The Life and Times of Arsenal’s North Bank
There are many different factors that get a youngster hooked on Football. Kicking around an under inflated ball up the park or watching a great match on TV do it for some people but for me it was my first visit to the North Bank, Highbury.
Whilst I still get a rush of excitement as I turn onto Aubert Park and see The Emirates looming over the expectant crowd, it doesn’t quite live up to the feeling I got in 1987 when I first watched a game from the North Bank.
My Dad hustled me through the turnstile and into the claustrophobic recesses of the stand. The place smelt of smoke, hamburgers, urinals and booze. It shouldn’t be a romantic mixture but it’s strangely comforting. Anyone who has experienced it will doubtless know what I mean.
We climbed the enormous stone stairs and then BANG; right in front of me was what seemed like the biggest expanse of the brightest green grass I could imagine. It was that moment that I was forever lost to Saturday afternoons at Arsenal. I don’t remember who we played or what the score was, I just remember that I was awe struck. In the early years, my love affair with Arsenal was as much about the North Bank as it was about the team.
“The North Bank is our end; it won’t do to share a portion of the stand with the away lot.”
Highbury was built in 1913 to the design of Archibald Leitch – who was also responsible for more or less every other iconic ground in England or Scotland – Anfield, Ibrox, Goodison and Elland Road to name but a few.
The North Bank stayed pretty much as it was built, save for the addition of a roof in 1936, until its 90’s redevelopment. The Highbury renovations of the 30’s saw the addition of the iconic Clock to the South Stand and the building of the beautiful Art Deco East and West Stands. In that company the North Bank really doesn’t compare in terms of its visual impact, but more than made for it in terms of atmosphere and matchday experience.
The last game in front of the terraced North Bank took place in 1992. A 5-1 victory over Southampton which saw Ian Wright cap a hat-trick with a stunning solo effort to wrestle the golden boot from Gary Lineker.
To anyone who was fortunate enough to be there – and it felt like far more than the permitted capacity – it will never be forgotten. The match we witnessed was special in itself but the feeling of pride and loss we felt as we eventually trudged out of the ground can only have been paralleled by the last game at Highbury itself.
As we made the long walk back to Highbury Fields my Dad and I barely spoke; we could still hear the chants of “We’re the North Bank High-bu-ry” filling the Islington air as thousands of disbelieving Gooners refused to go quietly.
The Taylor Report finally put an end to terraced stands in top flight Football in the wake of the Hillsbrough tragedy in ‘89. It’s worth noting that the barbaric perimeter fences which played such a grim part in that disaster were never installed at Highbury. Nevertheless, a modernised North Bank returned in 1993. It was never the same as the old-fashioned Archibald Leitch stand but it did mark the beginning of a steady march to the Emirates, fuelled by the money from the newly formed Premier League.
The all-seater North Bank was much more like the future of Arsenal than the past. The rebuild afforded room for bars, live music, a quaint museum and a small club shop. Gone were the days of pushing a petrified child through a packed crowd and placing them on a barrier from which they could only see a small section of the pitch.
Whilst the North Bank lacked the iconic Clock or the architectural splendour of the stands which flanked the carpet of a playing surface, it more than made up for it in atmosphere and legend. From the apocryphal buried remains of an early 20th century work-horse to Sammy Nelson’s bare behind (pictured); all the way up to Thierry Henry’s hat-trick penalty on that emotional day against Wigan – the last ever goal scored at Highbury – key events happened on and in front of the North Bank.
Because of the North Bank I now have an aversion to watching live Football from anywhere but behind the goal. The view is better from the side but I somehow equate going to Football with standing behind a goal, come rain or shine.
At Cup Finals I buy a ticket behind the goal and when I used to visit Leyton Orient (their home games fell on our away matches, and I was an impoverished student at the time) I preferred the ancient, crumbling North Terrace to the more modern stands down the side, even though they were shielded from the elements.
I suspect that part of it is feeling like you are part of a gang who are responsible for backing up your players or sucking the ball home when they attack your end. The North Bank is our end; it won’t do to share a portion of the stand with the away lot.
Football, and the stadia in which we watch it, has changed beyond measure in the last twenty years. Nowadays we get to watch in state of the art luxury. I’m grateful for clean toilets, not having to turn up two hours before a game to click through the turnstiles and having a view which isn’t impeded by the peanut seller, but there was a rare pleasure about mucking in on the North Bank.
Assembling shoulder-to-shoulder, whilst the crowd surges and sways breeds a togetherness that I can’t be recreated in the modern era. You didn’t stand on the North Bank because it was comfortable; you stood there because after the first time, when that intoxicating atmosphere had taken you over, you could never, ever kick the habit.