When Thierry Henry kissed the Highbury turf after scoring a penalty against Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2006, it was perhaps the most poignant moment in Arsenal’s illustrious history. A stadium which was very close to the players (literally) and fans served the club well for 93 years providing them with some cherished memories. It was a historical stadium which witnessed the dominance of Herbert Chapman’s team in the mid 30’s, hosted the team of the glorious 70’s starting from the Double followed by a fair amount of European success culminating with the Arsene Wenger era in which a fitting tribute was given just a year back courtesy ‘The Invincibles’. Highbury had seen it all, done it all, as it guided Arsenal to a new state-of-the-art stadium, providing them with a new platform to weave memories, a new home to rewrite history. 7th May, 2006, as Arsenal finished the league campaign with an emphatic win, the sun set over the Highbury skies for the last time. It was the end of an era.
Highbury History – Rewind
It was the vision and dream of Henry Norris way back in 1910 to give the Woolwich Arsenal team a new face, a new name, a new stadium. During tough times for the club, Norris, the then chairman of Fulham envisaged a merger between the two London clubs. Thanks to the Football League, those plans never saw the light of the day, instead, Norris chose to leave Fulham and fulfill his ambitions with Arsenal. After going down from the top tier in the year 1912-13, the club needed a makeover, a financial push, which was provided by the great man as he bought the famous Highbury plot for a 21 years lease.
Under the supervision of Archibald Leitch, who had also designed the stadiums of United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton, Arsenal’s new home was built. Neatly designed grandstands, turnstiles and proper terracing were built for the club which would go on to become one of the greatest in English Football history. On 6th September, 1913, Arsenal played their first game at the new stadium which they left with a winning 2-1 score-line. 20,000 Arsenal fans had assembled on that historic day at Highbury.
Arsenal gained promotion back to top tier in some controversial circumstances as they took the Spurs’ place in the league, Sir Norris had a huge part to play in that, making him one of the most hated characters at Tottenham, and a legend for Arsenal. That incident also spoiled relationship between Arsenal and Spurs, and the North London Derbies became fierce battles as both sets of fans developed an extreme feeling of hatred towards each other. To this day, Arsenal hasn’t left top tier football – that was a fantastic decision, after all.
The club’s face was changed with the new stadium but their football and their status were revolutionized by the great Herbert Chapman who took the team to its rightful place, at the top of the league. Under his tutelage, Arsenal would dominate English football for a decade. They won the FA Cup in 1930 and their first league championship a year later. Highbury was the home to the first exceptional team in Arsenal colors. With many glorious years to follow, which saw Arsenal win a lot of League titles, achieving the elusive ‘double’, winning the European trophy in 1970 defeating Anderlecht, beating Liverpool at their home in 1988-89 to win the league, forging an incredible team of the Invincibles in 2003-04, Highbury was the platform for all that. Arsenal and Highbury were inseparable. The close proximity of the fans to the pitch delightfully demonstrated the relationship between them and the players. Highbury was special, teams were scared to visit the stadium, the intimidation of the fans was too much to withstand, and the club owed it big time to the Great Highbury. Highbury was unique, the new Emirates Stadium may seat a lot more people than Highbury, but it will never accommodate the amount of history and heart that were left behind as Arsenal moved to their new home.
The Legends at Highbury
Clifford Sydney Bastin – The great striker was signed by Herbert Chapman from Exeter City, though the manager had seen very little of the striker, he knew exactly what the future had in store. Cliff Bastin was the most important component of the great Arsenal side that dominated English Football for the next decade, he played in the famous red and white for the rest of his career, amassing 396 appearances and most importantly, 178 goals.
Bob Wilson – The Scottish Legend’s relationship with the club goes beyond his playing years, as they say, ‘Once a Gunner, always a Gunner’; he has been attached to the club ever since he stood in front of the Arsenal goal post in the 1967-68 season. Having played 234 times for the Gunners, the handsome exuberant Scot didn’t leave Arsenal, he went on to become the club coach for goalkeeping. Under his observation, the club produced amazing talents such as Jennings, Lukic and David Seaman.
George Graham – Another Scot who has been an integral part of Arsenal history was George Graham. He played for the club for six years and then came back to manage it for another nine years. During his playing days, he brought a lot of joy to the Highbury faithful, playing as a forward for the club; he scored 60 goals in 227 appearances. He was part of that incredible Double-Winning team of 1970-71’. Later, as a manager, he ensured he will always be remembered for the last minute league win at Anfield and the ‘Defensively Miser’ team he created in 1990.
Tony Adams – The Englishman who was in the middle of that amazing team of Graham, played 22 years for the club, giving his all for the Red and White. Tony was more than a player to the club, he was a symbol, and much like Maldini was to Milan. He was an incredible leader of men; he was a chief dictator of ruthless defending and he could lift his team with his determination and class. He gave the men sitting in the Highbury stands many glorious years of breath-taking football.
Thierry Henry with The Invincibles – The most exciting part of the Highbury folklore comes down right into its penultimate year when a group of exceptionally talented men overturned logic to emerge as the greatest football team on the planet. Arsene Wenger had produced a gem of an outfit which went an entire season without losing a football match. Thierry Henry, who lived the glory days of the late 90’s and the early 2000 era, contributed to almost half of the entire success of the club. He not only scored a hell of a lot of goals, he scored them with finesse, he always brought a smile onto the faces of the Highbury Faithful. Nothing was complicated and contrived in his game, everything was classy and ‘out there in the open’. Henry not only scored 30 goals in that particular season, he was part of every good move that they built up. Thierry Henry, The Invincibles, Arsene Wenger and especially The Highbury are indissoluble pieces of a great Arsenal puzzle.
