There will be tears shed when Highbury opens its gates to paying punters for the last time in just five weeks' time.

The only surviving great stadium in English football still looking anything like its original form has finally been outgrown by Arsenal's need to expand. And, magnificent though the Gunners' new home will be at Ashburton Grove, the proposed conversion of Highbury's marble halls into luxury apartments will be a sad day for football followers everywhere.

All season long, top flight clubs have made a farewell visit to the famous old ground. And on Saturday there will be a particular poignancy when it is Aston Villa's turn.

For Villa manager David O'Leary, it will be an especially emotional occasion. Not only is this his last return to a stadium he graced for 20 years, there will be added sentiment as the day will be marked by a tribute to O'Leary's old Arsenal teammate David Rocastle, who died five years ago this weekend tragically early at the age of 32.

"He was a great friend of mine," said O'Leary. "A wonderful human being.

"It was one of the saddest days of my life going to his funeral. You just don't think something like that will happen to an athlete. And I'm delighted to be some part of what the club are doing for him this weekend. Typical Arsenal that they haven't forgotten him even in this season of celebrations."

He can be forgiven if his mood might be a bit mixed on Saturday, but O'Leary will not be the only visitor among Villa's travelling party cherishing happy memories of Highbury.

For O'Leary, lifting the 1991 league title there, on a night when Alan Smith's hat-trick beat Manchester United, remains top of his many Highbury highlights.

But O'Leary was also present on one other occasion when a title win was celebrated at Highbury.

Ten years before that, Villa became English league champions for the only time in the past 96 years.

O'Leary was in the Arsenal team who beat Villa 2-0 that May Saturday. But he well recalls the rare atmosphere as Villa fans slowly became aware that title rivals Ipswich Town were about to lose at Middlesbrough, allowing Ron Saunders' men to claim the crown.

"You could hear it going one way or another on the terraces," recalls the Villa boss. "For all that they were getting beat, the Villa fans and players knew in those final few minutes they were going to win the league. There wasn't going to be a case of stopping and waiting for a few minutes. When that final whistle blew they knew they'd be celebrating.

"We always felt Villa were a good touch for us at Highbury in those days.

"But, if they were going to be champions, they were going to have to earn it, as we weren't going to do anybody any favours. And it was a great incentive for us to beat the likely champions.

"What made us all the more determined was that we just didn't like the idea of another team celebrating winning the title at our place. And we went out there and beat them well."

Arsenal did just that themselves eight years later with their famous injury time robbery of the league title at Anfield - still, O'Leary insists, his absolute career highlight.

But that day at Highbury in 1981 was a 2-0 Arsenal win that did not matter.

"Villa still deserved to win the title. But it made for a strange atmosphere, with the Arsenal fans celebrating at one end because their team had beaten the champions and the Villa fans going mad at the other."

If O'Leary is honest, devoted though he now is to Villa, that experience is not top of his list of great Highbury memories, which started the day he followed fellow Irishmen Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton to London N6 in 1973.

"Highbury had that special way about it from the moment I walked in," he said. "It had style, a bit of class and I just fell in love with the place.

"I had also been at Manchester United. But what swayed me was that Arsenal had loads of young kids in the team and United had none. And I stayed in love with the place.

"Liam wanted a new adventure abroad, Juventus came in and it worked out great for him, Frank sought a better package but what they gave me was always good enough to stay. I had offers. I could have gone abroad and I could have gone to United at the time Frank did.

"But I'd been very lucky. The only time I ever got injured always seemed to be at the end of the season, and it left me with two ambitions. To do 20 years there and to break Geordie Armstrong's record of 621 appearances for the club.

"Then when I did that I wanted to get to 700. I remember my wife saying 'You've got no chance'.

"She said to me 'Oh give up with you, you're never satisfied, you're always wanting something bigger.

"But I got there, and broke it against Oldham at Highbury. And I did my 20 years too.

"Now every time I go back there and look at the team photos on the wall and how they change every year, there's this big Irish bloke still in every one."

For all his fond memories of the old days, which finally ended for him following Arsenal's FA Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, O'Leary has no doubt that the Gunners have planned well for their future.

"I've been around to the new stadium and it's incredible," he said. "When they built Highbury almost 100 years ago they built a stadium that was way ahead of itself and this one will be just as special.

"It was a big club in my day but Arsene Wenger has taken it to another level. They've out-grown Highbury and need a bigger platform.

"You cannot keep locking out 20,000 people every week. They've got to compete with the Manchester Uniteds and the Real Madrids.

"To spend £400 million is some commitment and now all they need is the signed and sealed stamp to take with them when they get to the new stadium that Thierry Henry will be stopping. It will be a big blow if he's not there."