To understand why this game holds such a significance in my eyes, I must take you back to 13th May 2001, the day of my first ever proper match. I had been to testimonials and youth and reserve games, but never a first team match and occasions don’t come much bigger than the FA Cup Final. As a wide-eyed 5 year old, the 7 hour drive from North London to Cardiff passed by in a flash, but there are only five things I remember from the game: a woman tying my balloons to my binoculars so I didn’t lose them, Freddie Ljungberg’s goal, Stephane Henchoz’s handball, Michael Owen’s goals and leaving the stadium in tears as my dad promised we’d go back next year if Arsenal made it.
And make it they did. Somehow tickets were finagled and back to Cardiff we went. My memories of this game as a whole are slightly more sketchy than mine of the aforementioned 2001 final, but I do remember the three key facets of the day as vividly as though they were the last game I attended: the two goals and the trophy presentation.
I vaguely remember a number of missed chances (which I’ve since rewatched) and recalling memories of the previous final, when missed chances had been Arsenal’s downfall. I did have a horrible feeling that history would repeat itself. Then Ray Parlour produced a piece of pure magic. Sylvain Wiltord sent a pass through to the Romford Pele midway inside the Chelsea half. He took the ball forward, switched it to his stronger right foot and from 25 yards, gave the ball a right whack. Carlo Cudicini had no chance. As the commentator said, it was a “vintage FA Cup goal for Arsenal”.
Cracking strike though it was, we couldn’t get too excited - we had seen it all last year. Another goal was needed. Thierry Henry came close after a threatening run from Cashley Cole. Chelsea did not threaten but a one goal lead is not a safe margin at the best of times. (Then again, a four goal lead isn’t exactly safe with the Arsenal.)
When the second goal came it was worth that year of waiting. Freddie Ljungberg, in the form of his life, picked up the ball down the left hand side. He burst through the gap between John Terry and Mario Melchiot and shrugged off the former like he wasn’t even there. Just over 20 yards from the goal, still slightly to the left, he curled the ball right around Cudicini, who couldn’t even get a hand to it, as he had with Parlour’s. The Swede had scored in successive FA Cup finals and Arsenal were well on their way to their second double in four years. 4 days later the title would be secured at Old Trafford, and there was no question as to who were the best team in England.
In 2001, we had left before the trophy presentation began. In 2002, we stayed and watched Tony Adams lift the trophy with Patrick Vieira, who had Captained the team during Adams’s long term-absence through the season. Finally, we had the FA Cup again, and the pain of the previous season had been absolved.
If you look out from the window in my room, you see huge, very nice looking, apartment blocks. How 5 years can change things. Back in 2006, I could look out and see the North Bank and if a tree at the end of a neighbour’s garden was cut down, one of the goals was visible. My first game at Highbury came in 2001, in a fairly drab 1-1 draw against Bolton and 5 years later, I would be present for the final game at the historic stadium.
It was also a hugely important game in terms of the Premier League as well. Arsenal lay in 5th place, behind local rivals Spurs. Before the game, reports eminated on television and radio that there had been a food poisoning epidemic in the Tottenham camp. Talk was that the game may be called off and that it would go down as a Spurs forfeit, but eventually, the game went ahead. This only heightened the optimism around Highbury. For me personally, and many other Arsenal fans, it bared an extra significance as it would be Dennis Bergkamp’s final game in an Arsenal shirt.
And it all started so well. Just 8 minutes in, Robert Pires had shot at Mike Pollit, which was saved but the rebound fell straight back to him and he finished with ease. News then filtered through that Spurs had fallen behind at West Ham. Glee and hope embraced Highbury.
But Arsenal, in my lifetime at least, have never had a penchant for making life easy for themselves. Just two minutes after Pires scored, David Thompson floated a free kick into the box and Paul Scharner stole in to knock the ball into Arsenal’s goal. The home side were then lucky not to have a penalty awarded against them and Sol Campbell sent off for a tackle on Jason Roberts. Wigan then took the lead. Thompson had another free kick around 40 yards from goal. He spied Jens Lehmann positioning himself for a cross and simply curled the ball into the free half of the net. Just minutes later, news filtered through that Jermain Defoe had drawn Spurs level at Upton Park. It seemed as though disaster loomed, but Thierry Henry had other ideas. Pires slid his compatriot through and in typical Henry-fashion, the rolled the ball into the corner of the net.
