It was the afternoon of my 21st birthday, November 16th 2002, and somewhat surprisingly I was sitting on the North Bank waiting for the teams to step out for the North London derby. I’d not expected to be at the game as I was living in Manchester at the time (still bathing in the glory of our title winning exploits at Old Trafford), but my family revealed a few days before that they’d secured me a ticket much to my astonishment.
On my way down the M1 in my battered Peugeot 205, I was tingling with excitement at having the chance to watch the best Arsenal team in my living memory. We were reigning champions and playing with a confidence and swagger which was a joy to behold. Thierry Henry was rapidly becoming the most lethal striker in the league and a much more enjoyable player to watch than that horse-faced tap-in-merchant who was so revered at the time in Manchester. As I neared the capital, I daydreamed of the delights that were to be served up against our neighbours.
I recall it being a bitterly cold day with the wind whipping into our faces on the upper tier of the North Bank, but despite the game starting brightly for Arsenal, Spurs had worked their way down to a dangerous area near the Clock End. There were a few nerves as Stefan Freund lined up to launch a long throw into the box. As the ball looped into the penalty area it was cleared by the head of Patrick Vieira and fell to Thierry Henry.
The ball bounced once as he tried to bring it down under the attention of his marker, but after that our French maestro had it completely under his spell. For the next 12 seconds, time stood still as he took eleven touches and sprinted 70 yards.
Beating his marker for pace, he nonchalantly brushed off the attempts to bring him down illegally, passed the halfway line and roared towards the North Bank. Everybody stood to their feet. The rumble of chairs flipping back into place coursed around the stands making it sound like Henry was trampling forward like a stampeding herd.
He kept going. And going. The Spurs backline was stretched and cowering at the rapidly advancing Henry. He had Dennis Bergkamp to his left, Sylvain Wiltord to his right, but we wanted him to finish the job, we wanted this special moment. Reaching the edge of the Spurs box he deftly moved the ball onto his left foot and arrowed a precise left foot strike at goal.
That split second of silence, the moment of calm just before the net bulged, will never leave me. It was as if everyone present used that moment to draw collective breath before erupting in acknowledgment of the brilliance of the goal; the type of goal about which you can say “I was there.” I remember being covered in bodies as Thierry wheeled away in celebration on his sprint towards the Spurs fans.
A further two goals brought a thoroughly enjoyable climax to an amazing day, but it was all about that moment, that goal and that celebration from out number 14. A great birthday gift from a player with Arsenal coursing through his veins.
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