Welcome to the GunnersoreArse blog. Being blogged 918.74 kilometers (in a straight line) from the Emirates Stadium.
I was thinking about this last week and I started to reminisce how I’d walked regularly on the Emirates Stadium pitch, across the terraces and through the dressing rooms long long before it was even a twinkle in Wengers eye. In 1972, if someone had asked me what Chorizo was I probably would have said a Brazilian footballer, I was 18 years old and working for a company called J.R.Smith and Sons, a scrap iron and steel company owned by three brothers from Camden Town, Brian, Dennis and Ronnie. I worked with Dennis, they called him ‘Dennis the menace’ and the description was perfect, he was fucking crazy and he had his fingers in many different dodgy pies. Dennis and Brian ran the Ashburton Grove site and Ronnie had control of a sister company, the Hornsey Metal Company which was in Stroud Green. It was a business just on the limits of sculduggery and the wrong side of legal, just as you would expect from any self-respecting decent scrap metal business. If you had seen some of the blokes that would turn up to see Dennis at our little backyard office, you could easily have thought it was a scene from Snatch. Even our office was a caravan inside a large shed.
The site started at the top end of Ashburton Grove, where the main office and weighbridge led to the entrance to the yard and then it extended right across to the top end of Queensland Road, where the entrance leading to my little caravan was in Emily Place. I dealt with the non-ferrous metals side of the business; brass, copper, lead, aluminium, zinc, burnt wire etc. I worked with a tough little Irish fella who knew how to work the weighing scales and earn us some extra cash by under-weighing and underpaying customers. Dennis was also extremely good at earning us extra cash, often buying RSJ’s as scrap iron at the lowest price per ton and then we’d sell them as re-usable RSJ beams to the building trade and split the profit, a nice little earner.
The brothers had an uncle named Wally , a bit of a charactor, who had a small scrap yard down in Hoxton, which was much more of a Steptoe & Son type of affair but it was rumoured he had formed the company on the proceeds of some heavy duty criminal activity. But he was happy just to run a small yard and let Brian, Dennis and Ronnie deal with the bigger stuff.
So this is how I managed to walk on the Emirates pitch in 1972, thirty four years before it was constructed. When I walked from my little caravan office across the yard to the weighbridge, I literally walked across the future stadium. Back then it was a combination of mud, oil, diesel, piles of car tyres, scrap iron and steel, all churned up by roll-on/roll-off container lorries and JCB’s. I could never have imagined it would eventually become the magnificent stadium it is today, a Wenger dream that would not take shape in his brilliant mind for another 30 years. At the end of most days we’d all go for a drink in a pub on the corner of Benwell Road and Albany Place, where some of Dennis’ mates would join us and they’d discuss and conclude dodgy business deals with him. I can’t remember the name of the pub now, perhaps someone can tell me if it’s still there?
The Arsenal manager at the time was Bertie Mee and the team consisted of such legends as John Radford, Ray Kennedy, Charlie George, Frank McClintock, Peter Storey and Bob Wison. Every other Saturday afternoon, a mate and I could be found touting tickets outside the Marble Halls on Avenell Road and when we’d sold them all, we would pay a couple of quid to the bloke on the turnstile for entry into the East Stand and we’d find empty seats to watch the match. Every Friday and Saturday night you could also find us at the Wellington pub in Mackenzie Road, selling stolen designer clothing from the boot of a Ford Cortina.
These were the halcyon days in Islington, of after hours drinking clubs in the upstairs of a pub and run by gangsters, where someone slid open a spy hole in the door and if you weren’t known, you were told to fuck off. Sometimes you would see an Arsenal player at one of these clubs, McClintock, Peter Storey and Eddie Kelly were regulars. Frank McClintock went on to form a business partnership with Harry H, a well known local con man, and they bought a pub together in Caledonian Road, which became a regular haunt for the Islington criminal underworld. Peter Storey bought a pub in Essex Road and would eventually end up doing time for his involvement in certain criminal activities. This was the Islington of Bertie Smalls (the first ever supergrass), of Reggie Dudley and Bob Maynard (aka Legal and General) and the ‘head in the public toilet’ murder. The Islington where Jamaicans had ‘blues clubs’, basically a basement in someones house where you could drink rum and dance to bluebeat and ska all night long. The IRA had control of Finsbury Park and the Archway area, and the Adams brothers were only just starting their Islington crime syndicate from a house in Barnsbury and would eventually, and violently, take over from the Reilly’s as the most feared crime gang in London. This was the Islington of my youth, where I rubbed shoulders with, and regularly had drinks with some of the most feared and dangerous criminals in London. An Islington where local villains quietly went about their business and stayed away from any form of publicity, an Islington where gangsters from other manors would not dare to encroach upon, an Islington that I have very fond memories of, and by comparison, the East End, the Krays and the Richardsons were small time.
In 1974 I was still ticket touting at Highbury and other venues, and still selling stolen designer clothing, but now it was from the boot of a Jaguar Mk2, but the scrap metal firm had started to experience financial problems. This was caused by Ronnie having gone a bit radio rental with company money from his side of the business in Hornsey. Unknown to his brothers, he’d used business funds to buy, amongst other things, a large beachhouse property in the Carribean, a yacht and a light aircraft, plus a couple of Rolls-Royces and a mansion in Hertfordshire for his mistress, by the time Brian and Dennis found out, Ronnie had spent millions and it was too late to save the company. I was in the weighbridge office when it came to blows between the three of them, Dennis and Brian would have killed Ronnie and he would have ended up in the car crusher if me and a couple of Dennis’ mates had not intervened.
I then spent a hectic 12 months regularly driving two, three, sometimes four times a week to Teeside, West Bromwich and South Wales collecting cheques owed to us by some of the larger steel works, then speeding back down the M1 or M4 to London and paying them into the bank, some cheques totalled £150k or more, but it was still to no avail. Brian and Dennis were frantically moving money from company banks to personal accounts abroad and the business was eventually put into receivership and bankruptcy. After the business folded I continued working with Dennis and some of his associates for a while in little money making schemes but with all the company problems, his health had suffered so he eventually decided to move to Spain and live off the money he’d managed to keep hidden from the inland revenue.
I moved on to other things, some good, some bad, some disastrous, some glamorous and some downright unsavoury. However, despite having walked on the Emirates pitch 34 years before the turf was laid, before even Wenger or an Arsenal player had ever set foot on it, I’ve still not been into the new Stadium to see a game. It remains a dream, a dream which I hope to achieve very soon. And at the same time I’ll also have a drink in the pub on Benwell Road if it’s still there?
Right, time for a glass of wine and some spicy chorizo….. hope you enjoyed your visit. Until the next time.
GunnersoreArse, bringing you the hidden history of Arsenal and Islington, chorizo and copper, brass and muck. A classy publication delivered to your PC free of charge every Sunday morning at 9am GMT.