Riders of the Night
Arsenal`s next landmark location that I will cast a retrograde eye on is of iconic proportions for the club and one of great sentimental currency for me. I spent a good deal of my formative years in its shadow, peering intently from beneath it whilst ducking the acid tongued rants of the assorted accents to my left. As is a recurring theme of the series, it was the brain child of Herbert Chapman and as with a great many of his innovations, its significance lives on today, symbolically resurrected inside Ashburton Grove as it was in August of this year. I speak of course, of that most classic of timepieces. The Arsenal clock and the Clock End Highbury.
The timeless clock was first manufactured by esteemed clock makers and maintainers, Smith and Derby- who maintain the clock to this day. Chapman`s original idea came at a time when football`s popularity was not yet inculcated onto the nation`s psyche. At the time, the fascination with the new fangled motor car saw Speedway emerge as a genuine threat to football`s attendance figures. Chapman realised the supporters needed more and so in 1930, he proposed for Highbury to have a 45 minute clock, so that they could count down the end of each half. Chapman felt that this would add tension and a sense of participation for supporters. But as with most innovators, Chapman was rebuked by the stuffed shirts and the F.A. forbade the clock, seeing it as a threat to the authority of the referee. But it was a case of Herbert by name, Herbert by nature as Chapman set about circumventing the ruling. So Arsenal commissioned Smith and Derby to create the clock face, which measured at an impressive 2.6 metres in diameter. The clock actually made its debut at the Laundry End of the ground (known as the North Bank from about the early 60s onwards), but when a roof was fixed to that stand in 1935, the club moved it to the College End at the South end of the ground. It first appeared there on 28th August, 1935 and didn`t relinquish its watch tower until 27th July, 2006.
In or around the early 1960s, the baby boomer generation began to make colloquial changes to the Highbury landscape. As kids began to attend gigs from the likes of the Who and the Rolling Stones, and Mods and Rockers staged pitched battles in seaside towns, teenagers weaned on James Dean movies became more territorial. The Laundry End sounded too stiff upper lipped and clipped. Fans began referring to it as "The North Bank" which gave the place an edgier sound. Similarly, the College End, which sounded more like the name of an indoor cricket pavilion that might have been more suited to the St. John`s College Divinity Ground upon which Highbury was built, was referred to as the Clock End by its punters. Atmosphere began to really become a part of the matchday experience, fuelled by images of Mick Jagger`s strut, Pete Townshend`s amp smashing antics and the anthemic chorus of Beatlemania, teenagers began singing in unison at football games. Noise was no longer seen as uncouth and not the done thing. Chanting was taking place on terracing; Liverpool fans would belt out "She Loves You" on the Kop. With Match of the Day now on the nation`s airwaves and highlights of other league games now available around the country, it became simpler to mimic what was going on at other grounds.
Atmosphere and chanting gave football grounds identity; there was now a clear demarcation. Whilst fathers and uncles chugged away at Thermos flasks on the East and West Upper, the kids were causing a commotion in the North Bank and the Clock End. But there was a darker side to this popular phenomenon which began to envelope the Clock End, confirming it as the edgiest place to stand. The amphetamine fuelled 60s had a nastier side too, and this could be seen at Highbury with gangs such as the Finchley Boys, the Islington Angels and the Holloway Posse roaming the terraces with menace. With nationwide travel now easier and more affordable, away support was swelling. This phenomenon was particularly increased by the "Football Specials", rickety old trains which offered away supporters cheap travel to other team`s territories. Fan segregation didn`t really happen at this juncture, but the travelling support had already colluded on their favourite place to stand at Highbury. It became a weekly drill that scores of visiting fans would wait outside Arsenal tube station until around 2.55pm, then converge upon the Clock End en masse. Once behind enemy lines, the travelling contingent could get nasty. In a 4-4 draw with Spurs in 1963, hundreds of Arsenal fans were treated by St. John`s ambulance. Arsenal had been 4-2 down until injury time, when they managed to pull two goals back. In their anger, grouped at the back of the Clock End, Spurs fans began to play the dangerous terrace game of "dominoes", surging forwards with force and sending the home support tumbling down the terraces.
In the mid 60s, Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers were known to cause trouble in the Clock End. Rangers` fans allegedly tossed potatoes with razor blades in, whilst Liverpool fans threw coins with serrated edges. It was becoming clear that you needed an appetite for danger to stand in the South End of Highbury. It was also slightly cheaper to stand there because the terrace stayed uncovered until 1989. So the edgier, more working class factions of the Arsenal support base gravitated towards its lurid charms. The Clock End became something of a Highbury republic, a testosterone fuelled island unlike any other part of Highbury. It was also a lot smaller than the gargantuan North Bank and the two tiered East and West Stands. The stand became like some kind of dystopian gentlemen`s club. Chants would be aired in the Clock End that were not heard in other parts of the stadium. Most memorably, The Riders of the Night chant.
