Is it too much to claim it was one of the most intoxicating moments in English football? Because, if we’re being honest, Thierry Henry’s goal against Leeds was, by most stretches, very ordinary. An FA Cup third-round tie, second-tier opposition, the sidefooted record he’d already spun hundreds of times.
Yet nothing grips and elevates sport like nostalgia. And, in 2012, few teams treasured it so dearly as Arsenal. After six seasons without a trophy, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri had forced their exits, the 8-2 mauling at Manchester United cast a miserable shadow and the new year was ushered in by a Bobby Zamora stoppage-time winner.
Arsenal was a club yearning for a firework, something – anything – to send morale skyrocketing. Henry’s return, no matter how fanciful or outlandish, was a window into that past. To veteran supporters, a glimpse of old glories; to the youngest, a flashback to their first footballing love.
So, of course, it wasn’t the goal itself that was special – the vanishing act to lose 19-year-old Zac Thompson, the tip-toeing off the last defender’s heel, the trademark shoulder-drop and butter knife finish into the far corner – it was the familiarity, and the rawness of the celebrations which followed.
Henry had pledged that he wouldn’t be returning as the “hero” so many craved. Yet there he was, springing up and down in ecstasy, beating the badge in his cape. Those delirious few seconds as he circled the pitch, head arced towards the sky, arms frozen wide like wings until he met Arsene Wenger’s embrace. In that moment, it was like nothing else existed. And meaningless as it might have ultimately been – Arsenal were shocked 2-0 by Sunderland in the fifth round – rarely had any sight in the Emirates’ hollow history been quite so stirring.
There’s a tendency when looking back on iconic moments to let them repaint the surroundings. For the sake of cinema, we might imagine that the Emirates was fixed with anticipation, mouths agape, counting down to Henry’s intervention. We could pretend Wenger wasn’t a tired grey or that Andrei Arshavin wasn’t skulking down the left-wing like an angry urchin.
But the unglamorous truth was that the air in the stadium was positively sour. The crowd cheering in sighs as the game drifted between the boring and the utterly lifeless, Marouane Chamakh’s sticky feet wading hopelessly in attack. Even Henry’s return itself, four-and-a-half years after he left for Barcelona, was derided in some corners as a symbol of a club lost aimlessly in the past.
Leeds played their part, too. Simon Grayson’s young side defended with inspired, if strangulating industry, determined and desperate in every tackle, operating a batten the hatches and pray the wind is gentle type strategy. They aimed for a draw and ultimately had just two shots on goal all game. But, for a while, it felt as though that might be enough.
The bookmakers had taken £1m in risk on Henry being the first goalscorer. By half time, fans had serenaded his warm-up and voted him man-of-the-match. Yet, when he finally made his introduction in the 68th minute, the stage long warped around him, Henry looked heavy-legged and out of touch, his aura and intensity fading, the reflections of age creeping in every movement.
But it was that ominous backdrop which made Henry’s goal nine minutes later quite so mesmerising. The predictability as he opened up his body, the ball curling into the far corner past a helpless Andy Lonergan. It was a time capsule of Henry’s greatness, the evergreen finish he’ll always be synonymous with.
“When he was in this position, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s your angle, but it’s a bit too close,’” Wenger said. “I thought he’d take a very strong inside shot but he made it look easy. I thought he was a bit too far to the left but he always had that special finishing. That was the Thierry Henry finishing.”
It wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t underdog or otherworldly. The celebrations may have been Hollywood, but everything else: well, it was just a reminder of the theatre Henry had always brought to Arsenal, and the Premier League, for so many years.
“Henry. Chance. Goal,” came the stunned voice over the commentary.
For a night that will forever be retold as “scripted” or “written in the stars”, those three words were as familiar as ever. And brought every memory flooding right back.