Highbury, Crush barriers, Cliff Holton and Stanley Matthews. A trip down memory lane

By GF60

“Looking back is sometimes dangerous because we see the past that we want to remember and not the past that has happened in reality.”

With all-seater grounds, nancyfied and oh so safe stadia, no-one will ever know again, the thrill of being able to tell the crowd size merely by the pressure on your chest.  Seriously – that’s how we used to do it.

To illustrate: a big game (the scum for example) meant that you had to get to the ground at least three hours before kick off else risk being locked out. Two hours before hand wouldn’t allow you to get your favourite position without a great deal of manoeuvring.  90 minutes beforehand, you might get in but wouldn’t be able to see much.

“Today’s a 65 000.”

“Nah, 58 000 at most”

We were rarely out by more than a few thousand….bar one dismal day when Leeds came to town back in the 60’s. Figures such as 4 000 didn’t exist other than for the reserve games. Just imagine shortly after the war, the stiffs would pull in crowds of over 30 000 regularly. Days long gone I fear.

Anyway to return to the point.

Cliff Holton was a big lad. More, he had a shot on him that made somebody like Thierry Henry’s look a bit powder puffy. Cliff regrettably had few of TT’s skills but he could play, after a fashion, anywhere from right back to centre forward. He was part of a side that was, to be more than fair, pretty bloody in the mid 1950’s. But it pulled crowds, inevitably over 50 000 and on one particular autumn day, WBA, were the visitors.

In those days, WBA were a bloody good and attractive side…Allen and Griffin being two very sharp forwards so it was a deep breathing crowd…well over 60 000 and packed like sardines. The crush barriers must have been doing overtime but, because Arsenal was Arsenal, as safe as the monthly safety checks could make them.

For those who don’t know what a crush barrier was, (there are plenty of photos) in brief, a 1/2 inch thickness cast iron 3 inch diameter pipe supported by two triangular supports of similar construct basically formed the barrier. These were staggered all over the terraces, parallel to the ptich,  so when the crowd swayed, moved, tripped, stumbled, slid …all the sorts of things that standing crowds do whilst following the action, the crush barriers barriered, and the folks below were uncrushed. Worked very well at the Arsenal 998 times out of 1000.

So back to Cliff and WBA. Kicking towards the Clock End, big Cliff had a chance. About 20 yards out and he meets this half volley as sweetly as a ball has ever been hit. It may well have been doing over 90 mph. Only problem was it was six feet wide of the goal and still rising as it went towards the crowd.

Do you know how quickly jam packed human beings can move when facing that? I kid you not. The ball hit empty concrete terracing….not 1 person within 5 yards of the ball. There they were packed…there they were gone …sideways. Barriers not much use for preventing sideways movement. ..but they did leave an unforgettable memory for we North Bankers.

And then there was Stanley Matthews….later Sir Stan….the “wizard of dribble”, by then coming up to 40 years old and Blackpool who were also a good attractive side, with Mortenson, Taylor and other quality players. Invariably they were in the top half of the table, then.

Strangely, no matter how badly we were playing in the league, we always had a good feeling about Blackpool coming to Highbury. They didn’t like playing there albeit they’d beaten us in a 6th round Cup Tie 2 years back. This day was no different…we were 3-0 up and going nicely for a change. Matthews hadn’t done much…strangely Dennis Evans who was marking him inevitably played him well.

The crowd, again in the 60 000 region was happy; for once we were going to get 2 points without too much of a panic and a lovely time was being had by all….bar the Blackpool players and supporters. Just as it should be.

But a player like Matthews doesn’t get a reputation such as he had without some genius in his feet. He trapped a half volley and in the same movement, went to go inside Dennis. …and the crowd swayed inside to follow the play. Which was why we (the crowd and Dennis) were all off balance when Matthews went the other way. …and we (the crowd and Denis) all finished up on our arses!

It was the most perfect dummy and once again proved that crush barriers were fine for stopping down hill momentum but not too hot at stopping sideways.

There was an interesting footnote to that game. We were 4-0 up and the final whistle went. Every one cheered and Denis who had the ball in our penalty area, celebrating the win, walloped the ball into the net. Consternation. The whistle had come from some clown in the crowd not the ref. Goal awarded…the goal that made the difference to Blackpool finishing third (with the third prize money) and not fourth.


