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Escape to Victory: Highbury to Wembley and Back Again

Today’s post is by Finsbury

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The magic of Wembley ..?

“I love the idea of Per & Laurent and the rest taking turns during half-time and the game to help dig the escape tunnel out from the dressing room (passing straight under Probert & Riley’s office, of course) out of Wembley and back to Highbury” – said a friend after the FA Cup Final.

There are great reviews of the Cup Final itself available, you all know where to look. Not forgetting the fantastic coverage of the parade and celebrations. So I thought it might be interesting to look at the two comparative stadiums, built at the same time in the same city to vastly different budgets and results. The similarities and the differences and how the experience of visiting Wembley compared with going to a football match at the new Arsenal stadium for me as a football fan. I took some photos but considering the problems I have keeping hold of my phone during a football match I chose not to take a proper camera. The soft focus in some of the following pictures is for artistic effect!

The 2014 FA Challenge Cup Final was my first cup final and my journey began on the morning of the final. Highbury and Finsbury Park were full of Arsenal fans from the early morning. It already felt like a carnival and I hadn’t even reached Finsbury Park Station. Memories of the carnage witnessed upon the Seven Sisters Road following previous victories and titles came flooding back. The weather was beautiful, people were excited, and the Arsenal had to win. I took the usual route to Wembley for fans using trains, meeting up with friends near Baker Street and then onto crowded carriages packed full of football fans on the way to Wembley. For the Arsenal this journey did not begin nine years ago, it began at the end of the last century when The Arsenal began to seriously discuss their plans for the future.

The comparative stadium projects for both the FA and AFC involved the complex demolition and rebuild of new stadiums upon, more or less, the same existing sites. That shift across by a few hundred metres in Highbury and the new housing matched the complexities with the Wembley site and that arch for the Wembley builders. The end result is that on match day football fans still get to enjoy the walk down the traditional routes of Wembley Way or Gillespie Road and still visit the same places, supporters’ clubs and associations, cafes, bars, restaurants, parks and friends on their way to the football.

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Wembley Way- people like to parade on their way to Wembley, and afterwards they like to celebrate with parades.

Overall there seemed to be a great atmosphere between the fans with respect, rivalry and friendship. The experience of Wembley Way on cup final day matched its mythological reputation. A great spectacle. Let us hope that no one tells our groaners that Wembley Way was probably inspired by a Parisian boulevard.

Apart from Wembley Way there are not that many civic or green spaces for people to wander about in the area. The area around Wembley Stadium has been redesigned for cars and other motor vehicles. Islington retains some of its older human proportions even though the ancient Great North Road (Holloway Road/ the A1) now starts in Highbury. Dick Turpin used to rob the rich on the Great North Road, and you can find Dick Whittington’s cat loitering in Archway near the Whittington hospital, not too far from the new Arsenal Stadium. It’s possible that these rose-tinted specs inlaid with rubies and quartz distort my parochial perspective but as far as I can tell the main roads in Islington have more charisma then the main roads in Wembley. This makes for good parades!

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Fans entering Wembley Stadium – note that the bottom left logo on the sign indicates that footballs are not allowed at Wembley …

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After Wembley Way there was a slow wait to get through the gates. The turnstiles looked flimsy when compared with the gates you get at the new Arsenal Stadium, which probably explained the slow progress.

Inside the ground the experience of the acoustics at Wembley have been previously described by many as awful. And they were correct. This is only because the stadium management choose to blast out an awful – as in cheap and awful – PA system that makes it impossible to talk or sing when the players are not playing, which is the only time they pull the plug on the awful racket. I was lucky enough to go to the game along with my friend’s Uncle who used to co-ordinate rigs for musical concerts back at the old Wembley stadium amongst other venues. And in his experienced opinion the quality and design of the PA was awful as well as annoying. We do not like the PA at the new Arsenal ground but it is not as poor as the one at Wembley and the people using it are not as stupid or annoying. After the trophy presentation it was very hard for the Arsenal fans to serenade their victorious team although they were happy to try! At that moment I almost wished that I could escape back to N5 so that I could appreciate what people were trying to say or sing.

I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: broadcasters simply don’t care about the fans in the stadiums.

Visually the experience inside the grounds is similar. Great views, unobstructed by columns and other stuff. The incremental additions of colour and decoration inside and outside the new Arsenal stadium have been led by some talented designers, and the Arsenal stadium looks nice from the inside as well as the outside. The Wembley interior is very bland in comparison. (Props to Redaction for smuggling in some giant flags, they looked good.) The seating at the Emirates is also of higher quality.

There are many similarities with these two new London stadiums with minor superficial differences if we try to ignore the football pitch itself. But we can’t ignore the cost.

The cost.

Wow, the cost. Don’t mention the cost!

This is the reason why the semi-finals are played at Wembley, so even if we wanted to we couldn’t ignore the variation. This huge difference (at least half a billion), the use of an inappropriate contract for the Wembley project tells us everything we need to know about the differences between the FA and AFC, and the two stadiums. For example, the specification for the grass for the football pitch in the new Arsenal stadium was written into the contract for Arsenal’s new football ground. The quality of a football pitch does affect the experience for the fans, the tradition of maintaining good pitches is understood and appreciated at Arsenal. Two women footballers I met on Saturday had been told off by the Arsenal groundsman for going onto the pitch to warm up before they were given permission during a tournament in the recent past. Not surprisingly he was upset during Saturday’s pitch invasion, heh!

I think it is safe to say the quality of the football pitch was not a consideration for the FA at Wembley when building the ‘home of football’.

