I broke into Highbury once, or rather snuck in through a closing electronic gate after a car. Sadly, it was after its days as a stadium, though. Nowadays all four stands have been converted to ritzy upscale apartments, and where the pitch was once laid out neatly has been turned into a garden for the now gated community’s residents to enjoy on a morning stroll. It was elegant but slightly unfitting to be standing in roughly the same spot Thierry Henry hit that ridiculous self-served spinning volley against Manchester United in 2000 and come to realize that spot is now occupied by a shrubbery. Nevertheless I can say I’ve been to Highbury in North London. And after yesterday I can also say I’ve been to the Highbury in southern Milwaukee as well.
The Highbury Pub in Milwaukee resides in one of city’s presently trending neighborhoods for young folks, Bay View. On the same street, Kinnickinnic Ave, there’s a bowling alley, a dinner-serving cinema, a comic book shop, and popular small plates restaurant. But upon passing through the front door to the bar where many of the area’s soccer fans flee to on match day, the game is all around you. There are scarves from clubs all over the world hanging from the ventilation system on the ceiling, flags draped in the corners, autographed photos of the cast members of Premier League past, and of course plenty of Arsenal paraphernalia scattered predictably throughout. Let’s not forget the arching brass letters that spell out ‘HIGHBURY’ over top of the main television above the bar. Truth be told, it’s not far off from how many men might decorate their apartment if it weren’t for the aesthetic hindrance of a lady’s touch (not to say there aren’t some ladies out there that might deck out their flat in football posters and scarves).
I arrived early, probably a half hour before Champions League quarterfinal second legs between Benfica & Bayern Munich and Atlético de Madrid & Barcelona would determine the competition’s remaining semifinalists. Yet despite being a pub named after Arsenal’s famous ground and littered with Gooners bumper stickers on all the door frames and countertops, I only found Manchester United fans tractor-beamed to the televisions showing their FA Cup clash against West Ham when I walked in. Grant it, Arsenal didn’t play on the day, but at the very least it showed me immediately that fans of all teams were welcome in the Highbury’s utopian football culture, a trend that would stay true in my two and a half hours inside.
The United fans, all four them, were up for it. I mean anyone who can make time at 1 in the afternoon on a Wednesday is up for it. One of them had even managed to get into a black long sleeve Martial kit despite the fact that he was in a sling. It’s a shame Manchester United aren’t better this season. That would have made our slinged patron’s day a little less anxious and perhaps (but no guarantees) prevented him from yelling “GO HOME!” every time the camera panned to Louis Van Gaal. I ordered a Guinness which was promptly delivered and well poured right around the time a few more fans began to trickle in. Some had come with their allegiances for the Champions League matches; others just came for games. One man in particular capped in an Everton hat had arrived for the lone Premier League game of the day, Everton away to Crystal Palace. And without hesitation the barman reserved one of the four main televisions in the front room for him (and himself I’d later find out, revealing the Palace supporter he turned out to be).
The Highbury may not be the most spacious pub in the world, but it found a way to accommodate everyone, playing four different games on four different televisions. That’s great if you’ve come to watch a specific game because you’ll almost be guaranteed a place to watch it when you arrive. But for someone like me, who had just come to be swallowed up in an afternoon of sport, I was dangerously close to spinning my head clean off. Instinctively, every time I heard a groan, or a yell, a curse, or even one of those low-toned “ooooooo” sounds someone makes when a shot just rises over the cross bar, I had to look. Forget the drink; I could get dizzy just sitting in this bar! But I loved every minute of it. At one point some fellow bar-goers were going mad because Gerard Pique had a hand ball in his own area which wasn’t given, Rashford opened the scoring for Manchester United, and Benfica drew level on aggregate with Bayern Munich all in the span of two or three minutes. If I can have a dig at the Highbury in any way, it’s that the bar stools don’t spin on lazy susans so it’s customers can rotate their attention from screen to screen quicker. At halftime an inevitable trip to the men’s room confirmed what I had known to be true. The Highbury pub is where the American Outlaws in Milwaukee make birth. In the lone-stalled facility was a huge American Outlaws banner. There was also an American Outlaws chalkboard near the toilet with no chalk on its lip, not that I had anything to write anyway. But it might be a haunt worth checking out the next time the national team plays.
In the end, the holders of the Champions League, Barcelona, went out. The bar population seemed to embrace that at Highbury. In no way do I believe they are anti-Barca by any stretch of the imagination but neutrals love upsets. Bayern progressed to nobody’s surprise, Palace v Everton puttered out to a 0-0, and Manchester United earned a trip to Wembley. Three of the four Manchester United fans on hand had stuck around for celebratory cocktails. To wrap things up, I’ve now been to two Highbury’s in my life. The one in Milwaukee isn’t only far more accessible to me, it also gives me a reason to return and watch football. Whereas the Highbury of North London no longer shows games, it can rest knowing that its historic namesake has inspired a bar of fans thousands of miles away to continue embracing the sport.