From Highbury To The Emirates | The Grass Isn't Always Greener
My first ever football game was back in 2000 when the mighty Arsenal took on Ipswich Town at Highbury. A few eyebrows were raised as the boys in blue stole the victory in the 89th minute and set off into the fourth round of the League Cup.
I remember sitting with my dad in the West Stand and taking it all in. I visited Highbury only a couple more times before the club moved onto pastures new, but I wanted that transition to be the main focus of this article.
Moving grounds is always a tricky subject. From old to new, small to big (in most cases) and the promise of glory as the increased revenue from ticket sales, corporate packages and sponsorship role in. Club owners claim it's the only way to take clubs forward and not be left behind. I suggested this in one of my earlier articles around the San Siro.
If done right, a move can propel clubs to the next level and give them the financial strength to compete. On the other hand, if stale performances on the pitch follows, as the club pays off it's new stadium’s debt, and the atmosphere is lost, fans will rightly question was this all worth it and what have we left behind?
Highbury was to home to Arsenal for 103 years, witnessing countless league trophies and star-studded sides like that of the 1998 double-winners. It hosted matches at the 1948 Olympics and even Muhammad Ali swung punches at the ground. It was a boxed-in ground, with fans close to the action. It hosted the famous clock end where the more rowdy fans parked up, with the art deco East and West stands on either sides. The North Bank had its following too, with the atmosphere making up for it's lack of aesthetics. It’s presence even bestowed the club name to the nearest tube station.
Views from the old West Stand
It wasn't all sunshine and roses, the capacity was relatively small for such a big club. The Taylor Report in 1992 led to Premier League grounds becoming all-seaters, heavily reducing the capacity to under 40,000. The club even had to move to Wembley for Champions League fixtures in the late nineties over regulations with Highbury's advertising boards. On top of this, the views in some parts of the ground left a lot to be desired. Unfortunate fans paying a premium had poles blocking their visibility across the ground and the facilities were basic.
When the inevitable move came, the future looked bright for Arsenal. The new Emirates stadium resembled something of a space-ship landing on a former industrial and waste disposal site only a couple of hundred metres away and literally the other side of the railway tracks. The capacity rose from 38,000 at Highbury to 60,000, giving more fans the chance to see their team in action as they looked set to take on their challengers for the league title.
Emirates Stadium tour back in 2018. A solid 7.5/10 experience.
Unfortunately, due a case of bad luck (global recession), new rival owners (Roman Abromavich at Chelsea, then Thaksin Shinawatra at Man City) and a heavy stadium debt to repay, The Emirates never became the dream move they envisioned. I've visited the ground on many occasions and whilst it's certainly impressive, if you dig a little deeper you can see it for what it is, a relatively corporate and soulless imitation of the Estadio De Luz of Benfica. The gradient of the bottom tier is very low, so it doesn't feel like you're on top of the action (including an unnecessary large gap behind the goals) and the double corporate tier in the middle cuts out the connection between fans in the first and top tiers. Throw in the most expensive season ticket prices in the country and you've got yourself a botched recipe when it comes to an atmosphere and a quality match day experience.
In the club's defence, they were aware of how new modern grounds can be perceived (bland) so they undertook a project known as the 'Arsenalisation' of the Emirates whilst it was being built. Giant images of the club's icons are wrapped around the exterior of the stadium and there's statues of legends scattered around too. Even the corporate level got attention, with one suit is called the 49ers, in reference to the club's 49 game unbeaten run.
Fourteen years on and Arsenal's financial position remains very strong, consistently finding itself in the Deloitte Money League top 10 with the Emirates being the foundation behind this. Their fans however, will rightly question whether the move stifled their growth off the field, having failed to win the League since and now consistently out of the Champions League spots. On top of their performance issues, could the ground itself have been better constructed for a solid match day experience. Looking at their main London rivals Spurs, only a matter of miles away, the new Tottenham Stadium resembles the Emirates but with a distinct twist. Their South Stand is single-tier, in fact it's the largest of it's kind in the UK with the front row just 4.9 metres from the goal line. This has given Spurs fans a true place within the ground where an atmosphere can thrive. It strikes me as a balance between the commercial and supporter needs for a modern football ground.
Facing the South Stand at Spurs's friendly against Inter Milan
So all in all, was the move from Highbury to the Emirates a success? Was the grass greener on the other side? Depends on who you ask and how well the the team was performing that week...
Written by Richard Tester. Credit: Kylo Kelly (long suffering Arsenal season ticket holder)
The North Bank article
Estadio De Luz (Benfica)