Classic Encounters v. Wigan Athletic
When ruminating over classic encounters at home to Wigan, there really is only one choice if you`re an Arsenal fan. The two clubs have in fact met on less than ten occasions. Wigan fans will point to one of the greatest nights in their club`s history taking place at Highbury, when Jason Roberts last minute extra time goal in the Carling Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg put Wigan through to their first major domestic final. (Not that I`m dismissing their 1999 Auto Windscreens Final win over Millwall you understand). Last season saw a tense, nervy encounter decided by the sheer will of William Gallas, with Gilberto, Flamini and Fabregas all unavailable. The season before, Phil Dowd tried his best to completely destroy an absorbing encounter. Denny Landzaat`s goal of the season contender put Wigan ahead before an Emmerson Boyce own goal and a late Tomas Rosicky (remember him?) header gave Arsenal the points.
However, where home matches against Wigan are concerned, even if we had played them a million times before, there was only ever going to be one worth recounting. A date and match that is sewn into the chest of my redcurrant home shirt. 7th May, 2006, The Final Salute. The match was significant for a plethora of reasons. The most prominent of which for the purposes of history and sentiment, was that this was the final ever competitive match played at Arsenal Stadium. (The ground`s official name, Highbury has never been its official moniker). The club had put on a number of themed days for every home game of the final season at Highbury and even reverted to the 1913 redcurrant kit. But I don`t think the enormity or the reality of leaving the old place dawned on any of us until that day. Sentiment is not usually my bag, but I must confess to arriving at the ground for around 11am just to do one last circuit of the place and get some photos. (Those of you with access to my facebook profile will be able to see them). The old art deco signage of the West Stand, untarnished since the 1950s, the terraced houses surrounding the turnstiles, the iconic façade of the East Stand and the Marble Halls. But my favourite shot would have to be once I had made my way to the top of Avenell Road, adjacent to the Clock End entrance, my place of residence for the final six years at Highbury. The shot was taken some three and a half hours before kick off, at the threshold of Avenell Road as it gives way to Highbury Hill. From the top of the hill was a brilliant sea of redcurrant bodies swarming around. To gain admittance to any of the surrounding areas of the stadium, one had to show their match ticket. I would estimate there were around 10,000 people on that road, all of whom had to be either residents or ticket holders. A short walk to Highbury Hill just on the corner, some fifteen yards away from the Clock End turnstiles, and the Emirates Stadium was visible ahead, our glorious future winking at us from spitting distance.
There were of course other factors to make the day special. The Gunners were limbering up for their first ever European Cup Final in Paris ten days later. Having beaten Sunderland and Manchester City away in the preceding midweek, the Gunners were one point behind Tottenham Hotspur in the quest for fourth place. Spurs had put themselves eight points ahead the previous Sunday with a victory over Bolton Wanderers, leaving Arsenal needing to win their final three games and relying on West Ham to prevent Spurs from winning at Upton Park, or else Tottenham would finish fourth and qualify for a Champions League spot. A further tantalising twist being of course, that if Arsenal were to finish behind Spurs and win the European Cup, they would automatically eject their North London neighbours from the competition. With all of the prospective outcomes multiplied with the emotion of the occasion, the only thing that was certain was that there would be tears before tea time.
Once I had finished my photographical sojourn, I headed for the Arsenal Tavern. I vaguely overheard somebody on their mobile telephone on St. Thomas` Road say "they`re trying to get the match abandoned." I thought he meant our match. I arrived in the Tavern to see Sky Sports News banners blaring that Tottenham were trying to postpone their match at Upton Park due to half of their squad going down with food poisoning in the night. Our eyes clung anxiously to Jeff Stelling for the final judgement. "The match at Upton Park will go ahead" he growled. A huge cheer went up, by trying so hard to cancel the match; one could sense that Tottenham and Levy had surrendered a massive psychological advantage. Later Tottenham would fraudulently claim that their pre match lasagne was deliberately tainted (cue field day for adobe photoshop experts); tests later proved the bout of sickness in the squad was due to "winter vomiting disease." This is bought about by poor hygiene standards and can be common in offices. In short, Spurs` players were none too rigorous with the soap post defecation.
The grey skies gave way to sunshine as the match kicked off and our afternoon started perfectly. The club had laid out red and white tee shirts, alternating between blocks to make Highbury a sea of colour. In Block 19 of the Clock End, we had red tee shirts (mine still remains in my Highbury keep safe box to this day, together with every match day programme and my season ticket book from that season). Away to my left, Wigan fans were given blue tee shirts to match their team colours- a touch of class from the Arse. (Though it soon became apparent that most of the away end was populated by Arsenal fans anyway. I would chance there were some rich Wigan fans watching the game in North London pubs that afternoon). The game started exceptionally, Campbell nodded on Henry`s right wing free kick, Pollitt beat it out, but Robert Pires was on hand to tuck the rebound into the back of the net. It would prove to be his last goal for the club. Sixty seconds later, another huge roar went up around Highbury as it became apparent that Karl Fletcher had put West Ham 1-0 ahead at Upton Park. But the cheers proved to be enormously counter productive, causing the team to lose concentration from a Thompson free kick, as Paul Scharner was left unchecked to head home on the front post.