Wigan had a couple of chances while the scores were level, but from there, it was Arsenal’s game; or more specifically, Thierry Henry’s. He capitalised on a Thompson backpass, rounding Mike Pollitt in a trademark fashion. 3-2, but still in fifth. Then there was another seemingly spontaneous collective cheer and cries of “come on!” - Spurs had fallen behind again, or so it would seem. Being 10, I did not own a phone at the time, and this was in the days before the mobile internet. With the paranoia that Arsenal supporting has given me, I decided that not knowing til the final whistle would just have to do. Easy decision on 56 minutes, but half an hour later, I was in panic mode.
But from minute 56 it was all Arsenal. The next notable piece of action came when Andreas Johansson was introduced to the fray for Wigan, as he left the field within a minute. In his brief time on the pitch, he managed to foul Freddie Ljungberg, concede a penalty and receive a red card. From the resulting penalty, Thierry Henry stepped up and made no mistake. In celebration he knelt down on the hallowed turf and bestowed a kiss onto it. A fitting goodbye.
There was little more that would happen in the remaining 15 minutes. Dennis Bergkamp was introduced shortly after the fourth goal and with the game won, the game plan for the final ten minutes was to get him a goal on what would be his final game for the club. Though this was not successful, everyone at Highbury was in high spirits but with a slight underlying air of caution. We still didn’t know what was going on at Upton Park. As we got into stoppage time, the news filtered through that it was all over in East London and the final score was West Ham 2-1 Spurs. Watching the people around me with phones ringing different people, all of whom said the same thing, I finally felt I could relax. Fourth was ours, and it was an excellent cap to a lovely day.
There was a big ceremony after the final whistle, celebrating the ground’s history. So far the Emirates has never been a patch on Highbury in any respect. There is still time, but there was something special about the stadium and it fills my heart with sadness to see that the stadium that possessed 13 league titles, 10 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and a UEFA Fairs Cup and had been home to everyone from Alex James, to Liam Brady, to Dennis Bergkamp is now an apartment building. The grass on which some of Britain’s most beautiful football had been played is covered with fountains and benches. This is not to say I don’t wish to one day own one of the flats - they look fantastic! - but from my first game at Highbury, that otherwise unremarkable 1-1 draw with Bolton at the start of the 2001/2002 double winning season, to my last on the stadium’s final day, I saw two titles won and three FA Cups - five trophies in five years.
93 wonderful years drew to a close that day, but what will be remembered is the history that was made there. I’m glad they didn’t choose to name the Emirates as ‘New Highbury’ or some variation thereof - the name Highbury belongs to that stadium, and to associate anything else with it would be an insult to it.
Arguably Arsenal’s finest ever side; arguably English top flight football’s greatest ever side; Arsenal’s “invincibles” of the 2003/2004 campaign was finished off with a win over Leicester City at Highbury. I believe that the attendance, of 35,419 was Arsenal’s highest attendance at the stadium since the introduction of all-ground seating. This was because those in the stands had come to see history being made and for this team to complete an entire top-flight season without losing a single game.
Arsenal had played stunning football throughout the season and they continued doing so straight from the start. Arsenal were dominant, but Leicester had other plans. 25 minutes in, former Arsenal man Paul Dickov headed home at the near post. Although there were three quarters of the match remaining, there was just a slight underlying fear around Highbury that it would not end in the fairytale fashion that so many had hoped.
The home side, as ever, continued to pass the ball and attack. Dennis Bergkamp came close soon after the goal, as did Robert Pires. The pressing continued, but when half time came, Leicester still led. At the return, Arsenal continued looking for the equaliser, and it took just one minute to acquire. Bergkamp sent a brilliant ball over the top of the Leicester defence towards Ashley Cole who, while clean through on goal, was hacked to the floor, earning Arsenal a penalty. The taker was their top scorer, Thierry Henry. The Frenchman had been the pinnacle of the team and made no mistake from 12 yards. Between the opener and Arsenal’s reply, the crowd had been quite subdued, but now there was a return of the party atmosphere that had gripped Highbury before kick off.