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22 Replies to “Highbury, Crush barriers, Cliff Holton and Stanley Matthews. A trip down memory lane”

  1. Brilliant piece, I miss standing behind the goal on the North Bank. The crowds weren`t as big in my day(early 80`s-92) but the fans were different class. You wouldn`t have got fans calling for the managers head after finishing 3rd in those days. Funny you mention that Leeds game, I`ve never spoken to an Arsenal fan from that era who wasn`t at the match, it should have been a record attendance instead of the paltry 4,000 who actually turned up. My oldman was at the game and he reckons it was one of the most embarassing sites he`s ever seen, apparently there was a live european game involving the scousers on that night and everyone stayed home to watch it. Strange how television and the game has changed. Anyway cheers for a top post.

  2. Wow, great stuff GF60, you have a few years on me it seems.

    Cliff Holton & Peter Goring, both better know as CFs, were both playing wing half in my first games. Cliff later got a shed load of goals in the lower leagues with Watford, Northampton & Palace.

    I well remember Denis Evans recalling his thunderbolt og in Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly.

    Sadly Denis & Stan died in the same week.

    I knew Billy McCullough & met him the day before we were playing Stoke. He was really worried about the possibility of being given the runaround by a 50 year old. In the end I don’t think Sir Stan played but it showed how respected he was.

    I was one of the 4000 against Leeds & also in the 60,000+ against the Busby Babes in their last match in England.

    Were the scum the scum in those days? I don’t remember it being quite so hateful in those days. Fierce rivalry, electric atmospheres (sadly beyond all seat-er stadiums) but I feel there was a bit more respect for the other side. You could certainly stand together.

  3. I was there, honest, Johnny!!

    There was a game a few weeks earlier against against WBA & only 8,000 turned up. It was a re-scheduled game that was not advertised & I only found out about it the same afternoon. I had to cancel a date & was ditched. A bit sad for an ugly git like me & if I remember correctly we only drew.

  4. No bother Flint, that sounds about right. There used to be heaps of re-scheduled games in those days. I used to have a blindin book that showed every Arsenal attendance and result from 1886-1986. My daft mother thought it was a library book and returned it, so I cant confirm the 8,000 against the Baggies figure. It sounds pretty reasonable though, I`ll have to ask the oldman next time I see him.

  5. In 1979 when I came for the first time to Highbury I must say that the old North bank was the biggest stand I had ever seen with my own eyes at that time. And it was rather full that day. I still remember the movement when again a chance was missed and the crowd moving yourself a few feet from you place. Great to remember.

  6. Interesting blog of the 50’s. I can go back to 1942/3 when Arsenal played an RAF XI in a charity match. The star in the visitors’ team was Stanley Matthews who everyone had come to see. Against him was Eddie Hapgood, the Arsenal and England captain and left back. Despite all his well-known trickery, Matthews never got a kick in and the storm of booing as Hapgood either intercepted or tackled every time a ball came near his opponent was a sound I will never forget. Arsenal fans booing their skipper for playing too well! Incidentally, in those days, Arsenal played all home games at White Hart Lane.

  7. One of my earliest memories was an evening game against Man U, possibly 1965, I was 10 at the time. The crowd was allegedly 63,000 (I often wonder how much some of those turnstile operators earned in those days. My uncle took me, he never paid for me. It wasnt Liverpool who invented the 2 in 1!) I was in the old West Stand and could not see a thing. I had to climb up a drainpipe and all I saw of Best, Law Charlton and Stiles was their shorts and socks

  8. So it seems the entire 4000 at the Leeds game went on to read Untold Arsenal. Extraordinary!

    Anyway, here’s the real truth about those numbers. These are the last four home games of the season

    April 5 1966, WBA home. Drew 1-1 Crowd: 8738
    April 23 1966, Sunderland. Drew 1-1 Crowd 25,699
    May 5, 1966, Leeds U. Lost 0-3 Crowd 4554
    May 7, 1966, Leicester C. Won 1-0. Crowd 16,435

    Final position in league: 14th.
    FA Cup – knocked out in third round by Blackburn 0-3
    Best home crowd – 56,757 against Man U

    What made those crowds drop was not only the general poor form, but also these factors…

    1. The number of season tickets was small in those days, so it was very much a take it or leave it. And as said there was a Euro Cup Final on TV the night of the Leeds game.

