Football: First Night - Arsenal - Highbury Field Forever? Arsenal's Departure from Their Spiritual Home Will Have a Profound Impact

Article excerpt

It has been an uncomfortable week for Arsenal fans. First they had to decamp west and south a bit on a dodgy night for London Underground to watch their team play at home in the Champions' League; then they had to digest the news that their most successful manager since Herbert Chapman had made his home in the no-go zone a mile up the road. The war cries from George Graham's press conference floated down the Tottenham High Road and echoed round the marble halls of Highbury. But the greater sense of unease stemmed not from Graham's blood transfusion - the Arsenal cells have clearly been erased - or the continued inability of their strikers to score a goal, as the long-term implications of the transition to Wembley, a concern shared for different reasons by the manager, Arsene Wenger.

Highbury is Arsenal's spiritual home and supporters able to look beyond the ends of their noses suspect the beginnings of a stealthily planned campaign to loosen the emotional guy ropes between the fans, the Clock End and the North Bank. Wembley, they believe, is a convenient and lucrative staging post to redevelopment, the first step on a road which will take Arsenal away from Highbury to a new purpose-built stadium worthy of a famous and wealthy club hosting similarly famous and wealthy clubs for the benefit, some would say, of the more famous and wealthy members of the community. Champions' League regulations regarding provision for the media, perimeter advertising and corporate hospitality had reduced the capacity of Highbury from 38,500 to 32,000. The move to Wembley, with tickets at pounds 10 or pounds 20, allowed those gazumped by Premier League prices (the most expensive ticket at Highbury costs pounds 35) to watch their team, but with Wembley being closed for refurbishment for three years from 1999, the solution can only be temporary.

An Environmental Impact Analysis is currently being carried out by an independent company to assess the feasibility of developing Highbury to 21st Century standards. The report is expected early next year, but the conclusions are already regarded by many to be foregone. Highbury is an old-fashioned inner city ground, so neatly squeezed into the neighbourhood it is almost invisible if you walk from Finsbury Park tube station down St Thomas' Road. The environmental impact of increasing the capacity to 50,000 would be incalculable and the prospect of Manchester United happily extending Old Trafford to a capacity of 67,000, a move announced to soothe fans' brows after the BSkyB takeover, only quickens the impetus for change. Arsenal cannot afford to be left behind, as their abortive bid to buy Wembley last season acknowledged. Supporters with an acute ear for conspiracy theory might have shuddered at the propaganda spilling over the public-address system at Wembley on Wednesday. "A record home gate for Arsenal," cooed the announcer. "Congratulations to you all." And record gate receipts of over pounds 1m, though the club were coy about the exact figure. Quite what the 10,000 Greek supporters thought about their part in history is open to debate. Their high-octane support lent much needed vibrancy to the occasion, a reminder of the passions that used to flow - and too often overflow - from the terraces in the days before the Taylor Report. Not many Arsenal fans were fooled by the notion of Wembley being home, nor should the statisticians count the gate of 73,455 - a suspicious 160 more than the previous record of 73,295 for the First Division match against Sunderland on 9 March, 1935 - as an authentic figure. Though for reasons of history and geography - Wembley and Harrow are designated by the police as Arsenal areas - Arsenal have a greater right than any other club to call Wembley a second home, no sleight of hand can justify such delusions of grandeur. …