Arsenal lost concentration again a few minutes later, Lehmann drifted away from his near post as David Thompson lined up a free kick thirty five yards from goal. He cunningly steered the ball towards the unguarded post to give Wigan an unlikely lead. Some two minutes after that, Jermain Defoe equalised for Tottenham, it was all going horribly wrong. But Thierry Henry was in no mood to watch this special day give way to sombre reflection. Pires fed him a perfectly weighted through ball, and Henry sauntered through on goal and slotted home the equaliser. The last goal ever registered in front of the Clock End Highbury, where I had sat for every game since 2000. Half time arrived in we were firmly entrenched in fifth place. But details had become clearer to us that most of the Spurs side were battling the effects of food poisoning, optimism remained high as we contemplated the last 45 minutes of action in our beloved home.
In the second half, the Gunners looked to play the game and not the occasion, though the crowd made this increasingly difficult. West Ham were awarded a penalty midway through the second half and a massive cheer again transmitted through Highbury. The players would have thought West Ham had scored; most of the crowd did too. But Teddy Sheringham, arch Arsenal hater and Tottenham icon would turn in one of the weakest penalties of his career, tamely placing the ball straight at the vast, vast frame of Paul Robinson. His integrity will forever be under question. Fortunately, the players` nerves were less frayed than the supporters. Leighton Baines woefully under hit a back pass, Steven Gerrard style, straight into the path of the lurking Henry. The enigmatic Frenchman sauntered past Pollitt and took an age to slide the ball into the empty net. Word from East London was that Spurs were clinging on in the face of an Irons` onslaught. Not the first time West Ham have upset the apple cart for a visiting side on the last day of the season. Alex Ferguson referred to them as "obscene" when they dug out a 1-1 draw with United in May 1995 which denied them the title. Freddie Ljungberg arrived from the bench and immediately latched onto Campbell`s hooked through ball; Johansson hauled him down in the area. Penalty and red card.
Thierry Henry was awarded the chance to hit a hat trick in the ground he had called "his garden" the previous November. The captain and record goalscorer consummately buried the penalty and claimed the hat trick. Henry always had a keen understanding of the significance of the moment to the supporters, from his eighty yard run to the Spurs fans in 2002, to the finger wagging "we`re not finished yet" at the Middlesbrough supporters during Arsenal`s enthralling 5-3 fight back. Henry once again demonstrated his acute understanding of the iconoclasm of his moment when he kneeled to the ground and kissed the turf. Very romantic, very French, very Henry. Symbolism would once again take over, as sentiment slayed logic for the final time. Dennis Bergkamp was being acclaimed by the Highbury crowd for his final ever appearance in an Arsenal shirt, just as he entered the arena for the final time, news filtered through that Yossi Benayoun had put West Ham 2-1 ahead with nine minutes to go. There is a wonderful picture of Henry, again appreciating the nuances of the crowd, holding up his fingers inquisitively to ask the crowd if the score was in fact 2-1. As someone confirms it to him, he breaks out into a broad smile. "It`s all smiles, everything`s going Arsenal`s way" said Brian Marwood in the commentary box. Retrospectively, I would see television pictures of Charlie George and Ian Wright acclaiming West Ham`s goal with all the decorum and neutrality you would expect from those seated in the Director`s Box.
The final whistle sounded and the players huddled in celebration, the party could really begin in earnest now. (Not before a few choruses of "Tottenham shat themselves" and "We`re Forever Blowing Bubbles.") A parade of ex players circled the pitch (I sat in the Fourth Row at the time, I have a wonderful picture of Ian Wright looking as shy and retiring as you would expect). Roger Daltrey came on to perform a specially written song, which if I'm honest, stink the place out. Thierry Henry took to a plateau to collect his Golden Boot with the crowd chanting "sign him up" in reaction to his ongoing contractual speculation. The countdown and complimentary fireworks wound down the clock on Highbury, some filtered out to nearby pubs and restaurants to acclaim an emotional day. I stayed put for something approaching an hour after the countdown clock had displayed its final digits. I chatted with fellow Clock Enders, perched on the barrier I had called my second home since adolescence. Those of us that did remain behind in the South Stand were given one final treat as the players emerged from the tunnel, showered and changed, to walk past us into the South West corner of the stadium to get to their coach. It gave the thirty or so stragglers the opportunity to personally say goodbye to Dennis Bergkamp. When I finally did leave, I counted forty three other bodies scattered around the stadium, so I was the 44th last person to leave Highbury that day, stewards not included. Lord knows how long the last man stayed standing. As we made our way to Highbury and Islington station, there was one final piece of sentimental gold dust, we walked past Liam Brady on Aberdeen Road as he climbed into his (illegally parked) silver BMW. A casual "alright Liam?" was all we could really muster. The last player I saw inside Highbury was Dennis Bergkamp; the last player I saw outside was Liam Brady. History does not come any more enthralling, symbolic or Technicolor than that.LD.