The Long Good Friday
With it being Good Friday, and with Liverpool coming to town tomorrow, I can’t help but reminisce about possibly my favorite ever Arsenal match – a game that our entire season depended upon and one of the few occasions when the North Bank was literally rocking!
Good Friday, 9th April, 2004, a beautiful sunny day at Highbury – Gooners fortunate enough to have watched many a match at our former place of worship will agree that the old girl was at her splendid best when flooded with sunlight. The deco details glinting, the pitch striped and manicured like an Augusta putting green, the red pillars full of character, the rooftop flags a’ flappin’, the old clock ticking. And the nerves jangling.
The previous weekend we’d succumbed to United in the FA Cup semi at Villa Park. Wenger had rested Thierry for the forthcoming Champions League quarter final second leg at home to Chelsea, with Aliadiere starting up top with Dennis. Typically, United ground us down after a bright early start couldn’t provide a lead. Edu lobbed one against the bar, with Kolo unable to convert the rebound, before Ronaldo roasted Clichy throughout and a Giggs-Scholes combo gave them a lead that they didn’t let go of. I have vivid flashbacks of being bantered throughout the second half by one of their fans wearing a rubber Van Nistelrooy mask, singing ‘Where’s your treble gone?’ over and over again. The cunny.
Arsenal’s first FA Cup defeat for 19 years – surely a record? – dented the sky-high confidence of the soon-to-be-Invincibles heading into that ill-fated Champions League second leg with Chelsea (in the early Abramovich era) who were no mugs. They had splashed more than £100m in the summer to sign the likes of Makelele, Duff, Joe Cole, Crespo, Veron, Geremi, Muto, Scott Parker and of course Wayne Fucking Bridge. Arsenal were full strength, with the exception of Gilberto who was carrying an injury, replaced by the in-form Edu, and Bergkamp, with Reyes – who had terrorised Chelsea a couple of months earlier on his debut, scoring a brace in a 2-1 FA Cup 4th round win.
Reyes repaid Wenger’s faith, scoring on the stroke of half-time to give Arsenal a 2-1 aggregate lead. A more-than-winnable semi final against Monaco awaited. Arsenal looked nervous after the break, like a nightwatchman facing the quicks, perhaps a hangover from Villa Park. Lampard equalised and Arsenal played deeper than we’d seen all season and finally succumbed to a late Bridge winner, with Lauren getting done on a one-two, knocking us out. Literally.
I’m painting a gloomy picture, but in reality it was worse than that. A week ago we were on for the Treble, now a defeat to Liverpool would raise serious questions about our title ambitions heading into the run-in. But the sun was out, and Highbury was dolled up to the nines, packed to the rafters and full of excitement and anxiety. Lots of anxiety!
“It felt that the stadium stopped breathing” – Thierry Henry
The worse thing for the team, and us fans, would be to concede an early goal. So naturally, that’s what happened as Hyypia nodded Liverpool ahead inside 5 minutes. This was the most nervous I’ve felt in a football stadium, even more so than at the Stade de France prior to the Champions League final versus Barcelona. Hull’s 2-0 lead at Wembley last May had nothing on this!
Henry rallied us all, equalising after half an hour with a sublime touch with the right and sliderule finish with the left, but we were soon sent back down to Earth with an almighty thud, as Michael Owen (who else?) sent us into the interval 2-1 down. That half-time break was almost eerie. I don’t even remember feeling frustrated, just gutted, like I’d had my heart ripped out by a naked Arnie. Actually it was more ridiculous than that; our treble gone, double gone, the title GONE. All in the space of less than a week.
Thierry put it best: “It felt that the stadium stopped breathing”. It really did, but thankfully, Henry and co were having none of it. Out they came for the second and most vital half of the season, with a spring in their step, perhaps due to some inspirational words from Keown in the changing room, and it didn’t take long to get back on level terms, with Pires showing strength and composure to make it 2-2 and resuscitate the old girl.
And then came a Highbury folklore moment. Henry was like a man possessed, determined to turn a disastrous week around. He picked the ball up, dribbled past what seemed like the entire team, putting Jamie Carragher on his arse before slotting the ball in true Thierry® trademark fashion to raise the Highbury roof. Every single pent-up emotion flew out at that moment. A privilege to be able to recall it – a real goosebump moment and one that defined the Invincibles more than any other. Henry completed his hat-trick, threw his shirt in the air and celebrated at the North Bank. As the final whistle blew, the sun still smiling, we had the Easter weekend in front of us.
We drank long into the Upper Street hours which ended up with a pal of mine dancing along with an Angel tube busker, with his pants round his ankles as the Islington upper class looked on in horror. Much like most of us at half-time. What a moment, what a game. Happy Easter.