Next in the journey through Arsenal monuments completes something of a natural cycle. In the last edition, we looked at the dark charms of the Clock End Highbury, having already touched on the redevelopment of the West Stand as Chapman`s first great renovation and poured in detail over the Marble Halls and the adjoining East Stand, there is only really one place left to visit as far as Highbury is concerned. Many would point to it as the epicentre of the ground, the pivot towards which all gravitated. The players attacked it with gusto and defended it with earnest on the pitch; the fans filled it with soul and vibrancy. I am talking of course of the North Bank, Highbury. Aka the North Terrace, aka the Laundry End.
When Highbury was first built inside a hectic two month period in the summer of 1913, the North End of the ground was merely a mound- forged from the clay of the renovated Arsenal Tube station and hurriedly stamped into the ground by labourers. As with most of the ground, it stayed in that less than salubrious state until Chapman decided some bells and bows were in order for Arsenal stadium. In its early days, the College End at the South of the ground stood 6 feet higher than the North End, making for an unsightly slope. Chapman wanted the North terrace "banked up" and invited local tradesmen to dump their rubbish underneath the stand in order to elevate the terracing. This is where the infamous Highbury Horse myth emanated. A rumour went around the ground for some years that, upon dumping some industrial waste, a young labourer lost control of his horse and cart, which both toppled into the wreckage, with the terracing built over the horse`s prone corpse. When the club renovated the North Bank in 1992 to align with the Taylor Report recommendations, no such horse fossils were found. Local legend suggests the rumour was started by a Finchley grocer, who was fond of a tall tale in the early 30s.
Once the terrace had been sufficiently banked and built up, Chapman requisitioned the building of a roof to add to spectator comfort in the Laundry End, which was completed after his death in 1935. (An incendiary bomb from the Luftwaffe curtailed ithe roof's existence in 1941).This led to an amusing civil disturbance between the "innies" and the "outies." The "outies" ignored such spurious comfort as shelter from the elements, proclaiming themselves to be the hardcore of the club`s support continuing to stand near the front of the Laundry End, unperturbed by rain, sleet or snow to roar on their boys. The "innies" meanwhile, would arrive at the ground early to secure shelter and laugh uproariously at the poor sods taking a dousing from London`s ominous collection of dark nimbostratus clouds. At this stage, the club referred to the stand rather glibly as "The North Terrace." However, the supporters gave it the nickname "The Laundry End." This was because Mayfield Laundry, a small family laundrette located in Avenell Road, discharged its pipes every Saturday just before closing at 2.45pm. This caused clouds of fuggy smog and claustrophobic steam to envelope the stand when the game started. In the pre war period, the Laundry End was considered the more working class section of the ground. The College End was nearer Arsenal tube station, so those with money who could afford to travel in from Hertfordshire and the West End tended to gravitate towards it. The North Bank was more likely to be filled with local Islington folk, who walked to the stadium from Holloway, Shoreditch and Hackney.
However, as public transport became more viable and more affordable to the working man, this began to change. But the Laundry End did bear the fruit of social progression. In the immediate post war years of the late 40s and early 50s, an audible as well as visible change began to permeate the stand. Following the Second World War, Islington experienced an influx of Latin and Mediterranean communities, local grocery stores were now owed by Italians and Greek Cypriots. This became reflected in the Laundry End, as the clientele began to shape shift. Singing was not really part of the football experience until the 1950s, with the exception of the odd prosaic cry of "Arsenal" punctuated by a few claps in unison. But those transplanted from more extroverted cultures changed the sound of the stadium. The stiff British upper lip began to uncurl itself as the immigrant cultures more given to public song encouraged their comrades. Long before the arrival of Arsene Wenger and the "Francenal" jibes, Arsenal has always been a liberal, progressive club that welcomed its rainbow nation. This is largely to do with the fabric of the area we are rooted into. Finsbury Park and Hackney have long been at the epicentre of London`s first migrant communities. The Irish population has been a part of the local culture for years. So it is no surprise that we were labelled "London Irish" in the late 70s under the stewardship of Terry Neill, as the likes of Rice, Brady, O`Leary and Nelson populated the team.