Then the search began for a second. Yet again, a moment of brilliance from the Arsenal number 10 layed down the gauntlet for an Arsenal to score. This time, club captain Patrick Vieira made a good forward run from the centre of midfield and on receiving the Dutchman’s pass, took one touch to take him past Ian Walker, and another to slot the ball home. It was vaguely reminiscent of Tony Adams’ marauding run forward against Everton in 1998, through which he scored the final goal of Arsenal’s League campaign, and it was somewhat fitting that the Captain stepped forward again to put his final stamp on the League season.
Though there was about half an hour left, Arsenal looked like they knew they had won, Leicester that they had lost and the home fans knew that their team would finish the season without losing once. And though Campbell and Edu came close to adding a third, there was an air of finality about Vieira’s goal, and in the circumstances, it was perfect, and a perfect note on which to end a near-perfect season. On 87 minutes came a moment that warmed the hearts of all those involved, as Martin Keown was handed his 10th Premier League appearance of the season, thus entitling him to a medal in what would be his final game of 449 for the club and he was awarded the rapturous reception he deserved.
The final whistle blew and this team’s place in history was secured. The entire season was summed up by Thierry Henry’s words on the final whistle: “People will remember that the season 2003/2004, we were unbeatable.”
No one gave us a chance. Following on from last year’s thrashing at Barcelona’s hand, everyone assumed this was just another chapter of the same story and that a weaker Arsenal would get a more brutal beating from a stronger Barcelona.
Only this year there was a little more nouse about Arsenal, and far fewer injuries. Last year, there was no Robin van Persie, an injured William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin needing replacement before half time, an idiot between the posts, Cesc Fàbregas needing to be rushed back from injury, Alex Song at centre half, Denilson playing - in short, that team was in no fit state to tackle the strongest team around. This year, the only injury was to Thomas Vermaelen. Wojciech Szczesny would start in goal and they were not going to suffer from their own naïvety as their counterparts of the previous year had. The only real change to Barcelona was the switch of David Villa for Zlatan Ibrahimovic - a definite improvement.
Many of Barcelona’s games seem to follow a pattern - the opposition decide they’re going to ‘get in their faces’ and not be ‘pushed around’. This idea seems as though it is paying dividends until the clock reaches the tenth minute, at which point Barcelona become near-impossible to dispossess. From there it’s a slow, painful and demoralising death for the challengers, as the Catalans slowly drain them of their stamina, strength and in some cases, their collective will to live. Their ball retention is the best going, by far, but it was not a destruction à la their last Emirates Stadium encounter. Arsenal had a gameplan and it was working - push Barcelona up the pitch with the high line and aim to play on the counterattack. In rewatching the game, it was plain to see that the back four waited for Barcelona to get past Song and Jack Wilshere and then charged them down. This worked in places, but a high line is always a risk, especially against the forward line of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez.
The Catalans broke past the line of defence three times in the first half. Once it was a sloppy pass by Song that meant, five touches later, Messi was bearing down menacingly on the goal. It was a narrow escape as the little Argentine fired wide. Uncharacteristic, but credit must go to Szczesny, who held his ground and stayed on his feet until just before Messi opened fire. The second time led to a goal. Gaël Clichy was caught behind the line and Villa needed no second chance to exploit the yard of space his poor positioning provided. Villa rarely misses and Szczesny had no chance. Barcelona were now a goal up. It would then have been easy to let them run riot, but it did not shift Arsenal’s game plan. They were broken through a third time but Pedro’s eventual goal was (somewhat luckily) ruled out for offside.
