228 | The story of Thierry Henry's final Arsenal goal

228

The story of Thierry Henry's final Arsenal goal

Sebastian Larsson head and shoulders shot as young Arsenal player

Sebastian Larsson signed for us as a 16-year-old in 2001

Sebastian Larsson signed for us as a 16-year-old in 2001

Sebastian Larsson in action

In action for the reserves during the 2002/03 season

In action for the reserves during the 2002/03 season

Sebastian Larsson celebrates with Cesc Fabregas and Danny Karbassiyoon

Celebrating with Danny Karbassiyoon and Cesc Fabregas on Seb's first-team debut – a 2-1 League Cup win over Manchester City in 2004/05

Celebrating with Danny Karbassiyoon and Cesc Fabregas on Seb's first-team debut – a 2-1 League Cup win over Manchester City in 2004/05

Sebastian Larsson in pre-season training

Pre-season training with compatriot Freddie Ljungberg in summer 2005

Pre-season training with compatriot Freddie Ljungberg in summer 2005

Seb sets the scene

Thierry Henry scoring a last-minute winner to sign off his Gunners career was a magical moment of great celebration and joy for Arsenal supporters everywhere. Well all except one, maybe.

Sebastian Larsson had grown up at the Arsenal academy, moving from Sweden to join us at the age of 16 in 2001, and remains a big fan of the club to this day. He went on to play 12 times for the first team before leaving for Birmingham City, five years after signing scholarship forms with us.

But on February 11, 2012 Seb was in the opposing team as we travelled to Sunderland, with the returning Henry et al desperate for the three points that would keep us in the fight for Champions League qualifications.

By now 25, Seb was a mainstay at the Stadium of Light, enjoying something of a revival under new manager Martin O’Neil.

“I remember the game very well, and Thierry’s goal of course,” Seb begins, “and all I remember thinking is what a heartbreaker it was for us, so late on.

“You wonder sometimes if something like that is written in the stars though. I remember he was subbed on in the second half, and the goal I can remember clearly. The cross came in and he jumped and stretched to score with his right foot I think.

“Now I look back on it in a different way, but at the time it was tough to take, conceding so late against one of the big teams. But that’s what he did – he scored goals, so for him and the fans it must have been an incredible moment.

“I didn’t get his shirt after the game unfortunately – that would have been a nice one – but as I said, at the time I was just disappointed with the result, so I wasn’t really thinking about that. It’s only afterwards that you reflect on these moments, that are remembered for a long time.”

It had been six years – to the very day in fact - since Seb had last shared a pitch with the Gunners legend. On that occasion the Swedish midfielder was making his final appearance in Arsenal colours, in a 1-1 Premier League draw at home to Bolton Wanderers.

Henry didn’t score for us that day, but he did in the previous match, away to Birmingham, when Seb also played the full 90 minutes, in a game that provided him with one of his most cherished moments from his Gunners career, even if he was used as a makeshift defender.

“That was my first start in the Premier League,” he recalls. “We had a lot of injuries, so I played in defence. But with that squad we had, and at that time of my career, I was just so, so happy to even get a small chance to be on the pitch, and it’s something I’ve always carried with me throughout my career.

Sebastian Larsson in action

Seb on his final Arsenal appearance, on February 11, 2006 - a 1-1 draw at home to Bolton Wanderers

Seb on his final Arsenal appearance, on February 11, 2006 - a 1-1 draw at home to Bolton Wanderers

Sebastian Larsson celebrates with Emmanuel Adebayor, Thierry Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes

Celebrating with the team, in a 2-0 win away to Birmingham City in 2005/06

Celebrating with the team, in a 2-0 win away to Birmingham City in 2005/06

The team celebrate away to Birmingham

Celebrating with the team, in a 2-0 win away to Birmingham in 2005/06

Celebrating with the team, in a 2-0 win away to Birmingham in 2005/06

“So I didn’t feel disappointed or anything that I wasn’t playing in midfield, I was just so happy to be on the pitch anywhere. If I’m not mistaken, we beat Birmingham 2-0 and Thierry scored the second. I still remember that moment so well when he scored – it was an incredible feeling to run up and celebrate with the team. It was surreal for me. I was thinking: ‘OK, this is the Premier League, this is happening, little me from Sweden is involved!’

“It might not have happened many times for me at Arsenal, but I was still there and celebrating with players like Thierry. It was incredible.”

That Seb’s time at Arsenal coincided with one of our most successful periods in our history, didn’t help his cause when looking to breakthrough into senior football. He joined at the start of the 2001/02 season, as part of the same intake of new scholars as Justin Hoyte and current under-18 assistant coach Adam Birchall.

