By Flint for A Cultured Left Foot
February 4, 1956 was the day my young eight-year-old life changed forever, it was then I was hooked like a fish to football but most specifically THE Arsenal.
I had known for some weeks that I would be going; my Dad had got hold of some tickets through his friend Peter Goring, a hero of the 1950 FA Cup final win against Liverpool, then as centre forward, but now skippering the side at right half.
The excitement grew to a crescendo until the day finally arrived. We lived in Southgate, as did a number of the players in those days, just seven stops on the tube to Arsenal but we went by car, a much easier exercise then than it is now. Our journey took us past the Barratt & Co sweet factory, famous for Sweet Cigarettes, Sherbet Fountains, Refreshers and many other joys of the time.
Through the actual Finsbury Park to Monsell Road, less than 200 yards from the ground but there was little trouble parking, despite a crowd of more than 38,000 being present, so few cars about by comparison. A local lad not much older than me came out and in the tradition of the time offered to “look after the car Mister”. “OK” was the answer and we were off on our way to the West Stand Upper Tier at Highbury, my first of well over a 1,000 visits to the famous old stadium.
Down Gillespie Road, with programme sellers and purveyors of little badges with photos of the likes of Holton, Nutt or Tapscott on them, past the North Bank and Arsenal tube station into Highbury Hill until we got to that strange entrance between the terraced houses. Through the turnstile and up all those stairs (I did count how many once, just before a hernia operation, but that is a fact I have not retained), then as we went between the concrete bulwarks of the block entrance I had that Fever Pitch moment and saw the pitch down there before me, in all its glory.
It was mainly mud but there was still a fair amount of green and I was awestruck. What did those white lines mean? I didn’t know then but soon learnt. Incidentally there was no roof over the North Bank, the replacement for the war-damaged previous cover was due to be erected during the next close season.
I am afraid I cannot remember which block we were in but it was around halfway between the centre and the Clock End about halfway up between the front and the entrance, probably about Row L. The ground wasn’t full but filling, I had never seen so many people in one place before. The Metropolitan Police Band was in full flow with perhaps the DamBusters or Can-Can. There was a hum that turned to wild shouting and twirling of rattles as the players ran out about 10 minutes before kick off.
"As we went between the concrete bulwarks of the block entrance I had that Fever Pitch moment and saw the pitch down there before me, in all its glory"
You never saw them before this, none of this warming up and walking out together. Both teams ran out but at separate times. Arsenal in the famous red shirt with white sleeves, white knickers with blue & white ringed stockings, while Sunderland in their change colours of white shirts with red collars, black knickers, red and white stockings.
The players kicked some balls to each other for the 10 minutes or so until both captains, Goring and Sunderland’s (perhaps Ray Daniel), shook hands with the referee on the centre spot. There was the toss of the coin and then the players took their positions in the straightforward 2-3-5 of the time (I'm afraid that is a guess but that was the general tactic then - score more than the other team - quite simple really!).
To be honest my memory is more of the occasion than the match itself. What stood out was the positive goalkeeping of Jack Kelsey in his green jersey coming to catch the ball so high and so effortlessly, probably without gloves, despite getting a buffeting from the Sunderland forwards.
It was pointed out to me that our former player Ray Daniel, who had recently done a Nasri to moneybags of the time Sunderland, wore gloves - apparently not very usual then and not approved of. The middle-aged bloke next to us was forever encouraging the lads with shouts of “Cm’n you Gunnneerrrs“, “great ball Jimmy”, “unlucky lad” but I did not hear any swearing from anybody.
"The game over, we went back to the car, 6d for the boy “thanks Guv“, and off home I went exhausted, mesmerised and I couldn’t wait for more"
The hum and racquet from the crowd continued, not many if any organised chants in those days but what a noise and it reached a climax when David Herd hit a crisp shot past keeper Willie Fraser for his second goal in Arsenal colours. He added a similar goal later in the match, which together with a Jimmy Bloomfield strike, saw my first match end in a 3-1 victory.
Before the match Sunderland were fourth in the table, while we were a lowly sixth from bottom. This win was the first in a run of 10 in the last 15 matches to carry us up to a final place of fifth (yes above the Spuds!). The game over, we went back to the car, 6d for the boy “thanks Guv“, and off home I went exhausted, mesmerised and I couldn’t wait for more.