By Brett Chase
We've all seen it a million times: a careless pass is pounced upon by Thierry Henry, who begins a slaloming run, creates space in the box, and coolly finishes past a helpless goalkeeper.
After all, having scored 229 goals for Arsenal, this sort of thing has been witnessed first-hand by countless Gooners throughout the years, in London, all over England, and in quite a few stadiums around Europe.
Alas, for the typical American Arsenal supporter, this was not a terribly common personal experience. On television, certainly, and perhaps on the internet, most of us down the years have seen Thierry work this magic for Arsenal. Yet having Henry playing for New York Red Bulls has given Arsenal fans here in America an opportunity to experience up close just what made Henry the King of Highbury and inspired a statue in his honor outside of the Emirates.
This past Sunday [March 25], nearly 700 Arsenal supporters came to watch the King in his new court - the beautiful Red Bull Arena - to be in his presence and to get a glimpse of Gunner royalty.
On Sunday morning, the NYC Arsenal Supporters' home pub was packed with Gooners from the area and from further afield, getting to know one another over drinks while reminiscing about Arsenal and talking excitedly about the event that day. From there, trains, two chartered buses and many cars carried Arsenal fans to Red Bull Arena, singing Arsenal songs all the way.
We packed the upper tier behind one goal. It didn't take long until we burst into song again. Henry scored in the third minute, capitalizing on an errant pass and a couple of feet of space to finish. Three minutes later, Thierry turned provider, setting up a second goal with an inch-perfect pass into the path of team-mate Kenny Cooper, who finished well. We were once again elated. Thierry Henry's name was ringing in the rafters while Colorado Rapids, the unfortunate opposition on the day, were left simply shaking their heads.
And the living legend was not done there. Early in the second half, his impeccably-timed run allowed him to latch onto a long pass from a free kick, beat the defenders and slot across goal for his second of the match. The finish was eerily similar to the matchwinner against Leeds United this season. The Arsenal fans - and the Red Bull fans, naturally - were in ecstasy.
Henry brought us to our feet once again near the end regulation with a twisting, turning run and a shot that was denied by the Colorado keeper. Henry didn't get his hat-trick, but he did delight all in attendance (apart from the opposing defenders) with a display of sublime skill. And in a few instances, he turned back the clock to show flashes of his famous pace.
After the final whistle, the crowd at large swept out of the stadium and away, and the section of Arsenal supporters moved down behind the goal. After what felt like days of anticipation, the man of the hour emerged from the tunnel to rapturous applause from the assembled Gooners. Back in street clothes, Henry greeted NYC Arsenal Supporters President Kurtis Powers, who was acting as emcee.
Henry appeared comfortable yet excited as he answered questions posed by fans from as near as a mile from the ground to as far as Venezuela, Poland, Kazakhstan, Russia and - of course - London.
His all-time favorite goal for Arsenal? Scoring against Leeds - his "first goal as a fan."
His most influential team-mate? Dennis Bergkamp.
His favorite young player in the world? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Many of his answers played to the crowd a bit, but the Arsenal-legend-turned-Arsenal-fan can hardly be faulted for mentioning the club and its players early and often. However, Henry also spoke about the quality of football in America, saying that the MLS will improve not only with a greater influx of Europeans, but also with more top American players going to play in the top leagues in Europe, on loan or permanent moves.
As a footballer, Thierry has accomplished as much as anyone, having played in most of the top leagues in the world. He has won the Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1 titles, the FA Cup and Copa del Rey, the UEFA Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup, the Euros and the World Cup as well as numerous personal awards. Yet in spite of all of this success, he seems to relish his role as an ambassador of the beautiful game in a country where football remains far from the most popular sport.
This event, where he spent two hours of his own time talking with Arsenal fans from New York, America and the rest of the world, showed all of us how much he cares about football in general, about Arsenal in particular, and about Arsenal fans directly. And over the last few years, though unsuccessful in terms of silverware, the number of Arsenal fans in New York and across America has grown in leaps and bounds. The presence of Henry in New York, and his willingness to set aside time for fans such as he has, certainly has impacted that growth in a positive way.
On a personal note, my father, who grew up watching and playing only American sports, accompanied me to the event. He'd only started following Arsenal last year through me, as it seems that Arsenal is the only thing I think about most of the time. Yet even he was mesmerized by Henry during his recent loan spell in North London, and again in person this past weekend.
As we watched Thierry smiling, signing shirts, banners and skin and posing for pictures with fans, my dad turned to me and said, "He's just as cool as I thought he would be."
I don't think I've ever been prouder to be an Arsenal fan.
Brett Chase is the co-founder of the NYC Arsenal SupportersCopyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 2 Apr 2012