"Eyes right, skin back tight, b******s to the front
We`re the boys that make more noise, when we`re on the c***
We`re the riders of the night and we`d rather f**k than fight
We`re the riders of the Clock End Highbury."
Similarly, other areas of the ground used to serenade the stand in the hooligan blighted era of the 70s and 80s. Whenever the opposition side scored, or when trouble was afoot, the North Bank would usually give the siren call, "Clock End, do your job, Clock End, Clock End do your job." It is true that Highbury was one of the safer grounds with one of the more tolerable fan bases in this gritty era of English football, but by no means were we impervious to the culture of violence. Highbury may not have been a scratch on Stamford Bridge, Upton Park or the Den in this era, but by Arsenal`s standards, here was about as dangerous as it could get. The Clock End took on cult status. The North Bank was bigger, more grandiose and it`s true, very much in the thick of invasion when West Ham`s ICF or Chelsea`s Headhunters came to town, but the artist formerly known as the College End was the rough end of the pineapple. If the North Bank was Ringo Starr, the Clock End was John Bonham.
Even as the hooligan era faded into obscurity, the Clock End maintained its reputation for edginess. The cheapest seats available at Highbury were always located there (hence it is where I graduated to at the age of 16 when I became too old to sit in the Family Enclosure) and when supporter segregation became de rigueur, the club still penned the away support into the corners of that terrace. Indeed, the famous Arsenal watch face and the stand it overlooked became symbiotic symbols of the club. So much so that the Sun ran a story in 1988 that a group of Millwall fans were planning to liberate it during an F.A. Cup tie! As with most stories you read in the Sun, it was a tissue of lies, but nevertheless, the story proved what a cultural artefact the clock had become, a badge of Arsenal`s honour. But for better or for worse, the stand moved with the changing times. In February 1988, the club announced in its matchday programme that the Clock End was to be subject to "an exciting redevelopment" in which a roof would be fastened onto the stand and a second tier containing 48 corporate boxes would be cosmetically grafted on. In January 1989, just prior to a North London derby, Terry Venables and George Graham cut a giant ribbon to unveil a tier of corporate boxes to an unimpressed crowd. The kick off time for this game had been put forward by an hour, so that ITV could show the match without interrupting Coronation Street`s ordinary timeslot. The times they were-a-changing.
I first moved to the Clock End as a season ticket holder for the beginning of the 2000-01 season. As luck would have it, we were given seats absolutely next to the barrier separating us from the away fans. I won`t kid you with any kind of Danny Dyer style recanting of fraudulent "propa nawty" capers. But it did liven up even the most soporific atmosphere. Like the Lyon fan who actually tried to climb the barrier into our section after watching Dennis Bergkamp curl a sumptuous effort into the top corner. Or the immediate, up close and personal look at the whites of the eyes of Spurs fans, peering at Thierry Henry as he slid on his knees in front of them. There were touching moments too, like the old Blackburn fan that shook several of our hands in August 2004, as our 3-0 win over his team broke Nottingham Forest`s unbeaten league record, or the knowing nods of gratitude as Tottenham fans immaculately observed the minute`s silence for David Rocastle. The Clock End wasn`t the best view panoramically speaking, but we were front row centre for some hair rising moments. I had the direct eye line of Henry`s superb swivel and volley over Barthez as the ball sailed diagonally towards me. I had the perfect view as Dennis Bergkamp swerved his last ever Arsenal goal into the top corner. Ian Wright broke the club goal scoring record in front of a stand that Wright claimed, "sucked the ball in for me." It was also of course where I watched Highbury host a football match for the final time in May 2006.
Arsenal fans past have also witnessed some picture book moments there too. Like in 1953, when Arsenal led Blackpool 4-0 in injury time, somebody in the College End blew an errant whistle. Arsenal defender Dennis Evans mistakenly thought it to be the referee`s final whistle, so he turned and smashed the ball into his own net before winking at the crowd. Seconds later, he realised his error. The match did finish 30 seconds afterwards, the final score 4-1. On the 27th July, 2006, the Highbury clock was craned out of its crib and airlifted onto the outside of our new stadium. It faces south, towards Highbury and overlooks the aptly named Clock End Bridge. Meanwhile, at the supporters` request, the club fashioned a new replica clock for the South End of their new arena, where it was unveiled on Saturday, 21st August, 2010, prior to a 6-0 win over Blackpool. This one, also forged by Smith and Derby, is an eye catching 3 metres in diameter. A half scale model of the original timepiece (1.6 diameter) overlooks the Diamond Club restaurant. The clock is as iconic an artefact as the club has, show any football fan a picture of the watch face itself, bereft of its surroundings and they`ll immediately know it belongs to the Arsenal. The clock is yet another long standing monument to the innovative brain of Herbert Chapman. It was essentially his gift to the supporters and we have made it all our own, this past eighty years.LD.
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