We move south from the industrial heartlands of the Midlands to north London. Before we hit the metropolis, a brief stop on the way down at Milton Keynes is in order. For the geographic purposes of this series, I need to squeeze them in somewhere.
If you remember back to the end of my visit to Coventry I talked about the ground in the middle of a shopping centre. MK Dons’ ground is something similar. I think it even had a hotel attached and the modern grab for retail footfall rather than football did not sit easily with me. Grounds are hard enough to get away from never mind being mixed in with shoppers. Don’t start me!
November 2015 had me there for a match v Fulham. It was fairly unremarkable and again an over-large stadium for the attending crowd made me feel it was all part of ‘Eventland.’ Football may be one of the products available so excuse my cynicism. I appreciate needs must and all that but I simply like the sanctity of a football ground for football. Moussa Dembele equalised Dean Bowditch’s goal and that is about all that struck me about the day though Northern Ireland’s Lee Hodson was a sub for MK Dons.
So as we head through the Barnet suburbs, my initial visit to the first of the London giants was to Highbury in August 1979. This was the first Arsenal v Manchester United fixture since the last five-minute drama of the FA Cup final three months previously. It was a tense enough day with plenty of arrests which happened a lot with Man United’s away following of the time. Taking my place on the fabled Clock End, Highbury was a great ground to visit.
Even in those days, it was noticeable how many Celts both teams fielded between them. Six Scots and six Irish from both sides of the border which would have been seven if Liam Brady had been available. Welshman Mickey Thomas flew the Red Dragon. Ray Wilkins took his place in United’s midfield after his big summer move north from Chelsea. Gary Bailey from South Africa was the most exotic footballer on show. 0-0 it finished, but many of the players who played that day were very much key names for both teams of that period. Martin Buchan, Lou Macari, Steve Coppell, Joe Jordan, Pat Rice, Frank Stapleton, Willie Young, and David O’ Leary to throw a few in. Bangor man Terry Neill was, of course, the Arsenal manager.
My next visit to Arsenal was 32 years later in 2011 for a Champions League game against the Athens port side Olympiakos. I thoroughly enjoyed the Emirates Stadium which has managed well the transition to the modern without losing atmosphere or history. For me, it would probably be the finest English ground I have visited. The statues amidst well-appointed space outside all work very well. A 2-1 win for Arsenal was notable for 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain becoming the youngest English Champions League goalscorer. The Greek fans were an entertaining bunch who made some noise. Players I remember were ex-Villan Olaf Mellberg and Evertonian Kevin Mirallas for the Greeks and Robin van Persie, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and the much put upon Emmanuel Frimpong for Arsenal.
So moving north-east past Haringey we arrive at the Tottenham High Road at the famous White Hart Lane. September 1992 was the date for a match against the team who would be the league winners that season – Manchester United. These matches over the years have produced great goals and performances and I was pleased to get there, it broke up a course I was on. It ended in a 1-1 draw and Spurs’ players included Ian Walker, Pat van den Hauwe, Steve Sedgely and the fair-haired attack force of scorer Gordon Durie and future Red Devil Teddy Sheringham.
The game was famous for Ryan Giggs’ first Premier League goal for the club which was a Goal of the Month winner on Match of the Day. Taking a Schmeichel goal-kick in his stride, he set off on a typical mazy run leaving defenders on the floor to put past Walker, into the right-hand corner his shot went. It is shown many times on TV. The cornerstones of that team were in place, Schmeichel, Pallister, Irwin, Bruce, Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis. Indeed manager’s son Darren Ferguson was in midfield going against the grain a little. It was good to see the fabled ‘Shelf’ away to my right. Every club should have their ‘end’. They are vanishing as football morphs into the shopping mall.
Interestingly enough my second visit to Spurs was on the last day of January 2018 against the same team at Wembley. This was an interesting game as Spurs were 1-0 up within eleven seconds. Though the game ended 2-0 it could have been five or six to the hosts they were that good. I think it was probably the best performance I have seen from a British club side. Spurs cut through the northerners as if they weren’t there and the speed of their close passing was mesmerising. Christian Eriksen is one fascinating player to watch with his technical ability and football brain. He is perhaps the nearest type of player the Premiership has to Dennis Bergkamp. The game was also noticeable for the start of the relationship breakdown between Paul Pogba and manager Mourinho whose visible disagreements were very obvious. That match was also noted for the highest Premiership attendance (81,978), though I think that was superseded shortly afterwards by a North London derby.
I should probably mention as well my first visit to the ‘old’ Wembley for the Charity Shield in August 1980 which, with 90,000 other souls, I think still remains the biggest crowd I have been with. In amongst the West Ham fans, it was quite exhausting as a mass ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ was acted out without break. Good fun though! A Terry McDermott goal was the difference against a West Ham team with legends such as Parkes, Devonshire, Brooking and Bonds. The Liverpool side deserves to be named in its entirety such was and remains its aura and status to this day – Clemence, Neal, Alan Kennedy, Thompson, Hansen, Ray Kennedy, Case, McDermott, Souness, Johnson and Dalglish.