"WHEN I PLAYED HERE FOR  THE AWAY TEAM I FOUND HIGHBURY A PLACE WHERE  YOU COULDN'T BREATHE"
 
 WITHOUT spectators, professional football would not exist, for it is the fans who pay their money at the turnstiles that keep the game going.

The financial structuring of club football has changed enormously over the years of course, from the days in the 1950s, '60s and '70s when jackpot ticket sales were the major source of back-up income, to the current climate of sponsorship and corporate hospitality.

With these changes and the introduction of all-seater stadia the game has attracted a somewhat different clientele from those cloth-cap days, and with the world game now shrunk onto our television screens, supporters' expectations and dreams have become even more demanding.

But the life-blood of the game at this level, writes Colin Benson, remains the same as it has in the decades past. It is the passion, the commitment and the participation of the fans that generate the electric atmosphere that is the embodiment of the drama that enfolds and sometimes explodes. For football is truly the People's Game. 
 
 Someone once said that if you go to Highbury and don't meet a Cabinet Minister, a foreign diplomat or a film star you cannot have gone on a match day!

This was the image, the public concept, of Highbury outside of London in the 1930s when it was home to the most glamorous football club in the world. And so it has been for the Arsenal has remained one of the world's great football institutions whose supporters include the rich and famous as well as the lads brought up kicking a ball around in the back streets of Islington.

I remember once being sent down to the Drury Lane Theatre to meet and interview the great Tommy Steele in his dressing room before one of his shows. The subject of the discourse being his love and affection for his team - the Arsenal.

Of course the list of high-profile fans from former Heavyweight Champion Henry Cooper onwards is endless, but it is the thousands of ordinary folk who used to throng the terraces and now fill the stands shouting their allegiance to the team that is the vanguard of the Club's phenomenal history.

Joe Mercer, who finished his long and illustrious playing career at Arsenal, where he was acknowledged as one of the Club's great captains, told me of his love for the north London fans. Joe had spent most of his career as the stalwart of the famous Everton team but he said that Highbury was something special. The surroundings and the fans were worth a goal start on any visiting side and that no player could fail to do anything but their best in front of them.

A similar observation was made to me recently by Martin Keown, another Gunner who had a great affinity with the fans. Says Martin: "I was here as a schoolboy and my affection with the Club, with the stadium, started when I was 13 years of age. And when you came through the system the fans were fantastic really. They gave you great support and wanted to help you that little bit more.

"The Arsenal support is amazing. When I played here for the away team I found Highbury a place where you couldn't breathe. There was no space, no time, but playing for Arsenal as the home team you seemed to have so much space, so many options, so that was probably the key really. The way the ground is and the fans make it very difficult for people to come here and do well."

Mercer, who you would have thought with his spindly legs was incapable of kicking anything, was rated by Stanley Matthews as the hardest man in the game to pass. He was one of the great terrace heroes for not only was he a skilled technician, but he also shared a great empathy with those fans who idolised him, his warmth and friendly demeanour, both on and off the field, endearing him to all who made his acquaintance.

There will always be crowd favourites of course, and Arsenal can boast a rich legacy of players who have been held in such high esteem by the Highbury faithful. Among them the likes of Herbie Roberts, Alex James, Cliff Bastin, David Jack and Charlie Buchan. Eddie Hapgood, Ted Drake, Wilf Copping, John Radford, Frank McLintock, George Eastham and Joe Baker. George Armstrong, Liam Brady and Pat Rice. Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Ian Wright, David Seaman, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and of course the Dutchman who the fans have chosen to pay a special tribute to this afternoon - Dennis Bergkamp.

All of them are special names, special players and then there is Charlie George. Yes you don't have to stroll too far down memory lane to sense the euphoria in which Charlie was acclaimed and crowned as the King of the North Bank.

Charlie, who jumped from the terraces to stardom, never severed his ties with his Highbury roots and every time he scored he celebrated in the same fashion as he explains: "It was pretty straightforward at Highbury; I was probably a bit straight laced really. It was arms up to the North Bank where I stood as a kid. That was my signal to friends and family standing on the terraces.

"You shouldn't ignore the spectators for they are part and parcel of the Club. So celebrate when you have scored and show a bit of appreciation to them. When you score you mean it and it is for the supporters as much as the football club. That was my opinion anyway."

Talking of goals John Barnwell has never forgotten the raptures that followed when he scored twice here against Manchester United. Says Barney: "The noise from the West Stand to the East Stand made the hairs on the back of my head actually stand on end. That's the only time in my life that has actually happened."

Of course not all heroes are acclaimed because they were the greatest players and it takes an exceptional personality to receive the love-hate adulation afforded to Perry Groves.

Perry reflects: "I never scored great goals but scored a few important ones like the winner here against Tottenham in '88. It was with the left foot that I only used for standing on; and the winner against Man U, when we won 1-0. They become better goals because there was more on the game.

"Even when other people scored I used to go and celebrate on my own anyway. I would lose it for like 10-seconds and react like a fan would. I used to go to the crowd all the time because I wanted them to stop booing me!"

There is no substitute for talent and those blessed with exceptional skills will always be recognised. But no matter how brilliant the individual it is the fans who ultimately make him a star.

"Dennis Bergkamp will go down in Arsenal history as one of the greatest players who ever wore the red shirt." These are the words of the man who brought him to Highbury, Bruce Rioch who goes on. "Bergy was a wow when I signed him...and he's been a wow ever since."

Sentiments that the fans will truly endorse in their own unique way this afternoon.

 

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 13 Apr 2006