This particular end of season match was also being built up by many as being one half of a very crucial fourth versus fifth place battle for Europe. And it was, but as the match drew closer the relevance of points gained or lost at West Ham or The Arsenal Stadium were somehow becoming altogether something of a side issue. To paraphrase Bill Shankley ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death but the passing of Highbury really is'. Should I be sombre, should I laugh, cry, scream, chant or shout at the wake? Who knows, I'd never bid goodbye to a stadium before, or rather ‘The Stadium'.
We shunned jackets because the day just had to be sunny and it was the sort of day where if you were not wearing an Arsenal shirt you really shouldn't have come at all. When we arrived at the centre of our universe it was a lovely sunny day as decreed by the gods of Arsenal past. Highbury tourists were everywhere, both in and out of the sterile zone (you had to show match tickets to get close to the ground and enter the inner zone via police manned barriers). Avenell Road was rammed. Blackstock Road was a sea of redcurrent, banners and happy fans. We met loads of the Gooner family outside the Gunners, there was John, Ian, Phil, Mart, Val, Lee, Chris, Andy, Simon, Marc (out of office), Colin, Carsten, Julio, Mick, Steve and Tony to name but a few of the crowd of faces. This was a going to be a great send off, ticket less fans were just glad to be there and privileged fans were relaxed. They became more relaxed as news came through of the Totts shitting themselves at the thought of finishing 5th. Was their match on or off, was it delayed or postponed? Word was they had to play, we had to laugh, the depressing feeling I'd felt much earlier in the day was now a feeling of total carnival. Time to finish off the cans of cool cider and take a last stroll from ‘The Gunners' to the West Lower, albeit via checkpoint Charlie.
A toast was appropriate but the absence of a 93-year-old Double Malt meant that just a small hip flask of Scotch was smuggled in. Were any spanners, chisels, hammers or crowbars also being smuggled in at the same time? Programme queues were massive, fans were buying 5, 6, 8 or 10 at a time and there was a late stampede in the West Lower for those few remaining. The programmes came in a special clear dated plastic pack and included a separate Highbury History, worth every penny of the five quid we were charged.
Given a choice I would have said today's team should have been something like: Jack Kelsey, Pat Rice, Tony Adams, Frank McLintock, Kenny Sansom, George Armstrong, Patrick Vieira, Alex James, Liam Brady, Ted Drake and John Radford and for some of us it maybe was in spirit. The more realistic reality team Wenger picked was Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Hleb, Gilberto, Fabregas, Pires, Henry and Reyes. On the bench Almunia, Djourou, Van Persie, Ljungberg and God. I've seen worse, much worse in fact because I was a regular here in the early 60's.
There was a commemorative T-shirt on each and every seat, only a very few miserable sods didn't wear them and the visual effect of huge blocks or red and white for the entire match was awesome. The Highbury stands had never ever looked better. Being a class Club even the Wigan fans were given blue T-shirts and most wore them. Highbury was class to the last. ‘Arsenal, Arsenal FC, they're by far the greatest team the world has ever seen' The noise was immense the atmosphere electric, at kick off time you just knew this was all set to be a tumultuous send off. ‘Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we're going to gay Pareee, que sera sera'. Wigan kicked off towards the North Bank. Hleb to Henry but he was offside. A long shot by Kavanagh with his retro haircut, but he fired over.
Pires scored having found himself unmarked in their six-yard box (I'll maybe go metric at the Wengerdome) his first effort was blocked his second shot bulged the net. 1-0 Arsenal with eight minutes gone. When the goal was scored I felt like I should be tumbling domino fashion down the old North Bank terracing, four steps down and two back, instead I leapt out of my seat with everyone else. So we had one more goal to secrete in our Highbury memory banks, would it be the last we'd ever see here? I finally noticed the Highbury signs cleverly etched into the grass in front of both the East and West stands, did I mention the pitch was immaculate? The pitch was immaculate, Drake could have scored goals here or the other Drake could have just as easily played bowls on this surface.
The ground was suddenly hit by Krakatoa type eruption – either a stand had fallen down or West Ham had scored. Euphoria reigns. Carl Fletcher (who?) had scored from 25 yards for the Hammers. Free kick on the Wigan left, a crisp swinging ball in and Scharner got there first 1-1 at Highbury after 10 minutes. Wigan were clearly reading the wrong script. This was clearly going to be a classic end of season seesawing game where news from elsewhere was as important as the events unfolding in front of us. Sol blocks. Reyes breaks. ‘Ooh to ooh to be, ooh to be a Gooner' the chants were ongoing the noise extraordinary and emotion intense. More Fabregas brilliance, Cole going forward. Roberts got ahead of Campbell and went down in the box, was it a pen? Referee says no, Roberts protests and Jackson got a yellow for mouthing off at Rennie. Rennie was not a referee worthy of this occasion, so I looked across to see whom the 4th official, it was Andy D'Urso so it could have been worse. Eboue and McCulloch were at it.
Reyes went down in their box, it looked a worthy shout but no penalty for the Clock End to savour. Pires broke through but could only smash his shot into the side netting. No time to breath but time to notice Cole's redder than red boots. Lehmann to Pires, to Cole and a free kick to Wigan I didn't understand why, nor did the boys in red.