Certainly not in the contract. This is why the FA has then had to spend further millions replacing their pitch. Several times. Meanwhile this year the numbers of amateur footballers and the facilities they require in the UK declined for lack of funding from the FA (according to our very own Keown). Those burning bins around the Wembley pitch before kickoff, I imagined that they were burning off the excess fertiliser that was used to salvage the Wembley pitch in preparation for this final? Who knows what was in the bins? Not the FA; perhaps they were full of melting black bin liners?

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Irony alert: Black bin liners finally being put to good use.

As well as forgetting about the football pitch when building their billion pound football stadium it was also noticeable on the day that the FA had forgotten to organise any ball boys or girls for their cup final showpiece. The Lawn Tennis Association may not know how to manage a sport but they do know how to run their facilities when the world is watching. I initially thought that there must be no ball boys or girls because of a cup regulation, or at Probert’s request. But I was wrong. Eventually two ball girls – as in two – appeared after half-time. The FA cannot sort out a football pitch let alone a stadium, or even the ball boys and girls for their equivalent of the Wimbledon finals. No need to comment on the referees.

Do we need to ask the question: “What are the FA good for?”

Burn the PA rigs and introduce safe standing and cheaper tickets at all football grounds, that’s what all supporters’ groups in Football should be fighting for. It’s certainly not rocket science. I do not believe that they should be attacking people that consistently show and sometimes say that they “love football”.

Conclusions – We all know about the negatives and positives that come with these modern stadiums, the benefits in the UK that would come from adding some safe standing areas etc. Most of the lower tier at Wembley seemed to stand up for most of the game anyway. The best thing about both projects in comparison to other new stadiums is that they were kept upon or very close to their original sites.

For Arsenal there would have been advantages to relocate to Kings Cross, the third option that was available for the club to consider alongside moving to Wembley or staying in Highbury. Kings Cross was always a more practical solution, good transport links etc. The site was viable because it was not too far away but the Grove was always the more romantic option. And moving to Kings Cross would not have kept the strong links with the spaces and places that inhabit the club’s past. This was not a consideration in the early twentieth century when the club first moved, but I believe it is with today’s hyper real constructions.

In my possibly biased opinion there is no debate to be had regarding which is the better stadium when comparing Wembley with the new Arsenal stadium.

The Munich Allianze Arena is also a comparable project. They relocated to a new out-of-town site, which is why many who have seen both the Arena and the new Arsenal stadium prefer the new Arsenal Stadium.

A diddly/league cup wouldn’t have done the job and unlike an FA Cup it would not have been added to the list of trophies that circle the Arsenal pitch. Although the victory is recorded inside the ground there was not a parade in Highbury after the FA Cup was won in 2005.

What happened on Sunday was a housewarming party for the new Arsenal Stadium.

This carnival in Highbury started the day before, and would have kicked off when the final whistle blew in Wembley. On our return to Highbury from Wembley we conducted a grand tour around the stadium in order to investigate.

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Many people were celebrating on the streets around the stadium – we stumbled upon a sound rig here by the Arsenal letters. Good tunes!

Unfortunately the police felt threatened by happy teenagers partying on the streets of London so we were forced, by law, to investigate many of the bars and restaurants and clubs on our lap of honour around the new Arsenal stadium and we found that even as the bands began to pack up and get ready to go home, that spirits remained high. No doubt many venues kept plenty of staff *coughs* on hand into the early hours to help clear up and prepare for the next day’s celebrations.

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Arsenal fans would have gathered by the Highbury clock tower to watch local lad Pat Rice and his troops celebrate the double in 1971. The fans were there again on Sunday, all day long.

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Arsenal fans on parade – people wanted to show their appreciation and I hope the German Gunners got to see this sweet sign. Great atmosphere.

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What it is the significance of reaching the end of this journey?

…we silenced a lot of people…” – Kieran Gibbs

Ramsey said the same thing using different words. So did Podolski. Arteta. Mertesacker. Rosicky. They all said it, because they all felt it. The pressure. This pressure was more then the gibbering nonsense of wind-up merchants, or the consequence of consistently malicious propaganda. It was the task, the responsibility of completing this epic move, which is what weighed upon the Arsenal players. This pressure was too much hard work for the two previous captains and the previous squad had to be dismantled and rebuilt. As Thaksin Shinawatra discovered this is never a quick process. Fortunately during the times when Arsene Wenger had allegedly “lost it” and had to rebuild, he somehow managed to sign Germany’s best defender Per Mertersacker, Prince Arteta, the adored magician Carzola, and an unpolished gem in Koscielny who went on to sparkle against the world’s best forwards. Someone called Özil? And more.

On the 17th of May 2014 one chapter in Arsenal’s history came to end and another began. The new stadium has been baptised with St.Totteringham’s blessings. The pictures and drapes were already up and now with the bauble added atop the mantelpiece the new Arsenal Stadium finally resembles Home.

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The party lasted long after the parade had finished

Journey’s end.

An appropriate place to close these rambling thoughts on the Royal Arsenal.

A team of lions led by a lion.

About ArsenalAndrew

Annoying, perennial optimist and lifelong supporter of the finest football club the world has ever seen. My support for the club manager and every single player is non-negotiable, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Retain all options on fellow fans.

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54 comments on “Escape to Victory: Highbury to Wembley and Back Again

  1. The ‘Arry and Barton show back in the PL.
    Does Tony Fernandes resemble Birmingham’s Yeung after a bad crack habit?

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  2. a or b @9:04 am
    Quarter Pound of Rubbish, Quick Promotion and Relegation.
    Ha, Ha, Ha!

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  3. There is a new post up.

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  4. GP

    I think NOTH enjoyed the praise for the Arsenal groundstaff. At most sporting clubs especially at the amateur local level the groundsmen and women are the key to keeping the whole operation going. Arsenal FC seem to be one of the few modern superclubs that seem to reflect and respect this tradition. It’s the Arsenal way…

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