Though this is not to say that Arsenal had no opportunities through the first half. They came closest on a counterattcking move, involving van Persie, Fàbregas and Theo Walcott, with the latter two in something of a role reversal, as Walcott supplied the through ball from the centre circle and Arsenal’s captain sprinting onto it down the right hand side. The pass was slightly overhit, but Fàbregas made it onto the end of it in time to send a cross towards van Persie, which was just headed away by Abidal. Walcott came close in the early stages, while van Persie was unlucky with one effort and foolish with another, taking too much time before shooting and allowing Gerard Piqué to recover and force his shot wide.
By the half it was 1-0 to the Catalans, but it was not all doom and gloom on the terraces. There was a cautious optimism amongst the Arsenal faithful. They were only a goal away and we were posing an attacking threat. All was most certainly not lost. Indeed, as the second half began, the home crowd were in full voice, as they had been through the first half, and would continue to be through the second. In its short life, the Emirates Stadium had never experienced such a raucous atmosphere, or anything approaching it. It was a relief, in some ways - if the rest of the crowd would not sing and shout on this, of all occasions, then they would never do so. The second 45 were slightly more open than the first had been, with there being a more potent flow to the games of both sides. All the while the Londoners were looking more and more likely to get a goal, but the threat of Barcelona was always a looming shadow, lurking in the background after every missed attempt on goal.
Credit here must go to Laurent Koscielny. He almost marked Messi out of the game and on one particular Barcelona attack, Pedro was clean through behind the line of defence until Koscielny miraculously managed to disposes him without bringing him down. It was a game that showed all his good qualities as a defender, and though he was liable at the Carling Cup final just two weeks on, it left me completely convinced of his abilities. As the game went back on forth, it was plain to see that it would not end 1-0 to Barcelona, but it could so easily have gone either way. On 78 minutes, Clichy produced a nice bit of improvisation, chipping the ball to the waiting van Persie in the area; what followed was spectacular. With Nicklas Bendtner arriving in the area, everyone assumed that the Dutchman’s next move would be to play to ball towards the big Dane, even Victor Valdes. Spying a football-sized gap between ‘keeper and post, van Persie opened fire. From the other end of the ground, where I was sat, we saw the ball disappear behind the figure of Valdes, then re-appear in the now rustling net.
The best thing about watching and rewatching clips of the goal is that as the television coverage shows the replays, the crowd are seeing them at the same time, and as the ball sneaks through that minute gap between Valdes and the upright, there is a clearly audible collective intake of breath. Many, myself included, initially thought there may have been an element of luck about the goal, but it’s clear to see van Persie knew exactly what he was doing. Now there was the belief that we could actually win this. We didn’t have long to wait for the second.
It was another example of the end-to-end nature of the match. Barcelona were on the attack, then Koscielny made the tackle, Bendtner played it short to Jack Wilshere - another who played fantastically - who played it short to Fàbregas, then two touches later, Samir Nasri was flying down the right hand side. As he slowed up, it looked as though the chance my have alluded him. The ball in looked misplaced, as it was behind the onrushing van Persie, but Nasri clearly saw more than we did. The ball fell to Arshavin and within a second the ball was again in the back of Valdes’s net. Delight. The Emirates had never felt that level of jubilation - truly that stadium’s finest hour (so far).
Barça would continue to attack and despite the natural tendency, as Arsenal fans, to panic, there was a feeling that we knew we had won, and even as they spent the last 5 minutes camped in the penalty area, we knew the victory was ours. Wilshere and Koscielny were the outstanding performers on a night no one in the ground will soon forget. I still have the flags that were given to us on display in my room; despite the injustice that was the second leg (Bussacca, you cheating swine*), you can’t ever take away from the joy, jubilation and sense of triumph that came with reigning victorious over this Barcelona. I returned from the game hoarse and emotionally and physically drained and with a sixth form interview the following day, but that did not stop me from rewatching and reliving the last 90 minutes again. Unforgettable evening.
In almost 10 years of going to matches, I’ve seen the Arsenal lose and draw a number of times, but I’ve never seen them so thoroughly outplayed and destroyed as when they met Barcelona in March 2010; and yet they still came away from the game with a draw.
