The story of the Arsenal mural has drifted, over the years, into something more closely resembling a myth. What should be straightforward details are now shrouded in fog, tangled by apocrypha.
Most, some time ago, would have consigned it all to the recesses of memory: a piece of esoteric trivia, a quirk and a folly from the dawn of English soccer’s modern age. But as sports starts to take shape in the era of social distancing and social justice, it has taken on a fresh relevance.
Across the world, teams and leagues are exploring ways to make games held in cavernous, empty stadiums easier on the eye, hoping to retain some semblance of the spectacle on which their industries have been built.
Early attempts have included Zoom conferences in Denmark, montages in Germany, robot drummers in Taiwan and unfortunately sourced dolls in South Korea. The Premier League — scheduled to return to action on June 17 — has broached displaying “live reaction” from fans on big screens and cloaking empty seats with giant banners.
But while all of this feels like the first, tentative steps into a new and unwelcome world, it is not new, not exactly. Twenty-eight years ago, Arsenal approached exactly the same problem, albeit from a substantially different angle. The answer the club found might provide some inspiration, nearly three decades on, but it also offers something of a warning.
The day before the first game of English soccer’s 1992 season — and the first-ever round of fixtures in the newly minted Premier League — Arsenal’s players gathered on the field at Highbury, the club’s historic home, for one final training session. It was not quite as familiar as it might have been.
One end of the stadium, the North Bank, traditionally home to 15,000 of Arsenal’s most ardent fans, was hidden behind a vast mural, spanning almost the entire breadth of the field. The club had demolished the old grandstand over the course of the summer, and a new, all-seater structure was taking shape. For now, though, the North Bank was a mess of cranes, scaffolding and cement.
The mural was the idea of Arsenal’s then executive vice chairman, David Dein. Dein had a reputation as a visionary — at his behest, Highbury was the first English stadium to install giant video screens — and he was keen to find a way to “camouflage” the construction site. He commissioned a design studio, January, which handed the job to one of its resident artists, Mike Ibbison.
Ibbison drew a pencil sketch, around a meter long, depicting what the new stand might look like: a bloc of 1,500 or so fans wearing Arsenal jerseys and holding scarves aloft. False perspective gave it depth from any viewing angle.
Ibbison showed it to Dein, and it passed muster. It was handed off to an illustrator and painted in acrylic, then scanned, printed on vinyl and mounted on a scaffold. The whole process took a month or so. Dein was pleased when he first saw it inside Highbury. “It was certainly optically preferable to seeing scaffolding and cement mixers,” he said.
The day before the start of the season, Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell was warming up with his friend and teammate Ian Wright. “He turned to me and asked if I noticed anything about the mural,” Wright told The New York Times last week. “I looked and looked and eventually said no. So he said, ‘There’s no black faces.’”
“We weren’t especially angry or disappointed or anything,” said Wright, who like Campbell is black. “But it was a good observation, because you did see black faces in the crowd at Arsenal.” When Campbell spotted an opportunity to do something about it, then, he did so.
That morning, Dein was at the stadium, too. He was greeting the players as they came off the field after training when Campbell pulled him aside. “He asked me why none of his brothers were on the mural,” Dein said. “I had a look and I was horrified. He was so right. I told him we’d correct it immediately.”
That is the part of the story that everyone agrees on. Both Ibbison and Dein are adamant it was not a deliberate omission. In his original sketch, Ibbison had drawn a crowd — a collection of human-shaped figures — but he had not assigned a “gender or ethnicity” to any of them. “At no point did it occur to me,” he said, “that I was drawing white, middle-class London.”
He and Dein also insisted that, were they to undertake the same project today, it would not only be constructed differently — in the predigital age, Ibbison drew his sketch by hand and the mural was hand-painted — but that they would be much more conscious of the need to make the finished product diverse and inclusive.
But that is the limit of the consensus around the story of the North Bank mural. Memories are hazy, contemporaneous news media reports not always accurate, urban myths passed on as facts. It is what happens when the bits of the story that aren’t true are more compelling than the bits that are.
Certainly, Dein was as good as his word: That night, the mural was repainted by hand, to depict more accurately Arsenal’s diverse fan base. By the time Norwich City arrived for the match the next day, the changes had been made.
Quite who did that repainting, though, is a matter of some debate. Dein believes it was Ibbison, or at least his colleagues. Ibbison does not remember being involved: He believes Arsenal sent employees “up on stepladders” to amend it themselves.
It is there that everything becomes a bit apocryphal. A newspaper report from the time quoted Ibbison as suggesting that his original sketch included black faces, but that the color had been lost in the printing process. Not true, he said.
It has been suggested that a further complaint was made, suggesting that the crowd was too male, prompting Arsenal to amend it again. That led, the story goes, to yet another change, when it was pointed out that children in the crowd now seemed to be separated from parents or guardians.
And then there are the nuns: painted, so the legend goes, into the mural alongside a solitary Manchester United fan by the artist, presumably out of revenge for having to make all of these changes. These can be debunked, too. Ibbison, the artist in question, is an Arsenal fan, and was adamant that he was not involved in any alterations. Dein insisted the mural was amended only once.
That is not the only mystery. Nobody is sure quite what happened to the mural once it was taken down and the new, improved North Bank was opened to fans. Ibbison had heard squares of it were cut out and sold, but if that was the case, nobody at Arsenal — including Dein — had any recollection of it. Ibbison does not even have his original pencil sketch.
Perhaps that has helped the story of the mural pass into lore. So, too, the idea that it was cursed. Before kickoff in that first game, against Norwich, a parachutist almost collided with the scaffolding while descending as part of the pregame show. Arsenal went on to lose the match, 4-2, after a performance so bad that Dein now jokes that “12 people in the mural got up and left.”
It was not until late September of that season that Wright became the first Arsenal player to score in front of the mural, and the club wound up finishing a disappointing 10th in the league. Finding an Arsenal fan who mourned the departure of the mural would be difficult.
To Dein and Ibbison, though, despite the error, despite the urban myths, despite the worries over a curse, the mural worked. “It did its job,” Dein said. They both felt that it was worth trying. And now, they watch on with interest as — almost three decades later — teams across Europe wrestle with much the same dilemma.
Ibbison recently saw a montage of cutout fans at Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany’s top-tier league and felt it was a “good attempt.” For all the controversy, he says the logic that led to the North Bank mural, all those years ago, remains true: It is better to try to have something, if the alternative — the only other option — is nothing.