The Idea of Arsenal

What exactly does a club mean to its supporters?

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The old Highbury Stadium. Four stands around a football pitch or something more?

Football supporters grow up in the shadow of their club: for me, as it is for you, Arsenal Football Club has provided an ever present idea continuing through time; something very physical and tangible, yet at the same time able to connect me at the deepest emotional and psychological levels with that distant band of men who came together under the banner of Dial Square Football Club over 130 years ago. We have followed in the footsteps of so many men and women, children and grandparents, who, before us, went on their ways to Highbury, and now the Emirates; we have followed the same routes, performed the same routines as previous generations, just like, for example, those on 28th April 1970 who set out in hope from their homes for that most magical of nights Highbury perhaps had ever experienced, and they too travelled in the footsteps, and the shadows, of countless small lives before them; we in turn now follow them; all of us supporting our club – the same club through time.

What has accompanied me, like us all, is an ‘idea’, a ‘concept’ of Arsenal, to which we are wedded ‘til death us do part. Our relationship with this ‘idea’ can withstand all the strains and disappointments of ‘Wenger Out!’, and ‘Sack the Board!’, while it still has the power to cause hope to rise and surge, hope born on the back of a Torreira, or a Lacazette.

Perhaps, indeed, the most obvious physical manifestations of this idea of Arsenal are the players who represent that idea at any given time. As a young boy my heroes were Frank McLintock, Bob Wilson, and Charlie George, but in truth I knew of Arsenal long before I knew of any Arsenal players, and inevitably players come and go. Perhaps what preceded my knowledge of John Radford and Peter Storey was a growing awareness of that famous shirt, the simple, yet iconic, red shirt with white sleeves known the world over – and colours in those days rarely changed: red and white; yellow and blue year in and year out. Above my bed, like a religious relic, was the Arsenal crest, complete with the impenetrable and mystical words in Latin I now know to read as ‘Victory grows out of harmony’, but back then I believed them to be some incantation which caught the other worldly magic and mystery that was Arsenal, the Gunners!

Highbury, as for many others, was my cathedral. How do I account for those memories of a space which no longer exists? In a way, Highbury was Arsenal, something physical which existed in space not just on Saturday afternoons, it might be empty, caught silent at nightfall, but its walls were solid Arsenal. The marble halls, the bust of Herbert Chapman, and the oak-panelled boardroom; the East and West Stands, the Clock End, and the North Bank all familiar shapes known from many angles and in many moods lent this idea of Arsenal a sense of continuity: 1913 through to 2006. I loved to get in early and watch it come to life, while all the time distracted by the thought of the games long forgotten played out upon this very patch of earth. Although the present day majesty of the Emirates dwarfs Highbury it cannot quite yet replace it, that other small square of North London, which will be forever Arsenal, in the hierarchy of what constitutes Arsenal: from the flags atop the East Stand, to the peculiar green stanchions, to the half-time scoreboard and the marching Metropolitan Police band, Highbury is now a lost world, look for it and only its emptiness remains: and yet Arsenal continues.

At around the same time as Arsenal moved from its spiritual home, it also redesigned its crest, ostensibly to signify the great leap forward into modernity and the shiny new future of the impending move to Ashburton Grove, but was perhaps as much about controlling merchandising rights, and the attendant profits as it was about window dressing the club with a contemporary feel.

All this begs many questions: where does this idea of Arsenal reside? Is it found in the environment of the Emirates on match day; is it in the shirt, or the badge which adorns it, or the players, the manager, the supporters, the board? Or is it that point where these all overlap, a point of magical confluence, uniquely and absolutely Arsenal? To whom does this idea belong?

Perhaps this idea truly lives in our memories, the peaks and troughs of games and seasons past? My Arsenal is inextricably linked to the Double in ’71, and more explicitly to three moments: to Alan Sunderland in ’79; twelve months later to Turin in the mad spring of 1980; and of course Anfield ’89. But the idea lives on, from season to season; from generation to generation, in lives lived within the shadow of their club, amidst the shared memories and the ghosts: Mercer, McLintock, Brady, and Bergkamp; Highbury, Wembley, Copenhagen, and the glorious near miss of Paris 2006; and of course those magical words Victoria Concordia Crescit.

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  1. Bard

    Feb 2, 2019, 12:13 #113072

    Really good article. The game and everything around it has changed so much, its hardly recognisable. I dont care as much about it as I used to and I agree with Don H. Eventually it will be a busted flush. The product isnt good enough and there is too much of it. Hopefully enlightened souls will see this and reshape the game. I do think the days of the mega star with the massive wages are over. Apart from Ronaldo and Messi most of the others are a waste of money.