The standard was incredibly high at the time, with players such as Ray Parlour, Alex Song, Mathieu Flamini, Edu, Patrick Vieira, Gilberto and then a young Cesc Fabregas all competing for the central midfield positions.

But these formative years in his career were a huge learning experience, he says, and training as a teenager with the Invincibles squad left an indelible mark on him.

“I remember the first time I trained with Thierry and the rest of the first team players,” he reflects.

“Even before that, I have great memories of being around the team and in the canteen at the training ground. Us boys in the academy were on one side of the building, but it was all open, and being around that team – it was full of big stars.

“It’s hard to describe that feeling, but I remember that being around them, seeing them up close gave us such a boost. So when I first got the opportunity to train with them, my overall feeling was just how incredible it was really. The squad that Arsenal had at the time was just out of this world. In every position there was a star player – it was an eye-opener.

“Whenever I’m asked about training with the Invincibles, I always say that Thierry is the one who stood out, even among that group.  He was extremely professional, but it was almost as if he had this extra switch and when he wanted to, he just took control of everything.

Seb Larsson tries to tackle Thierry Henry during training

Tracking Thierry Henry in training in January 2005

Tracking Thierry Henry in training in January 2005

Seb Larsson celebrates with Robin van Persie

Congratulating Robin van Persie on his goal against Norwich City, for the reserve side late in 2004/05

Congratulating Robin van Persie on his goal against Norwich City, for the reserve side late in 2004/05

Arsenal players take a break from training in pre-season

Part of the first-team pre-season training camp in July 2005

Part of the first-team pre-season training camp in July 2005

Seb Larsson celebrates his goal with Robert Pires and David Bentley

Celebrating his only goal for the Arsenal first-team, in a pre-season friendly against SC Ritzing in July 2005

Celebrating his only goal for the Arsenal first-team, in a pre-season friendly against SC Ritzing in July 2005

Seb Larsson and JOse Antonio Reyes in training

Up against Jose Antonio Reyes during a training session in 2005/06

Up against Jose Antonio Reyes during a training session in 2005/06

"It was an incredible feeling to run up and celebrate with the team. It was surreal"
Seb Larsson on celebrating Thierry Henry's goal against Birmingham in February 2006

“If he decided it was his moment, then that was it. It might sound silly explaining it that way, but it’s a clear memory I’ve got from that time. He could always go to that next level, where other players were extremely good, but he had one more gear. I remember it so well – he did what he wanted to do in games at times! I was young too, so maybe I hadn’t seen that level before, but he was so strong, fast, technical – he had everything, nothing was lacking.

“He's one of those guys that I’m lucky enough to have seen up close.”

Seb made his one and only Champions League group stage appearance for us before he’d featured in the Premier League – playing the whole 90 minutes at home to Ajax in early December 2005. It was the first time he’d shared a pitch with Thierry, who was also his captain that day.

“That was a big moment for me. I don’t remember him saying anything specific to me before the game, but what I do remember is how as captain he made everyone feel comfortable and relaxed and allowed you to go and express yourself. Stepping up to the first team at that age, you can feel uneasy about playing with players like that, but he never made you feel that at all.

“He made me feel at ease, as much as that was possible, because it was impossible for me to feel calm that day!”

That group stage match finished 0-0 at Highbury, with Seb playing alongside Alex Hleb and Flamini in midfield. It would be another 14 years before he appeared in the Champions League again, with Swedish side AIK Solna in the qualifiers in 2019.

He went on to make three Premier League appearances for us before leaving for Birmingham – initially on loan – at the end of our final season at Highbury, in 2006.

The team line up ahead of the Champions League match against Ajax at Highbury

Seb lines up with the team for our Champions League clash against Ajax at Highbury in December 2005

Seb lines up with the team for our Champions League clash against Ajax at Highbury in December 2005

Seb Larsson chases the ball

In Champions League action at Highbury

In Champions League action at Highbury

The teams shake hands before the match

Taking on Arsenal at the Emirates, for Sunderland in 2011/12

Taking on Arsenal at the Emirates, for Sunderland in 2011/12

Sebastian Larsson takes a free-kick

Seb curls home a superb free-kick for Sunderland at Emirates Stadium on October 16, 2011

Seb curls home a superb free-kick for Sunderland at Emirates Stadium on October 16, 2011

Seb Larsson's free-kick beats the defensive wall

Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker in the wall as the ball heads towards Wojciech Szczesny's net

Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker in the wall as the ball heads towards Wojciech Szczesny's net

Seb Larsson celebrates his goal

Muted celebrations from the ex-Gunner!

Muted celebrations from the ex-Gunner!

