Changing London

How Arsenal FC defines Islington’s character

Islington on Arsenal match days becomes a chaotic place. Tube stations are closed, or at the very least passengers are shepherded by police out through specific exits. Supporters spill out of pubs onto the pavements and traditional cafés roll-out record numbers of full English breakfasts.

Sadly, as recent fighting by visiting Napoli fans at the legendary Piebury Corner café demonstrated, sometimes things can spiral into violence. One customer was taken to hospital with head injuries, while a window was smashed and chairs were thrown.

But Arsenal hasn’t always been an Islington story. Before Arsenal arrived in Islington one hundred years ago, in 1913, the old stadium (Highbury) was the grounds of a non-conformist priests training college and where the team play now (the Emirates) was a rubbish processing plant and industrial estate (prior to that parts consisted of Victorian slum housing).

Starting out in 1886 as Dial Square by workers at Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, South East London, the club went through various name changes (Royal Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal) before being declared bankrupt in 1910. Its struggles partly stemmed from the fact that were high levels of unemployment in the area, meaning people couldn’t afford to watch them play and for others transport was a major issue.

The Chairman, Henry Norris, that had rescued the club from bankruptcy therefore decided to uproot the entire club across London, striking a deal with the St John’s College of Divinity (which was itself struggling financially) to rent their recreational grounds on a 21 year lease.

It’s this transition to Islington and the impact Arsenal has had on this corner in north London (rather than a history of the club itself, although there is of course discussion of the most important victories on the pitch over the years) that’s told in a new temporary exhibition at Islington Museum.

While more could have been done to capture the views from locals on what Arsenal means to them today, the displays are nonetheless fascinating and are full of interesting facts. For example, the original lease agreed with St John’s stimulated that no matches were to be played on holy states and no ‘intoxicating liquor’ could be sold at the stadium. These requirements were, however, dropped within a year.

At Highbury from 1913, Arsenal quickly established in the area with, in time, Gillespie Road Tube station being re-named Arsenal. Over the years everything from fish & chip shops to pubs has also taken the team’s name (or that of its nickname, the Gunners).

And with the re-location to the Emirates only half a mile away, the football character of the area doesn’t seem to have changed. Not that the move there wasn’t controversial. Months after the planning application was submitted in 2001, a poll of residents found 75% of people were against the new stadium. Go-ahead on construction was only granted after the club won a High Court appeal.

Going to the barbers near my home only 10 minutes from Arsenal’s new home, it’s the only team that’s spoken about. And ask in one of the pubs to put anything other than the Gunners on the main screen and you could get a strange look (one of my friends once asked for Hull City, of all teams, to be shown).

When the Emirates is full to the rafters, the atmosphere is electrifying. But there’s also something pretty special about sneaking into to look around Highbury, which is now a plush, gated housing development. Two of the stands have been retained (with glass fronts placed over the terracing to create conservatories of sorts) so you still feel like you are entering a stadium.

Although the original pitch has been ripped up so an underground car park can be built, grass on the gardens have been retained so you can still experience the view that countless Arsenal players would have seen on match days. The centre piece of the Islington Museum exhibition is an architect’s model of the new housing development.

I’m not a big football fan in any means, but if Arsenal was now to leave Islington it would completely change the character of the area. Put aside the parking problems that residents can face and sometime rowdy fans, and you start to realise how important the club is for local businesses. And that can only be a good thing.

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