand with Junior Gunners enclosure in front of it, the Clock End, East Stand still with old school greenhouse-style dug outs and the boisterous North Bank, enclosed by its low, noise-echoing roof.

Before that we’d kicked off the season at the Makita International tournament at the old Wembley Stadium. Both the weekend fixture against Sampdoria and the evening victory over Aston Villa,   managed by Dr Jozef Venglos, the last and possibly only man with a doctorate to manage in England, were played in very hot weather, and the heat went up a few degrees at the latter when new signing Anders Limpar (some great goals by the original Super Swede here), who looked like a pacy replacement for the departed winger Brian Marwood, burst through the defence to lash home from a tight angle. He was one to watch. Other new signings were Andy Linighan, an addition to the already-established back four, and most controversially David Seaman in goal. He’d nearly joined us on deadline day the previous season but the deal had fallen through. Arsenal fans had rallied around John Lukic and Seaman got a mixed reception at first. He won us over by being fantastic.

The first day of the season took place against a club who no longer exist at a ground that is long gone. The tube journey to Plough Lane, Wimbledon through the longest tunnel on the Underground seemed to take forever, and when we got there we were greeted with a ground offering, like so many others, unreconstructed Victorian facilities. Years after this match I went to Tanzania and used a pit latrine and the smell reminded me instantly of this afternoon: a slowly boiling outdoor toilet. Goals from Merse, Alan Smith and an absolute belter from Perry Groves got us off to a winning start.

Plough Lane: even the horse didn't think the toilets in the away end were up to much

My ticket stub collection for this season is a bit sparse, not because I wasn’t at games but because you could often pay cash on the door at many away grounds. At Nottingham Forest’s City Ground a policeman stopped me, baffled, at the turnstiles and asked what the large wooden block I had in a bag was. My father, who had made the item, explained that it was for me to stand on as I was a bit of a short-arse those days (I still am), and the copper gave me a stern glare and ordered me to ‘grow!’. This box was a feature of that season. People next to me would try to knock me off it to get a better view themselves, and when a goal went in and everyone went flying I had to push through the post-goal scrum to try and retrieve it.

The previous season we’d gone to Old Trafford on the first day of the season as champions. Michael Knighton had just had his bogus bid to buy the club accepted and jogged round the pitch bouncing a ball on his head. Gus Caesar had a shocker and we’d taken a 4-1 hammering. A couple of years before there had been two bad-blooded encounters, one as we lost a long unbeaten run at the same ground and then when Brian McClair had missed a last minute penalty, earning him a taunting from a delighted and relieved Nigel Winterburn. Their fans were confident, taunting us as we walked around the ground beforehand. Long queues formed by red-brick turnstile blocks three hours before kick off. It was never going to go down well then when after United throwing the kitchen sink at a by now firmly established David Seaman for half an hour we scored from an Anders Limpar wonder-shot from by the corner flag. United were seriously wound up and Arsenal weren’t giving an inch.

The second half brawl didn’t affect the result but it made the day unforgettable. The United fans behind the away enclosure were baying for blood and we were kept in for a long time afterwards. Not that it mattered, three points under those circumstances was a triumph to savour. Incidentally, it cost £5 to get into Old Trafford that afternoon.

To be continued…

Everton away

Old turnstiles gathering dust, Bullens Stand

Rush preventative turnstile

Pitchside punning


Happy travellers

Secret London: Happy Birthday, Herbert Chapman

Big Herb

On 19 January 1878 Herbert Chapman was born. 132 years later, he still has a convincing claim to be the greatest of all football managers. Best known for turning Arsenal from a middling First Division side into the great powerhouse of the pre-war game, he just as remarkably delivered an FA Cup and two league championships to Huddersfield Town, as well as establishing the momentum for their third. Chapman was a great innovator, modernising football formations and presenting compelling cases for numbered shirts, artificial pitches European club competition and floodlit matches.

Herbert Chapman's grave in St Mary's, Hendon

Chapman died on January 6 1934, mid-way through Arsenal’s hat-trick of titles, as a giant of the game. He is buried in St Mary’s Parish churchyard in Hendon, north-west London with his wife, Annie Bennett Chapman. Annie lived to see Arsenal win four more titles, passing away in 1958.

I paid a visit here with my youngest son, still too young to argue with such a silly outing, on Sunday. The churchyard is quiet, with a rural feeling harking back to Hendon’s pre-suburbia village life. It’s a pleasant, peaceful place to visit, though the wind gets up a bit on a Saturday afternoon if Arsenal are losing. And if you’re not in the area, there’s the Herbert Chapman pub on Holloway Road, bustling on matchdays, and the old East Stand at Highbury which his achievements made possible. Happy Birthday, Mr Chapman.

A blast (of cold air) from the past: classic winter football

Chaos as referee loses contact lens, Highbury, January 1926

The unusually long, cold snap we’re enjoying has put paid to football fan’s fun all over Britain. But it wasn’t always this way. The picture above harks back to a different age, from the referee’s jacket and collar to the spirit of getting on with the game and to hell with the cold. I thought it might be of interest to find out a little more about the game captured here.

It turns out it was a cracker. The game was played between Arsenal (in red in the picture above) and Manchester United (in the funky red chevron shirt on the left, which inspires this year’s effort)  on January 16, 1926 before a palindromic crowd of 25, 252. Arsenal won 3-2 (have that, Mancs) with goals by Jimmy Brain (2) and legendary centre-forward Charlie Buchan. Buchan was in the first of three seasons at Highbury, having been signed that August by Herbert Chapman from Sunderland. His 21 goals that season, scored at the age of 34, propelled Arsenal to second place, then their best-ever finish.

Also playing that day was Jock Rutherford, who had just re-signed for Arsenal for the third time aged 41. He went on until March 1926 and, via a spell at Clapton Orient, ended up opening a newsagent’s in Neasden. He is still the club’s oldest-ever player. As for United, they finished the season in ninth place. Huddersfield Town, Chapman’s former charges, won the league for the third successive season.

The Times report from January 18, 1926 notes:

‘The ground presented a remarkable sight when play begun, for the only snow had been cleared had been on either side of the touch and goal lines and in front of the two goals. Around this enormous sheet of pure white was packed a dense crowd of spectators’

The quality of play, however, was debatable, the Times notes:

…the ground was slow of course and the ball hardly bounced all afternoon’

It must have made for chilly viewing for those standing on the terraces. Highbury then was largely as it had been on opening in 1913. As the picture below shows, the ground had opening terracing on the north, west and south sides. Only the east side had seats, this in a classic Archibald Leitch stand with a gabled roof carrying the letters of ‘Arsenal’.

Highbury in the 1920s, looking towards the East Stand from the North Bank

The classic East and West Stands, designed by Claude Waterlow Ferier and William Binnie, the roof on the North Bank and the famous clock – now on the outside of the new Arsenal Stadium – came with the club’s success in the 1930s. Don’t feel too sorry for the fans in the ground, though, they could drink beer while watching and paid just a few pence to get in.

Arsenal’s team that day would have lined up in a 2-3-5 formation favoured at the time. The team was Harper (GK), Mackie, John, Baker, Butler, Blyth, Rutherford, Buchan, Brain, Neil, Haden. If any United fans have information about the chap in the picture, their scorers or team that day then drop me an email.

Thanks to Ian Kirk at Arsenal Football Club for his help with some of the details of this article.

– Tom Hall