Tom Watt on the JVC Centre

he links between Arsenal and Islington are legion. None, though, has had as much direct impact on the lives of people in the borough as the work of the Club’s Community Department. And for nearly 20 years, behind the Clock End, that relationship was expressed in bricks and mortar.

Generations of locals – Arsenal supporters and the rest – still have abiding memories of playing football (and cricket, hockey, bowls etc) at the old JVC Centre. When it wasn’t being trained on by Arsenal teams, the community was welcome to come in and use a three-quarter size astro pitch, weights room, changing rooms and function rooms at the indoor training centre run by the community team.

Arsenal took the lease on the playing fields owned by St John’s College of Divinity and built a new stadium to move into in 1913. In the 1920s that land was bought outright along with a smaller parcel behind the South Terrace, then known as the College End. There was a half-size training pitch covered in shale and a goalkeeper’s training area banked up with sand which was used regularly by Chapman’s and then Allison’s all-conquering teams.

Both could be seen from the back of the terrace. Indeed, early arrivals at home games might well have caught a glimpse of the first team warming up with a five-a-side down below. A bomb landed on ‘The College’ – as the players called their training pitch – during World War 2. Eventually, using funds from the club lottery scheme, the open pitch was covered for the first time and housed in a plain brick shell.

And was trained on by every Arsenal team, from first team through to schoolboys. Since 2000, players have spent the working week out at Shenley and, for 40 years previously, Arsenal used training facilities at the University College grounds next door. Up until 1961, though, the playing staff made do in rather less formal settings, such as the public pitches up at Grovelands Park in Southgate. The College was used for fiercely competitive small-sided games all week long and not just when bad weather made Grovelands unplayable. In 1982, as part of Arsenal’s first shirt sponsorship deal, the College was re-developed.

A changing room, a little gym, a viewing platform and a reception area were added and the building was re-named the JVC Indoor Training Centre. In 1985, Vic Akers was appointed Arsenal’s first Community Liaison Officer. A year later he was joined by Alan Sefton. Arsenal’s new Football in the Community department was based at the Centre and local residents began to use the facilities, hiring the pitch or taking part in programmes run by Alan, Vic and their team.

The Centre also became home to the Arsenal Ladies and Arsenal Hockey teams. As part of the Clock End re-development in 1989, the pitch was moved up to first floor level and function rooms, extra changing rooms and a new gym were added. Still used by the first team on a regular basis, the JVC was the hub for the busiest and most imaginative community programme in British football until we left Highbury in 2006. It’s been seven years now, and the centre’s been sorely missed. The good news is that a new indoor facility is expected to be available towards the end of 2014 as part of the final phase of the Emirates development, on the corner of Benwell Road and Queensland Road. It’ll be run by the Community Department and, for any of us old lags who ever got a sweat on upstairs at the JVC, opening day for the new gaff can’t come quickly enough.

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