Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday November 25 2010
Given the theme of the article below, I felt it was a good time to provide the next instalment in the series focussing on Arsenal landmarks. I hadn`t actually planned to pen a piece on this particular place for a few weeks, but some of the thematic elements appear to really strike a chord at this moment. The next landmark is one of the lesser known and tucked away pivots of Arsenal`s history. Its exclusivity is such that I believe it to be the only place I will write about in this series that I have never actually set foot in myself. That matters little, seeing as the place is not particularly salubrious or majestic. Its importance is entirely symbolic. I would wager that the vast majority will never have even heard of it. Even Google is immune to its charms- save for a small mention I gave it in a past article on this website.
But Highbury`s Halfway House has served a critical function in the club`s successes and witnessed some of its most stirring, impassioned moments. The "Halfway House" was a small room annexed onto the players` tunnel at Highbury. It is not actually known what the original intention for the room was when the stadium was designed. But as with most significant places inside Highbury, it was Herbert Chapman that first put the room to identifiable use. Chapman stunned Arsenal directors back in 1925 when he introduced team meetings in the Halfway House. In this day and age, players were rarely coached in tactics beyond being told their positions. Chapman not only went into greater tactical depth in training sessions, but used to call his players into the room after games and encouraged them to contribute their ideas on formations and tactics. Sir Herbert wanted his players to reflect on their own performances and air any grievances they had. The manager had great success with this; it was during a frank discussion with club captain Charlie Buchan on a train back from a 6-1 defeat at Newcastle that saw the famous WM formation first mooted. These were days when players were considered blue collar serfs; Chapman simultaneously elevated player education through these meetings, but also their confidence.
The side of the 30s continued on with these meetings, even after Chapman`s death. They were considered crucial in retaining the focus and hunger of players. Ted Drake once recalled that at the end of his first season, a meeting in the Halfway House had convinced him that the Arsenal were cut from a different cloth. In April 1934, Drake scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Sheffield United at Highbury, a victory which saw Arsenal seal their third league title in four years. Drake changed and showered and went to make his way home, until Manager George Allison tapped him on the shoulder and informed him that the team had demanded a group meeting. Drake was flabbergasted as the team celebrated their title by agreeing that they had still failed to meet the high standards they had set themselves and that senior players such as Bastin and Male feared complacency was setting in. Alex James, the 1930s equivalent of Zinedine Zidane, was lambasted for being too lazy. Drake was asked how he thought he had performed in the Sheffield United game. Drake replied that he was reasonably pleased, having scored two goals. Bastin and James allegedly tore into him, reminding him that his contribution outside the penalty area was not up to standard. Sensing Drake`s incredulity, George Allison explained, "Walk around this wonderful stadium Ted. It stands because so many have worked beyond the call of duty and bettered themselves. That is what we expect of you too." The words carried the extra weight of poignancy given that Chapman had perished only three months earlier. Drake realised as he drifted out of the Halfway House that afternoon that Arsenal was no ordinary club.
The team meetings ground to a halt after the war and the Halfway House became a players` lounge, where the team and their wives would convene after games for beer and sandwiches with their loved ones. It is even reputed that Bob Wilson had a natter with a seemingly nice young Arsenal fan in there some time in the mid 60s. The nice young man turned out to be 'Mad` Frankie Fraser. With Arsenal mired in terminal mediocrity in the late 1960s, Frank McLinctock and Don Howe agreed to resurrect the team meetings in the Halfway House. Occasionally, the meetings were chaired by Howe, equipped with whiteboard and pitch markings, as the players talked tactics. But for the most part, they were chaired by McLintock away from the captivated ears of the manager or the coaching staff. The players would meet there each Monday morning and McLintock would encourage the players to speak frankly about where the team had grounds for improvement. McLintock would often knowingly light the blue touch paper and get the meetings started by leaping to his feet and pointing fingers in various directions, accusing his team mates of lacking commitment. More defensive, combustible characters such as McNab and George would curse and rage back. Other quieter team mates, such as the brooding Storey or taciturn Kennedy would sit in contemplative quiet. In one exchange, Peter Storey finally snapped and yelled at his captain, "Well how the **** do you think you`re playing Frank?"
McLintock`s reply was instant, "As crap as you are, but I`m trying to sort it out." The captain suffered physically too, with Charlie George once taking exception to criticism, gripping McLintock around the throat. But it was in this small, dusty room that the spirit of the first Double side was forged. Arsenal had good players in the 1960s but lacked direction under Billy Wright, who was far too nice to instil discipline in the team. Players turned the air blue and questioned one another`s parentage within the small confines of this claustrophobic cranny, but differences are better aired than stored and the resolve of this talented Arsenal side became steely sinewed. Players would usually play a five a side training match behind the Clock End immediately after meetings. Bobby Gould reports how he once accused Peter Storey of shirking in a game in the late 60s. Storey did not respond with so much as a word in the meeting, but unfortunately for Gould he ended up on the opposition team in the ensuing five a side. It wasn`t an accusation Gould levelled again in a hurry.
It was also in the Halfway House that manager Bertie Mee made a stirring address to his team, shaking with anxiety, in early April 1971, Mee told his players, "For the next few weeks, put your family lives on hold. Because you`ve got the chance to make history here." The room also served as a bunker in the early 90s- much to Steve Bould`s chagrin. Following Arsenal`s 6-1 victory over Coventry City in May 1991, the players were leaving their dressing rooms to re enter the pitch and lift the First Division title. As Steve Bould emerged triumphantly, decked out in his home kit still, topped off with Arsenal flat cap, the TV cameras following his stately progress, the Arsenal Tea Ladies ambushed him in the tunnel and mercilessly pelted him with eggs, leaving Bould to seek refuge behind the dressing room door with the nation watching him cower at the advances of a few old dears. The halfway house spent its later years as a mini TV studio, where Arsene and the players would conduct their post match interviews against a backdrop of corporately sponsored graffiti. The Halfway House has cult heritage in Arsenal`s history. It didn`t even warrant a mention in the Highbury Stadium tour, yet it was the place that Chapman threw open the doors for player enlightenment, the place that Howe and McLintock identified as the kangaroo court that forged the spirit of the early 70s. It witnessed the greatest heroes of Arsenal`s history and, if Wilson is to be believed, was once host to one of Britain`s biggest villains too. It doesn`t have the aesthetic wonder of the Marble Halls or the plush facilities of Club Level, but the Halfway House could probably best be summed up as the factory where the meat was made. I`m not sure if our current stadium has an equivalent venue, but maybe it`s time we found a cubby hole somewhere and took the gloves off?LD.
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The Marble Halls
Date:Thursday November 25 2010
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