What being a Gooner meant in the 1950’s by Jon Fox
In 1956, aged just five, I was taken by my Dad to watch Arsenal and immediately fell deeply in love, and for life! In those days of Sunday school, the rag and bone man, the shellfish man calling around each Saturday evening, and the Saturday evening paper seller shouting his thrilling cry “Noos or Stannard, Classifiiied” being my cue to rush to the front gate clutching Dad’s precious few pennies and being rewarded with the paper which even at that age I was able to read very well.
The headline always said something like Arsenal win, Spurs draw or Arsenal and Spurs both lose, or both win, or any other combination that either made me thrilled or miserable accordingly. I was in an Arsenal family where my Grandad, then still very much alive and an Arsenal anorak long before that word was used, had used to take the tram to Woolwich and watch us before we even moved to Highbury. Even at age five it was already “us” and it will remain “us” til my dying day! Around age seven Dad took lucky me to Briggs Sports shop in Palmers Green where I became the proud owner of a wooden rattle. Guess what colour it was soon painted!
By 1958 I began going regularly with Dad, already deeply in love with all things Arsenal and the colours Red and White, and by 1961 I was going to every game without fail with a school pal. The entrance fee to the magical Arsenal Stadium was the princely sum of two shillings. Being the little “genius” I had already become I had managed to con, sorry.. negotiate, or actually be given the Kings ransom of ten shillings a week pocket money. Ten shillings! I have never been so rich, pro rata, ever since. Board and lodging paid, the Eagle comic starring Dan Dare and his enemy the Mekon, tennis coaching and parents who spoiled me and, later, my little brother too who remains a Gooner to this day and who trod my path just a few years later.
Aged ten I already know every Arsenal manager from 1886 til date, courtesy of Grandad and all the main players from even the twenties, let alone the thirties. We lived next door to the Chapman family in Palmers Green and this worthy gentleman and his two sons, both older than I, were all Spurs fans. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT! YES, SOME DO ACTUALLY EXIST EXIST AND IN PALMERS GREEN TOO. THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A LAW AGAINST IT. Herbert, or actually George Chapman – how dare he not be called Herbert – used to tell me about the great Spuds teams, and about the push and run style which the “mighty” toilet men used to play, under a manager called Arthur Rowe in around 1951. I even know about Bert Bliss and Jimmy Dimmock who played in Spuds 1921 Cup winning team. That may in fact be 1821, now I come to think about it. Lifelong hypnosis has failed to eradicate that sad fact from my thus damaged brain!
For “two bob”, or todays equivalent of ten new pence, we could stand on the North Bank. It was not even called the North Bank back then but the North Stand or the Laundry End. The magical programme was 6d, that is six old pennies and I became an avid programme collector, as did many of my friends. By 1961 I was fortnightly watching Arsenal and when we played away, I went to the toilet. In other words, I watched Bottomham Rotspurs, wearing – whenever appropriate – my red and white bobble hat and knitted scarf and supporting their opponents, yes even Man Utd and Liverpool, both courtesy of Granny, who never stopped knitting, smoking and talking.
We had the same talking genes but she definitely wore the trousers. Me? I wore the hat and scarf, natch! Spurs was slightly nearer and I suffered the Spuds Double era. I used to go by penny-farthing, sorry, make that the tube, to Finsbury Park, and walk down with the ever hickening crowd down to Avenell Rd, where I would buy the programme and be in Heaven for the afternoon. Unless we lost! And back then we often did lose too.
Those were the days of 17 long years without a trophy, from 1953 when we won the Division One on goal average, (not goal difference) from Preston North End by holding on to beat Burnley 3-2 at home in our last game, having been 0-1 down earlier on! You will note I really was and still am an anorak!
At Spurs I used to stand on the Shelf – how appropriate for the club that has always been left on the shelf. I was in the Spuds crowd in 1962, when Benfica beat them in the second leg of the Eupopean Cup semi final, although Spuds won that leg 2-1. That evening I made the startling discovery that my voice was louder than all the Spuds fans put together after the final whistle. HOW ODD AND HOW THRILLING!
In the early sixties Arsenal were far from the team we were to become under Bertie Mee, who was previously the trainer with the “magic sponge”. The magic sponge was widely acknowledged as a miracle cure for everything but broken legs! The ex England captain and Wolves great centre-half, Billy Wright, who played 105 times for England, a then record, was made our manager in 1962 and sacked in 1966 after a crowd of 4554 (yes that is correct) saw us lose 0-3 at home to the… ahem, “delightful” Leeds United at home. Billy Wright was married to Joy Beverley, a singer and one of a three sisters group known as the Beverley Sisters. Joy, Babs and Teddy used to sit in our directors box each game, prominently dressed in red and white with matching coats an hats, while Billy’s teams mostly failed to impress. Those were the days of George Armstrong who was scandalously never awarded a single full England cap; Alan Skirton, a fast and clumsy winger; and such as Jim “Fingers” Furnell in goal who threw in a header from outside the penalty area to lose us the FA Cup quarter final in, I think, 1967 to Birmingham City, yet another “lovely and clean team, full of graceful, flower arranging players”. Or possibly NOT!
Those heady days were also the days of the Metropolitan Police Band, who used to march up and down the pitch at half time, and of a singing copper called Constable Alex Morgan, who used to sing, tunefully too, melodious ballads from musicals over the tannoy, usually to muted applause. When the band leader threw his baton up in the air and caught, it a mass cheer would be heard hoping he would drop it. On one occasion he actually did. Oh joyous day! How we rejoice in others misfortune and how we loved it!
There was no advertising around the pitch in those days. Our then chairman, Sir Denis Hill-Wood, father of Peter who became chairman too in time, said that “adverts would be used only over his dead body”! Unlike today’s owner and foreign shysters, the Hill-Wood and Bracewell-Smith families had owned Arsenal over most of the century and were all real fans. It was Peter Hill -Wood, then chairman, who said to David Dein after our last gasp title win at Anfield on May 26th 1989, that famous day, that the title was “never in doubt”! How we thousands partied the whole night in Avenell Rd, and it was about that night that Nick Hornby, the “Arsenal nut” journalist wrote his wonderful book “Fever Pitch”.
In part two I will write about away days with the Supporters Club and of great days and night in other towns and cities, including meeting Brian Clough, then the manager of Derby, in 1972. I hope this brings back memories for fellow older Gooners, and helps the younger ones see a little of how life was for Arsenal fans back in the day.