    2. Arsenal’s home form was awful. We beat Sheff W 5-2 on December 28, but after that did not win another home match until May 7th.

    3. In April we played no less than seven games. Although only two were at home, the results were so bad, that it would have taken really devoted fans to turn up.

    4. Billy Wright, the manager, was criticised for his style of play and the failure of what was a potentially good team. Think of Baker, Eastham, Armstrong, Skirton, Storey, Sammells, Don Howe, McLintock, Terry Neil

    Incidentally we played Blackpool that season and lost 5-3 away in front of a crowd of 19,500.

  9. The biggest crowd ever (I think) was in February 1948 when Arsenal played Burnley. We were League leaders and Burnley were lying second.
    The official attendance was 62,000 but an estimated 20,000 were outside the ground trying to get in. Arsenal won 3-0 and went on to become Champions. The best seats cost 52p each!

  10. Largest attendance at Highbury – 73,295 v Sunderland 9 March 1935

    From arsenaldotcom

  11. Well said Flint McCullough. Banter beteween rival fans is all part of the game, but I deplore the term ‘scum’. Rivalry is one thing, a complete lack of respect is another.

  12. I was at Highbury for an early-season home game against Liverpool. I think is was late 80’s. The official crowd was 54,703. After the gates were locked we spotted a gateman taking £5 to let people jump over the turnstile. There were quite a few people sat on the roof of the north bank, in spite of tannoy announcements begging them to get down!

  13. @Flint. And Nicky has a few years on both of us! Wonder who is the oldest Gooner?

  14. Saw my first match in 1941. Now a crumbly of 86 years and still full of memories of Arsenal in wartime.

  15. Now you`re talking my Arsenal. I was a kid of twelve (1947) and well remember the crush barriers, the pressure on you chest, the guessing of the capacity and the extra ten thousand jambed in when Matthews was playing, even as a replacement.
    WBA was special for me because Ronnie Allen was nephew of a man that lived in our flats near Highbury and we got tickets for the East stand. Wow! it was a different game from up there.
    Some how I don`t think I would enjoy Emirates the way I enjoyed Highbury. Night match under lights against Moscow Dynamos (circa 1949) estimated 70.000….maybe a few more.

  16. Ahhh the good old days, as a 73 year old, my first memories as an arsenal supporter was in 1947 as a ten year old, through to 1965 when I immigrated to Australia. Anyone remember the Lewis, Leishman, Logie era, possibly part of one of the best forward lines ever. Milton, Roper, Kelsey etc. Players of the calibre of Lennie Shackleton, Tommy Lawton, Tommy Steel, Matthews, Finney, Robledo brothers, Jackie Milburn. Remember getting to the ground a couple of hours before kickoff, and it was amazing, but everyone had their own place in the crowd, game after game you could go to the ground and everyone was in the same place as they were in the previous home game. We also used to have a lottery on who would score first.

    While these are now distant memories, I still continue to be a gunner supporter, and luckily over the last couple of seasons, can more or less watch every Arsenal game on Television. Still cannot go to bed until the game is finished whatever time in the morning.

    Any old mates still kicking around from Summers Town, Euston area, can contact me through this website if ok with Tony.

  17. In terms of Highbury v Emirates, I must say I prefer the Ems. As one passes the 60 years mark the attraction of the comfortable seat in the stands and well appointed loo not far from where one sits is of considerable value.

    Anyway, who’d have thought it. Untold Arsenal, the site for readers with senior travel cards.

  18. “Anyway, who’d have thought it. Untold Arsenal, the site for readers with senior travel cards.”
    …..and the brains to enjoy non trivia and sensible discussion!

  19. I played against Cliff in 1950 when a shot from him hit the crossbar and I was underneath , waiting for it too come down on me! What a shot!

  20. Iwas taken tohome games by an older cousin, from abou 1950. My heroes included cliff holton, doug lishman, arthur milton and bob wilson. Worst experience at highbury was acup match in the early 70s, when somecrushbarriers failed. Until igothome tobedford, my wife didn,t know whether i was dead or alive. Fact was that we at the clock end were unaware of this event,whereas mywifehadheard about it on the news.

  21. Try Front Row on your computer . They show all matches live and its free! I saw Saturdays game against WBA

    Saw my first Arsenal match At WHL in Septmeber 1942. Now I’m a season ticket holder.

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