By Anish Bharadwaj
"I moved from Highbury, which was similar to Anfield, but there was a soul in the stadium.”
"We built a new stadium but we never found our soul—we left our soul at Highbury. We could never recreate it for security reasons.”
"The distance from the pitch to the stand had to be bigger as we needed ambulances to come in. The inclination of the stands had to be smaller all those things together that we didn't find to recreate the atmosphere."
- Arsene Wenger (in a Jan 2020 interview with beIN Sports)
HIGHBURY – ‘The Home of Football’
The Highbury stadium, the former home ground of Arsenal F.C. opened its gates on September 6, 1913. It marked the move of Woolwich Arsenal from the Manor Ground in Plumstead, South East London to Highbury, North London. The Highbury stadium had a capacity of 38,419 and initially cost around £125,000. Arsenal originally leased the recreation fields of St John's College of Divinity but in 1926 bought the grounds. The Highbury stadium served as Arsenal’s home ground for 93 years during the course of which Arsenal’s soul was established in North London and proved them to be the most successful club in London. Arsenal managed to win 13 league titles (First Division/ Premier League), 10 FA Cups as well as two European trophies - the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup & the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup during their stay at the Highbury ground.
Why did Arsenal decide to build a new stadium?
Arsenal’s decision to build a bigger and better stadium was due to two primary reasons –
1) Safety – Following the incidents such as the Bradford City stadium fire, the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, and the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 as well as multiple incidents involving hooliganism, the English FA introduced certain regulations which required the removal of terraces/ standing areas under the Football Spectators Act, 1989. This resulted in a significant reduction of stadium capacity from around 57,000 to under 40,000 and the subsequent dip in revenue hit Arsenal hard. As a result, the Arsenal board decided to increase ticket prices which didn’t go down well with the supporters and the Highbury became subdued for a brief period of time before Arsene Wenger arrived and revived the Highbury spirit.
2) Expansion and Revenue – Arsenal’s qualification in the UEFA Champions League posed financial problems due to limited capacity of the Highbury stadium. To increase revenue collection, Arsenal were allowed to play their home games in the spacious Wembley Stadium in the 1998-99 and 1999-20 seasons. Arsenal thus proposed a move to a bigger stadium in 1997 with a view to build a 60,000 capacity stadium, in order to compete alongside the biggest clubs in Europe. Initially Arsenal proposed an official bid to buy the Wembley stadium which was opposed by the English FA.
EMIRATES STADIUM – THE MOVE INTO THE FUTURE
The Emirates stadium, originally Ashburton Grove is a 60,000 + capacity stadium, which opened its gates on July 22, 2006. It was constructed alongside the old Highbury Stadium and cost around £390 million. This grand project was undertaken to launch a new refurbished Arsenal with a fresh plan for the future and all the heritage intact into the European elite club pool. However, it didn’t really go to plan. Arsenal have struggled to preserve the Highbury spirit of old and as a result have failed to compete at the levels they hoped for. Arsenal’s transition looks dismal considering the amount of money and other resources they spent on it. What is more painful is realising that the elite European teams which Arsenal planned to compete head to head with have progressed at an exponential pace. We can take as examples Bayern Munich’s move from the Munich Olympic Stadium to the Allianz Arena in 2005 or Juventus’s move from the Stadio delle Alpi to the Allianz Stadium in 2011.
But what exactly caused this fall from grace?
1) High construction cost and debts – The government offered no subsidy for the construction of the Emirates which cost approximately £390 million. As a result the club had to rely on loans which ultimately shook up the club’s financial state which was fragile in the initial stages. To repay the debts and reduce the burden of the construction costs Arsenal had to raise funds through player sales. Players like Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole left shortly before 2006 and Thierry Henry followed as well leaving Arsenal vulnerable and reeling for years to come, especially with the self-sustaining business model that they adopted. They were simply unable to catch upto the likes of emerging clubs such as Chelsea or Manchester City although matchday revenues increased significantly.
2) Lack of identity – The move into the new Emirates stadium saw a massive increase in stadium capacity but it didn’t necessarily contribute to the stadium atmosphere. The new stadium had no identity in the initial stages. It appeared more like a shopping mall than a stadium. The stands were initially given names like the ‘yellow quadrant’, the ‘orange quadrant’, the ‘red quadrant’ and the ‘blue quadrant’ which appeared rather dismal and uninspiring. It was only after the arrival of Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s former chief executive in 2009 that a process of ‘Arsenalisation’ was undertaken. As a result the Emirates was adorned with murals and banners depicting some of the most iconic players and moments in Arsenal’s history. The statues of club legends Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Herbert Chapman, Tony Adams and Ken Friar were also erected in bronze and slowly the Emirates started to feel like Arsenal’s home ground. But this came a bit too late as Arsenal struggled to compete and this took away the much needed momentum.
3) Inability to establish the winning spirit – Arsenal's lack of trophies in the initial years at the Emirates was a massive factor for the dip in spirit and confidence of the fans. Coming straight out of the ‘Invincibles’ season, Arsenal’s form really dipped in the Emirates. The club went 9 years without a trophy, until the 2013-14 season when they won the FA Cup. Since then they have won the FA Cup on three other occasions. The lack of a Premier League trophy in the Emirates, however, has caused many long term problems in terms of finances and recruitment and has taken them further away from their long term goals.
4) Generational issues – The Arsenal faithful during the Highbury era saw their club go through massive ups and downs to establish the club’s heritage and become one of the finest clubs in the world. But, the new generation of Arsenal fans had not experienced all this and after the ‘Invincibles’ season expected the club to be sailing smoothly. This resulted in them having high expectations from the club and were very soon frustrated at the club’s inability to perform upto the highest standards. This along with the high ticket prices which the younger generation found difficult to afford, made for a turbulent atmosphere surrounding the club which saw regular clashes with the Arsenal board, which in fairness, have made some questionable decisions over the years.
Arsene Wenger’s departure as Arsenal manager was much needed as the club craved for a change of air and a different approach to the ever changing footballing scene. Unai Emery had a mixed first season as Arsenal’s head coach and his lack of vision and connection with the club plunged Arsenal into even more trouble in his succeeding season. With Mikel Arteta at the helm, Arsenal have a manager who knows the club in and out and who is a tactician clever enough to guide Arsenal through rough waters. He could be an integral part of the ‘Arsenalisation’ process, as is already evident with the newly rejuvenated confidence within the Arsenal camp and his adaptive tactics which are essential for a club undergoing a tough transition period. Arteta also is a man of steely resolve as he has taken up an active role in influencing board decisions and this could be massive in shaping a strong Arsenal team in the future. Winning the FA Cup and the Community Shield in his first year as Arsenal head coach could prove to be massively advantageous as well in preparation for the upcoming Premier League season. All Arteta needs at the moment is some serious financial backing from the board. Arsenal need to increase their revenue to compete in the market and Arteta seems poised to lead them into the Champions League spots next season.
In addition to that, Arsenal has a strong armoury of youth players who have been successfully incorporated into the senior squad with the efforts of the magnificent Per Mertesacker, the Arsenal academy manager. This absorbs a lot of financial burden from the club.
Even amid all of this, the question remains. How much longer till Arsenal finally adjust to the Emirates and start competing like the olden days?