  2. Bard

    Feb 2, 2019, 12:13 #113073

    Really good article. The game and everything around it has changed so much, its hardly recognisable. I dont care as much about it as I used to and I agree with Don H. Eventually it will be a busted flush. The product isnt good enough and there is too much of it. Hopefully enlightened souls will see this and reshape the game. I do think the days of the mega star with the massive wages are over. Apart from Ronaldo and Messi most of the others are a waste of money.

  3. Don Howe

    Feb 2, 2019, 07:58 #113071

    As Ross remarked to Rachael, no one likes change and, reading the comments, this is well reflected. There was a great tradition at Highbury and those of us who were privileged to watch our football there will never forget it. We have a lovely stadium now. It’s safe and comfortable. The problem is the TV deal and loathsome stinking Wenger. He has gone and Julio Geordio, my new name for our Excellent manager, is ratting out the fancy dans and the gits that still remain smeared in Wenger. Murdoch and the TV revolution will die. The product is dreary and the money unsustainable. When it all dies back we will still have the stadium and our love of the club. Our old players still love the club. This is what makes me so angry when our morons boo old players returning for other teams. One of the hallmarks of our club is that the supporters were not stupid. We will clean the Wenger off the club and enjoy it again.

  4. mbg

    Feb 2, 2019, 00:15 #113070

    I still love Arsenal but certainly not the way i used to back in the day, like when we had a club like the one in the pic, what a club, nothing else mattered, not any more though it ceased been the same when we moved, it didn't have to of course but we were sold a lie (we didn't know or realise that at the time of course) and as well as that an ego manaic who thought he was God (and was treated like one unfortunatly) and started treating the club as his own, taking everything into his own hands with his pet projects etc, etc, and everything else and f*****g ruining this once proud club. That man has a hell of a lot to answer for.

  5. mbg

    Feb 1, 2019, 19:38 #113069

    The man from UNCLE, yes and they could be seen fluttering from which ever side you approached. Speaking of flags those big flags ( ripped off from the chavs) which are waved every time we score are ridiculous whose ever idea that was needs sacking.

  6. The Man From UNCLE

    Feb 1, 2019, 16:23 #113066

    One thing I forgot to mention; in the picture look at the flags flying; it's those little details that separates the "old Arsenal" from the new. Don't know if they still do it, but in Simon Inglis' "Football Grounds of England and Wales" it mentions on match days at Highbury flowers in the colours of the opposition were laid out in the boardroom - another subtle, but telling, touch of class. BTW if you can get hold of that book, I highly recommend it - not only written with an eye for detail but also with humour and no lack of verve.

  7. 1971 Gooner

    Feb 1, 2019, 14:41 #113065

    A very fine article David. I was at the game vs. Southampton in 2002 when the new crest was unveiled. Despite being bribed with a free t-shirt, the new design was roundly booed by most of those present, and deservedly so. I still have my old Arsenal hand towel with the proper crest, dating from about 1978. A club has to move on, but the new crest was as pointless as the move from Highbury.

  8. itsRonagain2

    Feb 1, 2019, 14:39 #113064

    An article that will provide a big debate im sure, but in my view AFC died a lot in 2006. The 'feel' and special atmosphere was all lost on that sunny day v Wigan for the last game. Any fan from way back knows what Arsenal were to them personally but its indefinable really. You had to feel it to know it. It was rarely a cauldron of a stadium and we had some serioulsy average teams didnt we in the 60s, 70s and 80s but the ethos and the majesty of Arsenal and Highbury separated it from other grounds.

  9. mad max

    Feb 1, 2019, 13:39 #113062

    A great article a lot of what is written is etched in our hearts, my first visit to highbury was in the sixties by way of the clock end, the smell of hot dogs and cigar smoke seemed rather comforting. it really was a cathedral the unique red shirts with white sleeves made us stand out from other clubs, the arsenal fish bar on the blackstock rd run by a lovely Chinese family was a big favourite for many fans, as I grew up I was spoilt for choice with the great pubs around the area, even the the punch ups seemed exciting as we defended the north bank from other firms trying to infiltrate our hallowed space, sadly todays matchday experience has become very sterile fans coming and leaving 15 minutes after the start, johnny come lately tourist's and the arsene f.c mob have never experienced those glorious days of highbury

  10. The Man From UNCLE

    Feb 1, 2019, 12:24 #113059

    A fine article "I loved to get in early and watch it come to life" and one that will no doubt resonate with many of us. I feel sorry for anyone born post -1992 as they won't have these kinds of memories for any club. For me personally, even though the early 1980's were forgettable in the great scheme of things, AFC was something of a "coming of age" - the trip up, the company, the pubs, the chip shop. We won't see those days again.