Football came home in 1996 so the story goes, but football has been played in one form or another for hundreds of years in Britain. If Euro 96 was when ‘football came home’ the Victorian period in British history was when football all started to become organised. Just as the football clubs of today are products of an increasingly global electronic age so during the Victorian period football clubs were products of the industrial age.
Amongst the landscape of dense factories that lined the urban cities of the United Kingdom people with money and innovative ideas appeared. The Factory Act of 1850 stated that all work should stop at 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon and that, along with the growth of public parks, meant people time to engage in leisure activities.
Just as those who worked in the factories followed football as spectators so many of them also laid the foundations for football clubs. It was a small group of men that laid the foundations for Arsenal.
Amongst them was a man from Burntisland in Fife called David Danskin who worked at a munitions factory. In late 1886 Danskin and a small group of workers from the Woolwich Arsenal, Armament Factory decided to form a football team.
This club called themselves Dial Square FC as a reference to the sundial atop the entrance to the munitions factory and on December 11th, 1886, Dial Square FC romped to a 6-0 victory over Eastern Wanderers. Shortly afterwards the name ‘Royal Arsenal’ was adopted by the team as were red shirts thanks to the incoming of a group of players from Nottingham Forest.
In 1891 the club turned professional and joined the growing football league. A couple of years later the team changed its name to Woolwich Arsenal and until 1913 Woolwich Arsenal played its football in Plumstead.
Eventually, the team moved to North London leasing the recreation fields of St John’s College of Divinity for £20,000 where after the club became ‘The Arsenal’. The stadium was hurriedly built over during the proceeding years and its stand structures were designed by Archibald Leitch the great Scottish architect.
By the 1920’s Highbury was still a product of the Victorian era and it was only with the arrival of Herbert Chapman that the ground made strides into the more grander architectural designs of the 20th century. Identifying the huge possibilities for attracting new fans from the growing population of London, Chapman helped to redesign Leitch’s original stadium. His aim was a phased period of redevelopment that would mirror the grand surroundings of Villa Park.
A new West Stand was opened in December 1932 and this replaced a large open terrace that was previously known as the Spion Kop. This new Art Deco style stand was designed by the acclaimed architect Claude Waterlow Ferrier who had designed a number of prominent buildings in London.
Then a new East Stand was opened in 1936 and this replaced the old main stand of Leitch. The architect was William Binnie who continued the work of Waterlow Ferrier who by then had died. The East Stand had marble floors, a grand entrance and shared a similar design to the West Stand exposing fans to the Art Deco designs on the main Avenell Road.
Soon the cannon theme of the club (paying reference to the early military influence of Woolwich) developed and this logo has remained prominent on the Gunners different crests down the years all the way through to the colourful corporate brand it is today. The hexagonal Art Deco “A-F-C” symbol is still displayed on the listed building East Stand although the use of this logo is overshadowed by the more modern current logo.
It would be the formation of the FA Premier League in 1992 that would be the first step on the road towards Arsenal moving from Highbury to a new modern stadium. With little more than 37,000 able to fit into Highbury by 2005 and revenue generation limited so history repeated itself. Just as the Arsenal Stadium was redeveloped during the 1930’s so during May 2006, Arsenal said goodbye to Highbury after 93 years and moved into a new modern stadium fit for the 21st century.
The new Ashburton Grove project became known as the Emirates Stadium thanks to a naming rights agreement with the airline. But the innovation of the Chapman era continued with Highbury redeveloped and converted into residential flats in a project known as Highbury Square.
The North Bank and Clock End stands were demolished but the exteriors of the listed Art Deco East Stand and the matching West Stand have been preserved and incorporated into the new residential developments.
The former pitch, once one of the finest playing surfaces in Europe, has become a communal garden for residents.