It was the two teams’ first meeting since the 2006 Champions League Final and the game marked the first reunion of Thierry Henry with his former club. There was much hype surrounding the game, as the two teams involved are generally considered to play the two most aesthetically pleasing styles of game in Europe, and that any watcher was to witness a spectacle of how football is played.
Those in search of majestic football were not to be disappointed, but (for the first half hour at least) those in search of a level contest would be. Barcelona ripped shreds from Arsenal and from a fan’s perspective, I’ve rarely seen football that good since Arsenal’s “Invincibles” of the 2003/2004 campaign - but more on them later. Barcelona began the onslaught as early as a minute in, when they earned a corner, the result of which was Sergio Busquets slamming an effort against the post. I was placed behind Victor Valdes’s first half goal, and I would not see the ball anywhere close to me for half an hour. Only the performance of a lifetime from Manuel Almunia had kept Arsenal from being annihilated.
Eventually, Arsenal strode forward, and came close themselves with a Samir Nasri effort drifting past Valdes’s left-hand post. Half time came as welcome relief, but Arsène Wenger’s gambles to rush William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin back from injury had backfired, as both were taken off before the half’s end. The teams re-entered for Act II and the Catalans continued their first half rampage. Gerard Pique, in possession on the half-way line, spotted that Thomas Vermaelen had been drawn forward by the ever-present threat of Lionel Messi, and as makeshift centre-half Alex Song had left Zlatan Ibrahimovic open, the Spanish defender sent the ball over to the free Swede, who took full advantage of Almunia’s indecision as to whether to commit to the loose ball by lobbing it over the dithering Spaniard’s head.
Barcelona’s second came in very similar fashion. Vermaelen caught away from the defensive line and Song did not get tight to Ibrahimovic, but this time, Ibrahimovic exploited an opening at Manuel Almunia’s near post. Arsenal looked finished. There looked to be no hope for them, and many thoughts were directed to how many more were to be conceded. With things the way they were, Barça looked unplayable.
6 minutes after Barcelona’s second, Theo Walcott was introduced to proceedings. Then Arsenal began to attack, and he had got the better of Maxwell twice already, and Arsenal suddenly began to look dangerous. Nasri knocked a pass to Bendtner, who held up the ball for a few seconds before sliding the ball through to Walcott. It was a golden opportunity for Arsenal, and if there was any hope of a comeback, it would have to be taken. Walcott’s effort was poor, but it escaped under the body of Valdes and into the net. There was a renewed belief about the Arsenal players, but even moreso amongst the fans. The atmosphere had started as electric, but as the goals went in, the crowd became more deflated, but when Walcott’s effort hit the net, the Arsenal faithful regained a hope that was all but lost after they fell two goals behind.
Away from the actual play, the moment for which so many of the Arsenal fans had been waiting arrived 77 minutes in. Thierry Henry replaced Ibrahimovic and was awarded a rapturous reception. For 8 incredible years, Henry lit up the red half of North London; he was voted Arsenal’s Greatest Ever by a poll on the club website; he holds Arsenal’s all-time goalscoring record; he was at the forefront of their 2002 double-winning team and the aforementioned ‘Invincibles’ - quite simply, the Frenchman is an Adonis to the Arsenal and for a moment, the intensity of the game simmered as we in the crowd welcomed home a hero of years gone by.
Back to the play, Arsenal looked as though they could achieve what at the hour mark seemed impossible and draw level. At 85 minutes, Eboué played the ball to Walcott down the right-hand side. He delivered a low cross, but it was deflected off Carles Puyol and looped into the air. It arrived on the head of Nicklas Bendtner and his positioning meant that he was unable to make an attempt at goal, but he did incredibly to nod to ball towards Cesc Fàbregas. The former La Masia man arched himself for the shot, but was caught by Puyol. The latter was red-carded and Arsenal had a penalty.
The Arsenal Captain stood against his compatriot Valdes. He was a Barcelona fan growing up, he played for their youth academy with Pique and Messi, amongst others, and now he had the chance to level the scoring for the side who gave him the opportunity to reach his potential as one of the World’s finest creative players. The entire stadium fell silent. Fàbregas stepped up and blasted the ball straight into the Barcelona net. The fans, as a collective, went insane with delight. Even fans on the Upper Tier were jumping and singing - a very rare occurrence.
