While there have been many excellent goals and excellent games during Arsenal’s 2011/12 season – which is surprising considering the nature of a lot of the team’s performances – one moment stands out among everything else that happened. And no, I’m not referring to any of Marton Fulop’s mix-ups. Although they were great. Cheers, Marton.
Thierry Henry re-signed for Arsenal amid a blur of publicity. He was already immortalized in bronze outside the Emirates Stadium, and there was talk of him ruining the legacy he created in North London. It seemed that half of football was in favour of the move, while the other half was against it.
In any case, there was a lot of cynicism regarding Henry’s loan, which threatened to drown out any idealistic, positive comments about the “return of the King”. Some had visions of Henry firing Arsenal to glory every time he played – even playing in every game – and these expectations had to be adjusted.
There was just no way he’d be able to exert himself on English football as he did before, was there? He’d probably be a bit-part player, a positive influence on youngsters and an excuse for printing new shirts. This was, apparently, the “realistic” view.
However, January 9th heralded a moment that showed all of the cynics that there was still beauty in “mainstream” football. And those that criticized the FA Cup’s “lack of magic” were left speechless.
In Henry’s first game back as an Arsenal player, he had to make do with a seat on the bench, watching Marouane Chamakh toil against FA Cup third round opponents Leeds at the Emirates Stadium, as fans craned their necks, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of their French hero.
He was brought on with just over 20 minutes remaining for Wenger’s Moroccan import, and the fans were still unsure of what to expect. There was still rapturous applause, though – what was never in doubt was that Arsenal would give their hero a fitting welcome, but what remained to be seen was the quality of his performance. After all, MLS is nothing like English football…
Any doubts as to whether Henry had “lost it”, though, were blown out apart in emphatic style 10 minutes later. Alex Song picked up the ball in the middle of Leeds’ half, and Henry suddenly pulled off of his marker – the poor guy never had a chance, did he? – and into space, with the timing that characterized his peak years. His footballing brain was still as quick as ever.
Song spotted the run, and slotted a pass through the Leeds defence. Henry was onto it in a flash, taking one delicate touch before arcing a magnificent, trademark finish into the far corner. It was classic Henry.
I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that Henry’s goal was one of the most glorious moments in recent football history. As he received the ball, it seemed too good to be true, and as he slotted it home the first feeling that hit me was euphoric disbelief. I even found myself willing Aaron Ramsey to miss when he got into the box in the last few minutes, because a second Arsenal goal would have spoiled Henry’s moment.
Cynical fans were silenced, and the romantics rejoiced. Arsenal’s legendary striker had returned, and, within 10 minutes, had scored a winning goal in traditional fashion. It eclipsed everything else that happened that season. It was as if he’d never been away.