The Last Season at the Stadium
As a tribute to the great stadium and as a mark of respect to the men who started it all in 1913, the team wore the same colors that Arsenal had adorned in the 1913 season. The one legendary Arsenal man who didn’t get to wear that famous kit onto Highbury, was Patrick Vieira, who after playing some amazing years at the club, left for Juventus in the summer. It was destiny as those huge boots were to be filled by a young prodigy and future Arsenal captain, Cesc Fabregas. The lone summer signing was Alexander Hleb, for whom fitting into this Arsenal team didn’t need too much of toiling, as his style was completely suited for the club. And with it, started the final season at the Highbury, where legends were born, legends were made, legends were saluted – an unbelievable season of football was to be witnessed by the Highbury faithful for one last time.
During the season, Arsenal brought back David Stacey, the Arsenal mascot, who used to walk next to the old Highbury pitch in the 50’s, some traditions were restored. For Arsenal, it was still the same beautiful football with Thierry Henry, a master-class in display, though the results were always not what was desired. Highbury witnessed the magical moment when two Arsenal legends shared an embrace as Thierry Henry broke Ian Wright’s goal-scoring record for the club. “The two-most accurate Gunners of all time” shared a moment to cherish for the Highbury faithful, as Wright presented Thierry with a souvenir. In another moment of Highbury History, Robert Pires scored the special goal against Manchester City – 500th goal of Arsenal in the Premiership at Highbury.
“Does he ever score a bad goal? They all seem to be things of beauty!” – exclaimed the commentator as Thierry Henry scored against Sparta Prague at Highbury, though Arsenal’s form in the league was quite patchy, they were doing very well in the European Championship. In the end of November, the team picked up the 2004-05 Fair Play award before a match against Blackburn which Arsenal won 3-0, Thierry Henry scoring his 100th Highbury goal. January witnessed an incredible game against Middlesbrough, the team playing the most exceptional football on the Highbury pitch, coming out 7-0 winners. In the process, Henry even equaled Cliff Bastin’s all-time club record of 150 goals – milestones one after another at Highbury – it was a special season. One of the most fascinating games that Highbury witnessed was the one against Real Madrid in the Champions League, it didn’t see any goals, but it was enough for them to go through to the semi-finals. After an incredible season, Arsenal moved towards that final game at Highbury.
The Last Day – Wigan Athletic
As the last day, 7th of May, finally dawned and Highbury got itself up and running for a football match for the final time, the Premiership table was beautifully poised at a situation where, ironically, one of Arsenal or their closest rivals Spurs, could go to Europe next season. Every Arsenal fan who lived the great memories of that fabulous Highbury green walked into that stadium for one last time. ‘The Home of Football’ as known to Gooners was to be the home for that very last time. Thierry Henry picked up a bunch of honors before Arsenal kicked off their match against Wigan. They had to win this and hope for West Ham to provide a decent challenge to Spurs so that the latter couldn’t win their game away from home.
The emotional Highbury faithful looked onto their beloved players as they walked into the pitch. It was Robert Pires, the perfect poacher, who broke the deadlock from a set-piece situation to take Arsenal ahead inside eight minutes. Breaking the hearts of the emotional Gooners assembled, Scharner equalized from another set-piece. A freak of a free-kick from David Thompson took Wigan ahead much to the shock of everybody viewing their team. It had to be Thierry Henry at his home, his platform for years, to level it up for Arsenal – The Frenchman made it 2-2 with a delicious finish from a Robert Pires through-ball. Sometime later, a terrible back-pass was latched onto by Thierry again to take Arsenal ahead 3-2. An unbelievable script was being written on its last day. Freddie Ljunberg, who had done his bit at Highbury, was brought down in the penalty box. There were no guesses in the stadium as to who would pick up the football to bury his last goal in that famous pitch. It had to be Thierry, he had to score, he did score, Arsenal went up 4-2, with an emotional Thierry kissing the green, thanking it with heart-felt gratitude and deservedly bidding farewell to the great stadium.
As the fans celebrated the hat-trick of their King of Highbury, they got news from nearby West Ham that Spurs were 1-goal down while Dennis Bergkamp, the Arsenal legend, prepared for his final run of his football career. It was destiny, Arsenal had to finish with a win, they had to qualify for Europe and it had to be their fiercest rival who would give away, salute the team and Highbury for the greatness they have achieved over the years. The closing ceremony saw a number of Gunners’ greats walk down the green as ‘old’ fans recollected beautiful memories of those legendary men in Red and White. Football was over at Highbury, it was an end of an era, only 93 years of exceptional memories would remain.
Highbury – To the Staff, Players and the Fans
Arsenal.com editor Richard Clarke gets very emotional and writes in his famous journal for the site –
“There is a steady trickle of supporters taking a lunchtime detour to Avenell Road just to get that final, final look. You can see them out of the office windows. Typically they walk up and down, linger outside the main steps for five minutes, take a few snaps and then sigh deeply before wandering back to the tube station.”
Legendary goal-scorer for Arsenal – Ian Wright –
“I remember coming down here and touching the bust of Chapman for the first time. It is an emotional day for everybody”
Former keeper and keeper-coach Bob Wilson –
“It has been great for us all boys, 90 of us meeting up, 12 years as player for the club, 28 years as coach, I have always said, without Highbury in Arsenal it was of no purpose”
Arsenal Manager for 15 years, Arsene Wenger –
“There is something here which you’ll never find wherever you go in the world, this is special, the stadium is special, the history is special”
An Arsenal Fan –
“It is sad, but you have to look at it like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, rather than a death, look at it as this is the dawning of a new era”
The extended honeymoon with Highbury, Arsenal’s ‘Home of Football’ was over. 1913-2006.