He enjoyed five successful seasons with the Blues, making more than 200 appearances, and winning the 2011 Carling Cup (beating Arsenal in the final). He then joined Sunderland, where again he was a mainstay of the midfield, enjoying six seasons in the Premier League, scoring on his debut against Liverpool before going on to make over 200 appearances in all competitions.

One of his highlights during his time at the Black Cats, was scoring against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in his first season.

“I’d been trying to make the best possible career for myself,” says Seb, who remains the third-highest capped player in Sweden history – ahead of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with 133 appearances. "And getting those chances at Arsenal helped me massively of course.

“Then coming back and scoring against us was a special moment. It was one of my better free-kicks too, but I’ve got massive respect for the club, and I’m a big Arsenal supporter even today, so it wasn’t a time for me to over-celebrate.

“Even though I understand that most supporters wouldn’t have cared too much if I had, it just felt like the right thing to do for me at the time. Robin van Persie ruined it for me anyway but getting the winner late on!

“But yes I’m still an Arsenal supporter – even more so now than ever,” explains Seb, who retired from playing just over a year ago, and took his coaching qualifications during 2023. “I follow them every game, and my family as well. I’ve got two daughters and we’ve been over from Sweden to watch them. We went into the dressing room after one of the games too, met the players, and that was an awesome experience, especially for my kids.

“So it’s always nice to remember those memories of my time playing there.”

"I follow them every game, and my family as well. I’ve got two daughters and we’ve been over from Sweden to watch them"
The Larsson family in the Emirates Stadium dressing room earlier this season
Thierry Henry in home kit

Thierry Henry returns to Arsenal. January 6, 2012

Thierry Henry returns to Arsenal. January 6, 2012

Thierry Henry poses in Arsenal kit

Back in Arsenal colours, four and a half years after leaving for Barcelona

Back in Arsenal colours, four and a half years after leaving for Barcelona

Thierry Henry in an Arsenal scarf at Emirates Stadium

Back in London in 2011 for the unveiling of his statue

Back in London in 2011 for the unveiling of his statue

The return of the King

So although Seb may still have mixed emotions recalling Thierry’s 228th and final goal for us, it remains a red-letter day in our history, and the culmination of an extraordinary Gunners career.

“I am not coming here to be a hero or prove anything. I am just coming here to help.” Those were Thierry’s words when he made his spectacular return to the club, on loan, in January 2012 – four and a half years after leaving.

But not for the first time, he surpassed those expectations – adding another, unforgettable final chapter to his Arsenal story during his comeback.

His epilogue opened with that emotion-fuelled winner against Leeds United at Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup third round. That dramatic moment alone was enough to justify his comeback to the club – at the age of 34 – for one last hurrah. But he wasn’t finished there.

But first some context surrounding Thierry’s high-profile return to north London that 2012 winter. The striker had left the club at the end of the 2006/07 season – our first at Emirates Stadium – to join Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona.

Although mainly playing on the wing, he top-scored for Barcelona in his debut season, with 19 goals in all competitions. The following year he really showed his class though. In Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge, he scored 26 goals in all competitions, winning the treble of La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League in the process.

His influence began to wane in his third and final season at the Catalan club, though he helped them retain the league title, as well as win the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup – starting both finals. In July 2010 he signed for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and was their top scorer in the 2011 season.

He kept a close relationship with Arsenal throughout his time in America. With the MLS campaign running from March to November, he maintained his fitness in the off season by training with Arsenal at London Colney, first in January 2011.

A few months later he was in meaningful action in north London, captaining his Red Bulls side to silverware in the 2011 Emirates Cup. Then, at the end of that year, he was back in north London, for the unveiling of his statue on the podium.

In January of 2012 he was back to train with us, as he did the previous year, but this time was different.

With Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho both called up for the Africa Cup of Nations, Arsène Wenger was suddenly short of attacking options. Robin van Persie was the undisputed focal point of our attack, with Theo Walcott supporting from the wing, but beyond that the manager’s pool of forwards was limited to the largely untested Park Chu-Young.

So on January 6, 2012, following plenty of speculation, we officially announced the return of the King.  

“We will have Thierry for January and February, then he will go back to the United States,” Wenger said, explaining the short-term loan deal.

"During these two months he will be a massive asset to the team in the dressing room and on the pitch. He can be relaxed, not under too much pressure and be a tremendous help to the team."

For the man himself, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. "I always said I was never going to come back and play in Europe again but, when the team you love and support asks you back, it's kind of hard to say no.

"Even if it is just five seconds, one second, or just talking in the dressing room, I will give my best whatever it is."

Within three days of joining, he had scored the only goal in our FA Cup meeting with Leeds, and it was a pure Thierry Henry classic, rolling back the years with a right-foot finish low into the corner, after sprinting onto Alex Song’s pass from the inside left position, and opening his body up to arc his shot past the diving keeper, inside the far post.

