If you're looking for candidates to talk about the historic significance of our soon to be old home, Highbury, there can be few better than Don Howe.

The England international full-back joined the Club in 1964 from West Bromwich Albion and played for two years before an accidental collision with Blackpool goalkeeper Tony Waters resulted in a compound fracture of the right leg and an early retirement from the game. He immediately joined the coaching set-up at Highbury and was Bertie Mee's Assistant Manager when the Club won the 'double' in  1971. After a brief hiatus to coach West Brom, Galatasaray and Leeds United, he returned to Arsenal in 1977 to coach and then, in April 1984, became manager of the Club for two years.

Don left to work with numerous other clubs including Wimbledon (when they won the 1988 FA Cup Final), QPR, Coventry and Chelsea but returned in July 1997 to coach for a further six years in the Academy, during which time the Gunners won two FA Youth Cups.

Don also coached England at three World Cups and Euro '96, but it's Highbury we wanted to speak to Don about and, fittingly, we caught up with him at the stadium on the night of a recent 1971 reunion.

What were your earliest thoughts of Highbury Don?

Well if you were young and a lover of football, collected magazines etc, the Arsenal Stadium was the one that you thought, 'Yes. I'd love to play there.' It had a special feeling to it. Obviously I never knew that one day I would play at the ground.

Can you remember arriving for your first match here with West Brom?

Well I'd got in the West Brom team as a 19 year-old and played at all the big grounds in the country but Highbury was a special place to play and my first match was, if memory serves me right, in September 1956.

We used to come down by train from Birmingham and I remember the manager, Vic Buckingham, great man and super coach by the way, saying, "be on your best behaviour today, look smart when you go out onto the pitch, this is the Arsenal". Vic was a Tottenham man incidentally, he played against Arsenal many times before the War, and was very aware of what Highbury was all about. He didn't make us nervous about playing at the stadium but he'd say, "it's a wonderful place and a place where you've got to have a wonderful game" basically telling us that if we were going to play well anywhere, this was the place.

And that first game Don...

Well it was very cold and I remember Vic telling us to go and have a walk out onto the pitch - which we never used to do - and we came out and had a look. It wasn't that different to now you know, the East and the West Stands looked just the same.

Anyway we went back into the changing rooms and the manager said: "Take your shoes and socks off" which we did, and he said: "What about that floor then?" and there was heating under the tiles - like there still is now. The lads looked at each other and you could see everyone was thinking, 'this is the place to play football'.

And what was it like to actually play at Highbury Don?

Well the pitch was nothing like now of course. Basically once the ends and centre circle had lost grass the groundsmen concentrated on just keeping the surface flat, they didn't have the technology they have today. But Highbury was made for football, by that I mean the stands were very tight and there was a super atmosphere. I was surprised when I first played at Highbury because in certain parts of the ground, the sound of the crowd reverberates off the stands, like an echo. When the place was full it was just so exciting to play in that atmosphere.

The atmosphere here with 60,000 people in here when a great team came down, like, when I was coaching, the Manchester United team with Charlton, Law and Best, well it was just incredible in the place - the same for north London derbies.

You must have been delighted to join Arsenal in 1964?

Billy Wright and Bob Wall [Club Secretary] took me out for lunch and told me: "This is the place for you. If you're ever going to be anything this is the place to play" and all I was doing was nodding my head. I thought what have I done right to deserve this?!

When I joined there were links way back to the great days of the 1930s: Bob Wall had been here then, Alf Fields played pre-war; George Male was the Chief Scout and Alex Forbes was here who'd played through the '50s. George had been at the Club since 1929, before the current East and West Stands had even been built and we'd talk to him about the likes of Bastin, Drake and Hapgood. But the Arsenal have always been that type of Club, kept people who knew what the Club was about, what the stadium was about, how to behave yourself at Highbury and as an Arsenal player.

And what are your Highbury memories as a coach and then manager Don?

Well I always sat in the dug-out, I couldn't sit in the Directors' Box like some managers do, I always felt like I could coach from the dug-out and see the game the way I wanted to.

There were certain things as a coach and manager that were 'Highbury' to me. One would be that the captain had to win the toss so we could kick against the Clock End in the first-half - I think it's still what they prefer today. Kicking against the North Bank in the second-half was very important for us. The Clock itself is unique really, it was so easy to read.

And the track was very important to players and staff, not during a match, but for the hours of training we would put in running around that track, which was shale then, not that nice springy cork-like substance.

Are any other parts of the stadium special?

The Halfway House, which is on your left as you come down the tunnel, was a very important place for all of us in the 1971 'double' season. It was the place where on a Monday morning all the first-team would go and we'd sort out the problems of the weekend. Bertie Mee would start it off, he'd say "we didn't do this, why didn't we do that, etc.etc." Maybe I'd then speak about something then Frank McLintock or Bob Wilson would chip in.

The players knew that if they hadn't performed at the weekend, they were going to be told in there on Monday. But at the same time they knew it was a place they could get their feelings out; clear the air. Bertie would say, "tell me what you think now, don't go away and talk about it somewhere else, let's get it out now", which was so important. And we had strong characters with opinions and ideas; Frank, Bob McNab, John Radford and others, they'd all speak with the good of the team at heart and we'd listen.

And after 93 years, we're leaving, a sad time...

Yes, it will be sad, but like a lot of things in your life, eventually things go - but you never forget them. I like the fact that the West and East Stands will remain as something people can always see - that's very unusual isn't it? I think only in London could part of a stadium remain in the form of apartments, but I like the fact Highbury will stay in some way and there will also be a pitch area, albeit a garden.

But the facts are that every week you look up at the screen that shows the same attendance, 38,000 - and it's 38,000 people whether we're playing the teams at the bottom of the league, or the teams at the top, now that shouldn't be so. If we're ever going to match Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United you can't just look at their big attendances and do nothing about it, you have to try and match it and we are doing that by moving to the new stadium. We have to be there.


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4 May 2006