At this point, everyone looked back to the pitch, and saw the goalscorer Fàbregas limping back to the centre circle. He had broken a bone in his leg in his challenge with Puyol and yet had still picked himself up to score from the spot. Any who questioned the Captain’s commitment to the club were silenced in dramatic fashion. He was to miss the rest of the season which, it can be argued, scuppered Arsenal’s then strong title challenge.
I have since re-watched the game and still found myself aghast at the sight of such an incredible footballing spectacle. The football played early on by Barcelona was extraordinary, but even moreso was the spirit shown by Arsenal, after being pummelled for the majority by Barcelona, to come back and gain a draw; topped off by Thierry Henry’s return home, it really was a brilliant night of football.
It was a warm May night in Highbury, and Arsenal were already confined to second place and Everton had confirmed their fourth place finish, much to their delight. With Arsenal looking towards their FA Cup Final clash with Manchester United 10 days ahead, it had the potential to be a pointless contest between two teams who had no reason to try.
I’ve seen many excellent Arsenal victories since my first game in 2001, but as someone whose favourite player is Dennis Bergkamp, this one held a special significance. Bergkamp was simply fantastic. One day after his 36th birthday, he was at his creative best and was the artist of the entire affair. At risk of including a cliché, ‘the non-flying Dutchman’ had the Midas touch throughout the evening and produced the kind of performance that leads many Arsenal fans to call him their Greatest ever servant.
The scoring was opened by Robin van Persie, who was sent through by ‘the Iceman’. The second goal also emanated from a stunning Bergkamp through ball. He sent the ball straight down the left wing to José Antonio Reyes, who sent the ball into the box to Robert Pires. Pires’s effort was blocked by former Arsenal goalkeeper Richard Wright, but the Frenchman duly converted the rebound with a header. A stunning passage of one-touch football lead to Arsenal’s third, with Edu playing the ball to van Persie, who knocked it back to Bergkamp, who sent a chipped ball over to Patrick Vieira to slotted home in calm fashion. A fitting goal, as it would be Vieira’s final game at Highbury and after 8 wonderful years at Arsenal - in which he won two Premier League titles and four FA Cups (though he had only won 3 at this point) - it was a nice note on which to depart the club which had been his home since 1997.
In the second half, Thierry Henry arrived on the scene to heap further misery onto Everton. Unsurprisingly, Dennis Bergkamp was heavily involved in the fourth goal as well. The man the Arsenal fans call “God” was in possession on the right-hand side, before slotting a pass through to Henry. Henry dribbled away from the goal, until he surprised everyone by sending a beautiful backheel through to Pires, who made no mistake. Arsenal then won a penalty, and before the game, Edu had announced that as his contract was coming to an end, he would be leaving Arsenal. Although Pires was on a hat trick, the ball was handed to the Brazilian and he managed to convert in his final game at Highbury.
Bergkamp finally got his very well deserved goal on 77 minutes. It was by no means a typical Bergkamp goal, with a lucky bounced aiding his cause but a highly uncharacteristic poor first touch made it look as though the chance had gone begging, but Bergkamp regained control and the Captain (he was given the armband after Vieira was substituted) sent the ball into the goal. The seventh was a first Arsenal goal for Mathieu Flamini, rounding off a near-perfect night for Arsenal and the Highbury faithful.
It was the combination of Bergkamp’s imperious performance and the significant winning margin that stood forth as my main reasons for my grand enjoyment of the match, but there was so much about the performance for both the Arsenal supporters and the neutrals to enjoy. Arsenal gave Everton a lesson in how to play football, and Bergkamp displayed so many elements of his genius in one game in the twilight of his career, but on a personal level, seeing Patrick Vieira for the final time in the flesh, until April 2010 when he returned with Manchester City (discounting his return with Juventus in 2006 as I did not attend the match) was something to remember and watching the camaraderie within the side and the heart-warming gesture of the players handing the ball to Edu so he could score on his final home game brings back pleasant memories.