We were pressing well but the match was helter-skelter ‘Vieira woah ho' ‘ArseneWengersRedandWhiteArmy' Another eruption, a goal at West Ham? Beware false news on days like this, it wasn't two nil as we'd hoped. Henry flicks it to Gilberto who fires over. ‘We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham'. Kolo heads clear. ‘Stand up if you hate Tottenham' More class from Cesc. Good recovery by Cole as his sharpness returns.
Wigan offside. Lehmann out to clear. Roberts shoves Kolo but Rennie is oblivious, he's also looking rather lardy. Henry to Reyes who goes down, the Clock End want a pen, Cesc wants a pen and gets booked, or did he get booked for a foul? Free kick Wigan for a slow motion tumble worthy of an Oscar. Jens is jumping around out of goal, Thompson spots the unguarded net and fires it into the near post, a clever well-taken goal. 1-2 Wigan thirty-two minutes gone. Plenty of time left but this wasn't in the gameplan. Pires goes down but no free kick, Rennie could easily get lynched. Worse news as Defoe makes it 1-1 at the other game, we're currently talking worse case scenario with 35 minutes gone. Spurs are 4th.
There were fans outside the ground looking in from behind the barriers.
So Arsenal were kicking towards the North Bank for the second half in the time-honoured tradition, it was that sort of day. Reyes touches the turf for luck one last time. Reyes to Henry offside. Maria in the west stand screams ‘Come on you Gunners' will we still hear her in the new place? Will she sit behind you and deafen you? Chimbonda on Pires for a slow motion free kick. A Pires tackle, things must be really serious. McCulloch shot over. That **** Sherringham has just missed a ****ing penalty! Camara well offside but not given. ‘Good old Arsenal we're proud to say that game'.
Henry goes down but there is no pen. A joke free kick for Chimbonda. Eboue taken out off the ball and the fat prat in the middle ignores it. A poor back pass by Thompson was well spotted by ‘The Man'. It's Henry ten yards clear and 38,000 fans just know what will happen next. He fulfils our prophecy as he waltzes round the keeper and is calmness personified as he walks it into the net. 56 minutes gone 3-2 to the Arsenal and we are back in 4th place, but for how long? I'd forgotten all about the fact that there were just 34 minutes of football at Highbury remaining because the on pitch drama was just so compelling. Would St Totteringham's day arrive this season? Was Roy of the Rovers alive and well and playing at Highbury? Were we all Hollywood extra watching a scripted Director's cut, or could it still all turn to a Hammer House of Horror?
Lehmann ten yards outside his box to concede a throw in. A ball down the middle, it was handball by their last man. Should be a red card as Rennie consults his lino. No red, no yellow and the free kick was given ten yards further back than were the handball took place. ‘You **** Rennie!' Pires with a short ball to Reyes who was wide with his shot. Wigan somehow hack the ball away off the line as Cole and Reyes combine. Reyes axed wide right, the free kick was flung in and cleared but Wigan countered to no effect. Rob to Reyes good ball. Hleb to Henry almost. Fabregas magic, Pires bottled his last Highbury tackle and Henry with a nearly moment wins a corner. Ziegler replaced by Francis. A Wigan attack, a shot hooked in for an easy save by Jens. Kolo hauls down Roberts on halfway.
Pulsating stuff but the radios were still focused on West Ham where our fate could still be sealed. Cole tackles Roberts, his timing looks to be pretty well there now. Kolo bounces Roberts over, fairly. Thompson replaced by Johansson. Freddie replaces Rob, his last match at Highbury – who knows? Henry plays keepie-uppie in the box and lobs it over a head to Freddie, Johansson hangs on to Freddie's arm for dear life and pulls him down, a penalty is justly given. There was a huge delay before Johansson gets a red card; he hasn't even touched the ball during his brief appearance in our final game. Another delay as the blue shirts protest to fat boy. Henry waits, Henry ponders, Henry stalks around, Henry comes up to the spot and there was never any doubt. 4-2 just as Phil had predicted at half time. Henry kisses the turf. ‘Thierry Henry' ‘We've got the best player in the world'.
The Krakatoa eruption was quiet compared to what happened next. Van Persie and the god we call Dennis came on for Reyes and Hleb who'd both performed with honour. The noise from the ovation was bound to be mega but Benayoun, how ironic that he is an Israeli, at West Ham pumped up the volume even more by putting Tottenham a goal down. Pandemonium and huge beams all around. This was becoming the stuff of legend and a cracking tale to tell future generations of Gooners as yet unborn. A glorious final chapter, the football gods shone down and ours shone on the lush green Highbury pitch one last time.
More good football followed as they tried to set up Dennis with the dream ending. ‘There's only one Dennis Bergkamp'' ‘There's only one Arsene Wenger' Kolo brilliance then passes to Van Persie, to Dennis whose outrageous diagonal chip went over. It would have been the cherry on the icing on the cake, or maybe recurrent on the icing. ‘Four minutes added time at West Ham'. Our final whistle went. The Scum's final whistle went and once again they had shat out. Do not expect to see too many white shirts adorned with cockerels or sick parrots throughout the summer. Meanwhile back at Highbury all was well with the world and none of the perpetual early leavers had moved.
So Highbury bowed out on St. Tottingham's day, what perfect timing. If Sir Henry Norris, the man who moved us to Highbury and who is also alleged to have organised Spurs relegation, was watching from on high he would have pissed himself laughing. In case he wasn't we did it for him. I doubt if all the grass and all the white lines in the world could have induced a greater high for Gooners.
Thank you then both the Henrys for making this day possible and probably the most memorable Highbury day ever.