In the mid 80s and early 90s, Arsenal could field the likes of Meade, Anderson, Whyte, Davis, Rocastle, Campbell and Wright without fear of monkey noises or banana skins, largely due to the fact that a good percentage of the Arsenal crowd came from the African and Caribbean communities that were so commonplace in Islington. The Laundry End began to imbibe the Latin and Mediterranean feel and the stand became the hub of the Highbury atmosphere. Teenagers began to latch onto this in the early 60s, inebriated by the lively counter culture of the likes of Jagger and Daltrey, the Laundry End became invaded by the baby boomers, claimed as their own territory where they could sing and swear and drink and smoke away from the avuncular eyes of Uncle Stanley in the East Upper. In the spirit of the rabble rousing mid 60s, the kids changed a key cultural reference point when they disposed of the stuffy, Victorian sounding "Laundry End" and referred to their patch with the infinitely more colloquial sounding "North Bank." The club had a policy that they would allow under 18s reduced admission to kids in the East Stand, if they then moved from the East Lower into the North Bank with their parents. The policy was based on a trust that was routinely abused, as kids would simply muscle their way through the gate and onto the North Bank where no such parental influence was prevalent and be free to drink, smoke and swear on their chosen patch.
Changing fashions began to find their way onto the North Bank, Highbury too. As the stand was identified as the cauldron of the ground`s noise, sta-prest shirts, Levis and cherry Doc Martens found their way onto the concrete mound of humanity. The appearance of Charlie George in the first team accelerated this terrace peacocking. Young lads that dressed in this manner also established a fashion for tying red and white scarves around their wrists. Football merchandise was hardly an industry at all until that point, let alone the multi billion pound behemoth it is today. Men would wear suits and bowler hats to games. The kids were beginning to wear their colours and bring a vibrant canvas to the North Bank and the rest of the ground followed suit- so to speak- slowly but surely. Cultures of behaviour, uniforms and codes of conduct were sweeping the steep old roofed terrace. But a more unseemly revolution soon gripped the North Bank with grimy claws.
In the early 70s, the North Bank had a tardis like green shed right at the back of the terrace, serving beer and snacks. Inside was a bevy of testosterone, as cigarette smoke billowed, beer poured and songs a plenty were composed. The green shed was seen as primal Arsenal territory, and as such, it became a target for opposition supporters as the hooligan era gripped the game in Britain. The North Bank was seen as the virgin`s hymen, the prime target when Chelsea`s Headhunters and West Ham`s Inner City Firm came to town on derby days. Invasions of the North Bank by donkey jacket clad, shaven headed knuckle draggers became commonplace in this dark era for English football. Rival supporters would rival in occupying other supporters` stands by brute force. The North Bank was Arsenal`s most notorious territory and as such, open to invasion. Rival firms, most typically Chelsea`s and West Ham`s, would encircle the North Bank, with men littered on the wings and at the back centre. The cry would go up, "zigger oi, zagger oi, zigger, zagger, zigger, zagger, oi, oi, oi" and what Paul Weller once lovingly described as "the rumble of boots" would follow, as clans of Doc Martens and wind milling fists would tumble down the terrace in a pincer movement. This grim routine played out on the North Bank Highbury regularly. Things came to something of a head on May Day in 1982, rumours circulated that West Ham`s ICF were planning the mother of all invasions, culminating in a giant Hammers banner being unfurled over the North Bank like a giant calling card.
Presumably out of annoyance, the usually restrained North Bankers decided to fight back this time. A massive pitched battle took place as Arsenal supporters stood toe to toe with West Ham`s thugs. A smoke bomb was then detonated on the North Bank, causing hundreds of fans to seek solace from the fumes by spilling onto the pitch and into the penalty area, just as West Ham were about to take a corner. My stepfather and one of my best friends stood aghast in that penalty area on that afternoon. This incident was the prevailing reason that Arsenal refused to deploy perimeter fencing at Highbury, fearing it was an encumbrance on supporter safety. Their steadfast refusal to do so cost Highbury its status as a ground upon which the F.A. would consider fit to host F.A. Cup semi finals. It was pressed against perimeter fencing that 96 Liverpool fans would lose their lives at Hillsborough. Following the Arsenal West Ham match that afternoon, tempers flared and an Arsenal supporter was stabbed to death at Arsenal tube station by a West Ham supporter. That balmy May afternoon was the beginning of the end of the old North terrace.
