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By Tony Attwood
This is a series about iconic moments in the history of Arsenal, not about anniversaries that the club or the fans might like to celebrate but with Highbury the two combine. Because Woolwich Arsenal FC moved to Highbury in the summer of 1913, and in September 2013 – just 20 months hence – we will have the 100th anniversary.
Does that anniversary matter, given that we don’t play there any more?
It certainly does, and the move to Highbury was iconic for a very simple reason. Without the move to Highbury from the Manor Ground in Plumstead there would be no Arsenal today.
In Plumstead Woolwich Arsenal was dying through a combination of factors.
1: The crowds were declining dramatically because of lay offs in the Royal Arsenal factories (and in particular the closure of the torpedo factory), because the club had failed to build on its successes in earlier years when it had reached the FA Cup semi-final two years running, and because the board had had a long period of selling off top players in order to reduce losses.
2: The people of Plumstead and surrounding areas had never given Henry Norris the credit he deserved for paying off all the club’s debts and saving it from extinction in 1910. As a result they would neither turn up in large numbers to the matches in Plumstead nor would they buy shares in the club in order to take power away from Henry Norris.
3: The club was failing on the pitch, and in fact in 1912/13 had the worst ever season in the history of the club.
In 1910 Henry Norris had given his word that he would keep Woolwich Arsenal at Plumstead for a year. He had then extended that to two years, and then three – but seeing the way the club was crumbling, in 1912 he started to look for a new ground.
The story of how he came upon Highbury, of the opposition put in his way from Tottenham Hotspur who tried every possible maneouver to get other clubs in the league to object to the move, of the local residents who formed the Highbury Defence Committee, and the antics of the local council who tried to block the move, are all told in “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” which will be published in April.
But for now we might focus on the huge success of the move. The last few games in Plumstead saw Woolwich Arsenal play to tiny crowds (around 3000 for the last match), whereas the opening matches at a half built Highbury played to over 20,000.
Today if anyone thinks of Norris they see him through the bitter words of Leslie Knighton, a poor manager who was sacked by Norris, and angry Tottenham supporters who didn’t like an invader on their patch. But in fact here, as in 1910, Norris was incredibly forward looking. What’s more he risked huge chunks of his personal finance to help the club and to turn it into what it became in the 1930s – the dominant force in football.
Highbury was chosen by Norris because he understood that the new era of football needed grounds near channels of transport, and Highbury was that, with its underground and overground services.
On September 6, 2013 we shall celebrate 100 years since the opening match at Highbury (we beat Leicester Fosse 2-1, opening the season with three straight wins). I really do hope the club will join with the Arsenal History Society in making that day, and the home fixture which occurs nearest to that day, a very special moment so that all of us who watched matches at Highbury can remember just what that stadium meant, and what Henry Norris did for us all, in building it.
The 10 iconic moments that defined Arsenal’s history