Monday, May 8, 2006

Arsenal Close Higbury With Class & Style

So Sunday was the final match at The Home Of Football, otherwise known as Highbury. Built in 1913, it is to English Football what Fenway Park is to American baseball, and after 93 years of service the club will be moving to the brand new, state of the art Ashburton Grove stadium less than 1 mile away.

Higbury awash in red & white

It couldn't have been much more dramatic, as Arsenal's battle with old rivals Tottenham for the coveted 4th place spot, and it's accompanying Champions League place, came down to the last day. Spurs were on 65 points to Arsenal's 64, with Spurs playing away to West Ham and Arsenal hosting Wigan. If Spurs beat West Ham then 4th place was theirs no matter what Arsenal did. If Spurs drew with West Ham then Arsenal had to beat Wigan, and if Spurs lost to West Ham then an Arsenal draw with Wigan would see the two rivals level on points but Arsenal would be 4th on goal differential.

A great opportunity to peddle shit

Many felt that West Ham would not try because they have the FA Cup Final this weekend to look forward to, but they are also a London club and their hatred for Spurs is pretty big. Potential trouble lay in the fact that 40 year old West Ham striker Teddy Shearingham takes all of West Ham's penalties. Why is that relevant? Well, he played most of his career at Tottenham and Manchester United, and has publicly proclaimed multiple times his hatred of Arsenal. So if West Ham earned a penalty, would he miss it intentionally? Anyhow, both matches kicked off at the same time, so tension was high.

"Eat, drink & be merry, for tomorrow we'll die" -DMB

I was worried that the Highbury celebrations would be cheesy, but they were not. Arsenal Football Club gave everyone who attended the match a free T-shirt that read "I was there" with the match, the date, and the club crest. You got a white or red shirt depending on what section you were in, which made any shots of the crowd look very, very cool. They even gave each of the 3,000 Wigan away supporters the identical shirt in their traditional blue color, which was pure class on the part of the club. The club paid for these 38,500 T shirts out of their own pocket rather than getting Nigel's Bail Bonds or whatever to put up the money and make the T-shirts seem very cheesy, like happens so often.

"We're North Bank, we're North Bank,
we're North Bank High-bu-ry!"

There was a lap of honor by as many living Arsenal stars as the club could round up, and avid Gooner and The Who frontman Roger Daltry performed some Arsenal songs of yesteryear. I can
only assume that Boyz II Men were not available to sing "End Of The Road" or "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye", or that they are rabid Chelsea supporters.

"We're Clock End, we're Clock End,
we're Clock End High-bu-ry!"

On to the match. Pires scored in the 8th minute and soon thereafter the magic of radio transmission and text messaging informed the crowd that West Ham had gone 1-nil up on Spurs,
and the party atmosphere was on. Wigan weren't having it though and equalized 90 seconds later, and then went ahead 2-1 on 33 minutes. Two minutes later Henry scored to make it 2-2, and a minute after that Spurs scored to draw level with West Ham 1-1. Dramatic stuff. Both matches went to halftime level. I have to say that the crowd were amazing, by far the loudest I have ever heard at Highbury, which is often mocked by opposing fans in the last 20 years for being not-the-loudest place to play - "Highbury The Library" they call it. But yestarday the crowd were singing Arsenal songs old and new at the top of their voices the entire match - I've never heard anything like it. I especially loved hearing the Vieria chant. This of course begs the question of why they cannot be this into it on a regular basis like, say, Portsmouth fans?

Fitting: Henry scores Highbury's final goal

Early in the 2nd half, West Ham were awarded a penalty, which or course Shearingham missed. No one was suprised- what a wanker. A few minutes later Henry scored his 2nd and Arsenal were 3-2 to the good. In the 76th minute Ljungberg was pulled down in the box, and Henry converted the penalty, and his 9th hat trick at Arsenal, to make it 4-2. Four minutes later West Ham scored to go up 2-1, and the celebrations were on.

TH14 kisses the turf: goodbye Higbury, or goodbye Arsenal?

More fanfare after the match, with fireworks, streamers, and the like. What a great way to close the old stadium, 1-2 down to 4-2 up, with the greatest player in the history of the club bagging a hat trick. It is only appropriate that TH14 scored the final goal at Highbury. In addition to being the all time goalscorer in Arsenal history with 214 and counting, his strike rate at Highbury was simply phenomenal: 138 goals scored in 170 games played. He kissed the turf after scoring his 3rd. Was he kissing Highbury goodbye, or Arsenal? We'll have to wait until June 9th for his decision on whether he is staying at the club, but hopefully after closing this chapter of Arsenal history, he will win the Champions League next week and then lead the team out in their new stadium as captain. Dare to dream...

A first, and last: fireworks over Highbury

Postscript: 10 Spurs players got food poising from dodgy lasagna the night before their match and were not anywhere near full fitness for their match against West Ham. They lobbied to have the match postponed until Monday but were turned down. They of course think that some Arsenal supporter intentionally poisoned them. After reatining a lawyer to sue UEFA in the event that they actually got 4th and then were denied the Champions League spot if Arsenal were to go on and win the Champions League Final, they are now threatening to sue the FA and the Hotel, for what I'm not sure. I would like to thank Spurs for being Spurs, on and off the pitch. It helps to contrast Arsenal's class on and off the pitch. In the immortal words of Nelson from The Simpsons:

"HA! HA!"

Great writeup of the day by Arseblogger here.

I am so glad that I flew halfway around the world twice to see Arsenal play at Highbury. The first was in Feb 2003, when I saw them play Fulham on my birthday, with Pires scoring the winner in injury time right in front of us, and the second this March, where they romped Charlton 3-0 in the 7th to last game ever at Highbury. I will have these great memories long after Higbury is redeveloped into flats and condos.

So there it is. 4th place and Champions League participation is wrapped up for next year, taking a massive amount of pressure off for next week's Champions League Final against Barcelona.

Highbury: The Home Of Football. 1913-2006. RIP.

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