Not a day goes past that I’m not grateful I grew up 20 minutes’ walk from Highbury and so, when it came to football, it was always going to be Arsenal.
In fact, when I eventually had enough about me to find my own place, the search high and low around north London inevitably ended just off Hornsey Road and a flat even closer to the Home of Football than the house where I’d grown up.
It’s still as scruffy as ever up our end of Islington. Which probably explains why it still feels like home, even if some of the local pubs are long gone: The Favourite, where Matt Monroe, amongst others, had once sung for his supper, and the Fox & Hounds, where I remember Niall Quinn doing the honours when it came to breaking open the resident charity coin jar.
Elthorne Park is still there, though, just at the bottom of Hornsey Rise, and – unlike much of its immediate surroundings – has been given a new lease of life. The park is six and a half acres of something like wilderness that backs onto the famous Islington Boxing Club on Hazellville Road. Unlit and unloved for years, Elthorne used to be haunted by stumbling clumps of strong cider-drinkers and worse. The old GLC put in a Peace Garden in the 80s. We’ve got an Ecology Centre now, too.
But the Park’s finest hour would have to be Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie turning up for a kick-about in N19 almost five years ago. Back in the day, we grew up playing football in the street. That’s a rare enough sight in Islington now. Rare enough anywhere in Europe, come to that.
The Johan Cruyff Foundation recognises that, when it comes to football, kids in the 21st century need one thing above all else: somewhere to play. Four years ago, the Foundation found partners in Islington: the local football club, the local Council and Dennis Bergkamp, who wanted some of the money raised at his testimonial to be spent locally and well. The result was a ‘Cruyff Court’, the first to be opened in the
UK: a caged off playing area with an artificial surface, where local kids –and, of course, adults who can’t shake the dream – can safely play football from morning till night.
Cruyff and Bergkamp were there on October 23, 2008, when the court opened. As was Robin van Persie, who grew up playing in a cage like Elthorne Park’s. Arsenal’s Community Department was, in many ways, the catalyst, and has run Kickz and other projects for young people at the Park ever since. And, albeit without such star names in attendance, similar facilities have subsequently been built or renovated all over Islington: on the Harvist, Andover, Hollins & McCall and King Square estates, at Rosemary Gardens and at William Tyndale School.
Arsenal, Islington Council and Barclays Spaces for Sports, it seems, have been happy to pick up where the Dutch masters left off.