Of old Highbury, Crush barriers, Cliff Holton and Stanley Matthews.
With all-seater grounds, nancyfied and oh so safe, no-one will ever know, again, the thrill of being able to tell the crowd size merely by the pressure on your chest. Seriously.
To illustrate: a big game, the scum for example, meant that you had to get to the ground at least three hours before kick off else risk being locked out. Two hours before hand wouldn’t allow you to get your favourite position without a great deal of manoeuvring.
“Today’s a 65 000.” “Nah, 58 000 at most” We were rarely out by more than a few thousand….bar one dismal day when Leeds came to town back in the 60’s. Figures such as 4 000 didn’t exist other than for the reserve games. Just imagine shortly after the war, the stiffs would pull in crowds of over 30 000 regularly. Days long gone I fear.
Anyway to return to the point.
Cliff Holton was a big lad. More, he had a shot on him that made somebody like Thierry Henry’s look a bit powder puffy. Cliff regrettably had few of TH’s skills but he could play, after a fashion, anywhere from right back to centre forward. He was part of a side that was, to be more than fair, pretty bloody in the mid 1950’s. But it pulled crowds, inevitably over 50 000 and on one particular autumn day, WBA, were the visitors.
In those days, WBA were a bloody good and attractive side…Allen and Griffin being two very sharp forwards so it was a deep breathing crowd…well over 60, 000 and packed like sardines. The crush barriers must have been doing overtime but, because Arsenal was Arsenal, as safe as the monthly safety checks could make them.
For those who don’t know what a crush barrier was, (there are plenty of photos) in brief, a 1/2 inch thickness cast iron 3 inch diameter pipe supported by two triangular supports of similar construct basically formed the barrier. These were staggered all over the terraces, facing the pitch, so when the crowd swayed, moved, tripped, stumbled, slid …all the sorts of things that standing crowds do whilst following the action, the crush barriers barriered and the folks below were uncrushed. Worked very well at the Arsenal 998 times out of 1000.
So back to Cliff and WBA. Kicking towards the Clock end, big Cliff had a chance. About 20 yards out and he meets this half volley as sweetly as a ball has ever been hit. It may well have been doing over 90 mph. Only problem was it was six feet wide of the goal and still rising as it went towards the crowd.
Do you know how quickly jam packed human beings can move when facing that? I kid you not. The ball hit empty concrete terracing….not 1 person within 5 yards of the ball. There they were packed…there they were gone. …sideways. Barriers not much use for sideways movement. ..but they did leave an unforgettable memory for we North Bankers.
And then there was Stanley Matthews….later Sir Stan….the “wizard of dribble”, by then coming up to 40 years old and Blackpool who were also a good attractive side, with Mortenson, Taylor and other quality players. Invariably they were in the top half of the table, then. Strangely, no matter how badly we were playing in the league, we always had a good feeling about Blackpool coming to Highbury. They didn’t like playing there albeit they’d beaten us in a 6th round Cup Tie 2 years back. This day was no different…we were 3-0 up and going nicely for a change. Matthews hadn’t done much…strangely Dennis Evans who was marking him inevitably played him well.
The crowd, again in the 60,000 region was happy; for once we were going to get 2 points without too much of a panic and a lovely time was being had by all….bar the Blackpool players and supporters. Just as it should be. But a player like Matthews doesn’t get a reputation such as he had without some genius in his feet. He trapped a half volley and in the same movement, went to go inside Dennis. …and the crowd swayed inside to follow the play. Which was why we (the crowd and Dennis) were all off balance when Matthews went the other way. …and we (the crowd and Denis) all finished up on our arses!
It was the most perfect dummy and once again proved that crush barriers were fine for stopping down hill momentum but not too hot at stopping sideways.
There was an interesting footnote to that game. We were 4-0 up and the final whistle went. Every one cheered and Denis who had the ball in our penalty area, celebrating the win, walloped the ball into the net. Consternation. The whistle had come from some clown in the crowd not the ref. Goal awarded…the goal that made the difference to Blackpool finishing third (with the third prize money) and not fourth.
( Stan pursued by Bowen and Dennis)