Thierry Henry with training mannequins

Back on the training pitches at London Colney

Back on the training pitches at London Colney

Thierry Henry strikes the ball in training

Training with Andrey Arshavin

Training with Andrey Arshavin

Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry exchange pennants pre-match

Back in north London with New York Red Bulls for the Emirates Cup

Back in north London with New York Red Bulls for the Emirates Cup

Thierry Henrymeets the fans at Emirates Stadium

Reunited with the Arsenal supporters

Reunited with the Arsenal supporters

Thierry Henry and Arsene Wenger in training

Arsene Wenger can't hide his joy at having Thierry by his side again

Arsene Wenger can't hide his joy at having Thierry by his side again

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Thierry Henry celebrates his comeback goal against Leeds

Thierry celebrates his comeback goal against Leeds

Thierry celebrates his comeback goal against Leeds

Thierry Henry's goal against Leeds United from an elevated position

A classic Henry finish to beat Leeds United in the 2012 FA Cup third round

A classic Henry finish to beat Leeds United in the 2012 FA Cup third round

Thierry Henry celebrates scoring against Blackburn

Celebrating a goal that was later given as an own goal, against Blackburn Rovers

Celebrating a goal that was later given as an own goal, against Blackburn Rovers

Thierry Henry shoots low into the corner

A perfect finish from the Frenchman to start his second spell with us

A perfect finish from the Frenchman to start his second spell with us

Mikel Arteta and Thierry Henry walk out to training

Back training with Mikel Arteta and the team in 2012

Back training with Mikel Arteta and the team in 2012

Thierry Henry with his statue at the unveiling in 2011

Thierry with his statue at the unveiling in 2011

Thierry with his statue at the unveiling in 2011

Thierry henry and Theo Walcott smiling in training

Sharing a smile with the new No. 14, Theo Walcott

Sharing a smile with the new No. 14, Theo Walcott

Thierry Henry scores against Blackburn, via a deflection

For a while, this was goal 228

For a while, this was goal 228

A goal 1,834 days in the making

That goal against Leeds had served to send expectation levels soaring. Thierry was used as a second-half sub in each of our next four matches, but didn’t find the net, as we returned a mixed bag of results. We lost 3-2 at Swansea, came back to beat Aston Villa 3-2 at home in the FA Cup fourth round, then drew 0-0 away to Bolton. We roared back to form at home to Blackburn, racking up a 7-1 victory in the league to stay in touch with the top four.

For a while, Thierry thought he had scored goal number 228 in that match. He came on as a sub in the second-half, with the score at 6-1, and in injury-time, he made it seven. After pouncing on a loose pass in the centre circle he raced forward, swapped passes with Robin van Persie, and beat Paul Robinson via the aid of a Scott Dann deflection. He was widely credited with the goal at the time, but this was well before the days of Fantasy Premier League, so ambiguous goals were not cleared up in real time.

In fact the Dubious Goals Committee would only meet a few times each season to decide on who goals should officially be awarded to. Indeed it wasn’t until May – fully three months later - that his goal was chalked off. Fairly harshly too, as his initial shot did seem to be on target, but it was officially recorded as an own goal instead.

So what is now goal 228 was, for a while, goal number 229. Either way, it was his final strike in an Arsenal shirt, with almost his very last touch as a Premier League player.

We travelled to the Stadium of Light to take on a resurgent Sunderland, unbeaten under new manager Martin O’Neill.

With the deadlock yet to be broken, Thierry was introduced on 66 minutes, replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

But within four minutes, James McClean put the hosts ahead. Aaron Ramsey levelled shortly afterwards, and it remained 1-1 as the game entered injury time.

Then came Thierry’s magic moment. There were 90 minutes and 22 seconds on the clock when he connected with Andrey Arshavin’s deep left-wing cross, turning the ball past Simon Mignolet from close range, just in front of the travelling Arsenal supporters.

Three points assured, and our all-time record goalscorer could return to New York knowing he had helped Arsenal back into the Champions League spots, which we would confirm on the final day of the season. In fact we finished just one point ahead of Tottenham – those two extra points at Sunderland turned out to be crucial, and also maintained his own personal record of never finishing beneath our north London rivals.

And so Thierry Henry’s last goal had arrived 12 and a half years after his first, and five years and a week (1,834 days) after his most recent Premier League strike.

His record-breaking haul came from 377 matches, against 58 different teams, and surpassed Ian Wright’s old record by 43.

The new target is now set. Every forward arriving at the club now knows that to become our all-time leading scorer, they need to register more than 228 times in an Arsenal shirt. Until that day comes, Henry remains the King.