By Richard Clarke
Sometimes fairy tales happen.
On an afternoon of excruciating tension and almost unending drama, Arsenal secured the fourth and final Champions League place in the last ever game at Highbury.
Robert Pires put the Arsène Wenger's side ahead in the early stages of this game but Wigan did their best to silence the home crowd with strikes from Paul Scharner and David Thompson.
All the while anxious ears were pressed to radios in search of the score from Upton Park. West Ham struck early but Spurs, starting the day in fourth, were level by the break. As were Arsenal after Thierry Henry eased home an equaliser.
Soon after the restart news filtered round that Teddy Sheringham had missed a penalty at Upton Park. Almost straight away, Henry profited from an error from Thompson and edged Arsenal's nose in front once more - in the table and the game.
The captain completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot with 14 minutes left and kissed the Highbury turf in celebration. The rest of the crowd joined in a few minutes later when news of West Ham's second goal.
The final minutes were a blur of joy, excitement, tension and fear. It all built up to an overflowing of emotion at the final whistle.
The 2010th and final game at this wonderful old ground had surely been one of the most dramatic.
There was a party atmosphere around Highbury in the hours before kick-off and when the players emerged from the tunnel they were met by a stadium bedecked in red and white. Each supporter had found a commemorative T-shirt on their seat and, as requested, would wear them all afternoon. It made for a red-and-white "bar scarf" effect around the ground. Except for the small band of Wigan supporters in the South Stand, who had been given blue T-shirts for the day.
There was going to be a party this afternoon whatever happened. But perhaps the songs would be slightly muted if Arsenal were to finish below their old rivals in the Premiership and have next season's Champions League chance dependant on beating Barcelona in the Final next month.
The side chosen by Wenger showed three changes from the one that had beaten Manchester City on Thursday. Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Hleb and Pires came in for Alex Song, Freddie Ljungberg and Robin van Persie.
As you might have predicted the atmosphere drove Arsenal forward straight from kick-off. In the sixth minute, Reyes sprinted clear on the left and crossed low to the edge of the box for Henry. The captain's shot was hard and goalwards. Unfortunately it was blocked.
However the respite would be short. In the eighth minute, Fabregas returned a cleared corner back into the area, Sol Campbell nodded down and Pires scored from close range at the second attempt. Highbury exploded in emotion.
Seconds later news filtered around Highbury that West Ham were leading Tottenham.
Seconds after that Wigan equalised.
Emmanuel Eboue fouled Lee McCulloch on the left flank and Thompson's free-kick was touched home at the near post by the unmarked Scharner. Perhaps for the first time this afternoon the home crowd realised they had a tough Premiership game on their hands.
In keeping with the rest of their season, Wigan had not come to Highbury to roll over. They continued to stretch the Arsenal defence with their strong-running forward play allied to a decent work ethic.
However Arsenal had equal energy and were certainly more incisive as illustrated when Pires went clear from Reyes deft through ball and shoot high into the sidenetting.
Gradually you thought the home side were reeling in the visitors like a lively fish in a river bank.
However, in the 32nd minute, there were renewed signs that this one might get away.
Thompson took another free-kick from the left but this time decided not to float the ball into the area and instead fired it into the near post. The shot has too much pace for Lehmann, who had positioned himself on the far side of the goal. It was possibly the only way you could have brought some hush to Highbury this afternoon.
However two minutes later, parity was restored when Henry strode forward on to a through ball by Pires and tucked the ball past Wigan keeper Mike Pollitt.
We knew it would be a highly emotional afternoon but it now seemed like it was going to be equally dramatic.
A fact amply illustrated when news of Tottenham's equaliser rippled around the ground.
Eboue and Pires had chances to haul Arsenal back in front by the break but the home side went into half time out of the Champions League places.
West Ham might have changed that equation straight after half time but Teddy Sheringham missed a penalty at Upton Park - an event met by a half-roar at Highbury.
In the 58th minute Arsenal took matters into their own hands when Henry intercepted an inexplicably slack back pass by Thompson, skipped past Pollitt and tapped the ball into the empty net.
Arsenal might have made the points secure in the 63rd minute Pollitt pulled off a fine save after Pires had set up Fabregas for a close range header.
The perfect opportunity came with 16 minutes left after Freddie Ljungberg, who has just come off the bench, was hauled down by Andreas Johansson. The Swede, a substitute himself, was sent off and Henry stroked home from the spot. He knelt down and kissed the Highbury turf in celebration of his hat-trick.
West Ham's second goal seemed to have all but secured fourth place and the party really started to begin inside Highbury.
Substitute Dennis Bergkamp, on his final game for Arsenal, nearly chipped in a sentimental goal and Gilberto nearly skipped around the keeper in the final stages.
But really all eyes were referee Uriah Rennie. When he blew his whistle for the final time the famous old clock on the South Stand read 4.54pm.
Thanks for the help West Ham, and thanks for the memories Highbury.
- Hleb 78
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- Pires 73 Goal!
- Reyes 78
- Henry Goal! Goal! Goal!
- Ljungberg 73
- Bergkamp 78
- Persie 78
- Jackson Yellow Card
- Scharner Goal!
- Camara 82
- Thompson 73 Goal!
- Ziegler 66
- Johansson 73 Red Card
- Francis 66
- Connolly 82