With the Taylor Report decreeing that all top flight stadia must eliminate terracing by the beginning of the 1992-93 season, the North Bank`s days as a spion kop were numbered. In the souvenir Coventry City programme in May 1991, the club announced they would use debentures to finance the redevelopment of Highbury. By paying £1,200 on top of your season ticket price, the club allowed you the right to buy a season ticket for the ensuing 150 years. This news came in conjunction with a 33% ticket rise for the start of the 1991-92 season. The club reasoned, quite logically, that they had to raise the finance for stadium redevelopment somehow. However, the Taylor Report outlined that clubs should encourage an active dialogue with the supporters in how best to achieve this. David Dein and the board failed to do so and incurred the ongoing wrath of supporters who could not afford such astronomical sums. The Independent Arsenal Supporters` Association (IASA) was set up and began to protest the moves and against David Dein with great venom. So much so that Dein threatened to sue the organisation for an article that appeared in Time Out in June 1991. By December 1991, only 5,000 of the 16,000 available bonds were sold. But the club stood firm and the scheme persisted. The social make up of the North Bank was altered forever as the typically raucous, working class factions of Arsenal`s support were firmly priced out. Despite the maudlin reaction from the fans, the North Bank terrace enjoyed one final soiree in the sun. On the final day of the 1991-92 season, the last ever in front of the North Bank as a terrace, the Gunners faced Southampton. Spurs striker Gary Lineker started the day one goal ahead of Ian Wright in the Golden Boot rankings. The two had become embroiled in an amusing publicity war waged by their respective boot manufacturers. Quasar for Lineker. Nike for Wright. Quasar memorably put out a billboard saying, "Gary Lineker, 49 goals for England. Ian Who?" The phoney war gave Wright the centre stage he so craved.
Lineker registered at Old Trafford and Wright had scored a penalty at Highbury by half time. Wright would not be denied. Seaman bowled him the ball from the Clock End and Wright ran metronome style towards the North Bank goal, slaloming challenges before smashing the ball into the net. He pointed gregariously at his boot as he eyeballed the North Bank. Minutes later he shinned a Kevin Campbell cross into the corner, confirming him as the Golden Boot winner. "Ian Wright, 1991-92 Golden Boot winner. Gary Who?" came the bill boarded reply from Nike. The North Bank had witnessed its last great moment. AD construction had originally been hired to redevelop the North Bank into a two tiered, 12,750 seater erection. The embryonic design was 30 metres high with wrap around corners. But the North Bank formed another QUANGO of sorts, the Group for the Alternative Arsenal Stand, who rejected the design as unsightly and out of kilter with its beautiful art deco cousins in the East and West. GAAS persuaded a rethink of the design at Islington Town Hall in November 1991 and Northwest Holst were commissioned instead, with the help of the Lobb partnership architects (who helped design the Grove). Holst designed a stand that was 4 metres lower in height and more akin to the art deco design of the rest of Highbury, set further back from Avenell Road so as not to be an eyesore. It seems the North Bankers were just not content to go quietly without having their say.
Famously, whilst the renovation work was ongoing, as other Premier League teams attacked a backdrop of scaffolding and mechanical diggers, Arsenal erected a canvas mural with a crowd of Gooners painted onto it. The club made something of a gaffe when Arsenal fans pointed out that all of the faces painted onto the canvas were white, hardly in step with the cosmopolitan make up of the match going crowd. Black faces were soon painted on. The team failed to score in their first six home games in front of the mural until an Ian Wright header against Manchester City buried that hoodoo. Without the roar of the old North Bank, the players were far less comfortable. The new North Bank, complete with jumbotron screens, vertigo inducing views and bands that played in the concourse at half time, was officially opened in January 1994 prior to a North London derby against Spurs. Bagels and nachos were served at the various vendors in the spacious concourse. The atmosphere was never quite the same though; a mixture of the social engineering of the Bond Scheme and the lack of standing had neutered the noise for good. Not just at Highbury either.
Highbury`s North Bank was the epicentre of Arsenal`s soul for the best part of a century. It was the first place the players ran to upon descending from the tunnel. It came to reflect and instigate England`s socially malleable landscape through the decades. It was the chorus and orchestrator of many a rocking atmosphere at Highbury. The North Bank witnessed many a historical moment. Frank McLintock`s clenched fists and Jon Sammels swerving drive as we won the Fairs Cup in 1970. Brian McClair`s hilarious last minute penalty miss and subsequent bating from Nigel Winterburn in a 5th Round Cup tie with Manchester United in 1988- a moment that began a generation of rivalry between the clubs. Henry`s pitch length saunter and shot against Spurs. It was Henry that gave the North Bank its most poetic curtain call too, much in the way Wright had brought the curtain down on the North Bank terrace, the man that took his mantle as record goalscorer gave the old stand its last great flurry. Henry scored Highbury`s last goal with a sweeping penalty in the Final Salute against Wigan in May 2006, sealing a hat trick that, together with a dodgy lasagne, was enough to displace Tottenham from the top four. As the ball wooshed into the net, Henry, a man with a sense of drama to match Wright`s, dropped to his knees and kissed the turf in front of the North Bank. It`s hard to think of a better way to have given the Laundry End its last geyser of glory. Indeed, it`s hard to think how the end could possibly have ever bore witness to a moment of greater poetry. Well, maybe if Tony Adams had sealed a league title in front of it with a left foot volley into the top corner. But that`s just pure fantasy.LD.
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