Fifteen years ago, on the 16th November 2002, Thierry Henry scored that goal against Tottenham Hotspur.
You know the one. He ran from the edge of one penalty area to the other, taking on the entire Spurs team before sliding a shot past Kasey Keller. With his left foot.
You know the one. It’s immortalised in the statue which sits outside the Emirates.
You know the one. Of course, it’s not the goal itself which is immortalised, but the celebration.
Yeah, you know, that one.
Having run Clock End to North Bank to score, Thierry – our genius, our agent provocateur – promptly turned back the way he came, screaming in triumph, running, running until he came sliding to his knees and into immortality. In front of the Tottenham fans massed in the Clock End.
You know the ones. Them, the enemy.
When people think about the goal he scored, I suspect it’s more the celebration which comes to mind. I suspect that, over the years, it is this celebration, so iconic, which has given weight to the goal; somehow made the goal itself better than it actually was.
To be clear, I am not saying that the goal wasn’t very good, just that it may be a tiny bit overrated.
Still with me? Good, allow me to explain myself.
Consider the facts of the goal.
At 110 yards, the Highbury pitch was one of the shortest in the Premier League and therefore perfect for the lightning fast break that Thierry made.
The break began as a Patrick Vieira defensive header looped up into the north London sky. Despite a failed attempt from our hero to control the ball, it bounced very kindly for him.
Finally, with a lightning quick touch from his knee to his right foot, Henry got the ball under his spell. He was about 36 yards from our goal at this point.
In other words, he was 74 yards from the Tottenham goalline.
In the next eight seconds, Thierry took a further eight touches. He wasn’t so much running at Tottenham, as running away from them.
The closest one of their players got to him was the player – Justin Edinburgh? – who unsuccessfully challenged him for the ball at the perimeter of our penalty area and tried to get back at Henry just past the halfway line.
This was the only point in the piece when it looked as if Henry might, literally, stumble. Never mind the ball, the challenge saw him lose control of his legs for a second or two. But still, on he went, the noise in the stadium increasing with every touch, every stride…
Watching the goal back, Thierry’s feet are by now such a blur that I find it difficult to determine exactly how many touches he takes, box-to-box. If, fifteen years later, I still can’t keep up with him, what chance these poor Spurs boys, lost, trapped, in the moment?
What I can be sure of is that, a mere eight seconds after his first touch approximately 58 yards ago, Thierry shoots from just inside the penalty area. Steven Carr(?) comes across, in futile fashion to try and stop him and just ends up with twisted blood.
The backpedalling Ledley King has no chance.
These men are not even supporting players, just incidental characters in a drama created by a man at the very top of his game.
The ball is rifled home; Henry, and Highbury, erupts.
Henry is on his knees in front of the away section of Clock End. In front of them. You know, them.
It seems, looking back at Thierry’s Arsenal career, that he didn’t do anything without a reason. Nothing seemed to happen without a calculation of how it might make him look. Most of Thierry’s goal celebrations were a study of nonchalance, as if to say, “You see that thing I just did which you’re going bananas over? For me, that’s just a normal day.”
You might, if you wished to psychoanalyse Thierry – I don’t, I’m not qualified – look at these moments as a product of his upbringing. Thierry has spoken of a father who always demanded more of his son. Perhaps, then, Thierry was programmed to regard these feats of breathtaking skill as routine. Although, I don’t doubt there was an element of preening and intimidation to his celebration.
Obviously, this casts the Frenchman in sharp relief to someone like Ian Wright, who absolutely lived, and loved, to score goals. Every time he found the net, it was as if the former darling of the North Bank was having a party on the pitch. I sometimes think that Wrighty is still so highly regarded twenty years after his last goal for the club as much for those spontaneous, infectious, explosions of joy as for his brilliant finishing ability.
On that November day in 2002, as Thierry flew south on the Highbury grass, there wasn’t much in the way of studied nonchalance on display.
If Thierry resembled anyone, it was probably that man Ian Wright; no posing here, just sheer elation. It may be possible, now, to look back at the moment cast in bronze, Thierry facing down the massed ranks in the Clock End, as an attempt at intimidation.
However, listening to what Thierry had to say afterwards, talking about being “dead for two days”, the truth is probably a bit more prosaic; he was simply knackered.
A bit like Charlie George at Wembley in 1971.
It’s funny how iconography can result from tiredness, isn’t it?
To go back to where I started this piece, the contention that this famous goal was overrated, I wonder two things now; a) whether this is correct or not; b) even if it is correct, then does it really matter?
Is it correct? Maybe.
Whilst Thierry did run from one penalty box to the other, finishing from the edge of the penalty area with his left foot, he did so essentially unchallenged.
Although the fact that no Spurs player could get near him to make a challenge feels instructive, I would argue that Henry’s solo efforts at home to Liverpool 18 months later and that goal in the Bernabeu both took more skill to deliver. Not to mention the importance of both goals.
Admittedly, this goal was also a winning goal, but it was the winning goal in a game Arsenal won 3-0 when they were not just the kings of North London, but, as champions, the kings of England.
So, the goal is a little overrated, perhaps, but does it matter? No, I don’t really think it does.
Ultimately, I think this goal, perhaps more than any other, can be seen as a symbol of the dominance Arsenal once held over their neighbours.
That’s probably where it’s importance lies.
It’s worth remembering that Arsène Wenger once went ten years unbeaten against Spurs, that’s how much better than them we were.
This goal, slap bang in the middle of a three year period when Arsenal were clearly the best team in the country, provided a neat visual representation of a time when Spurs played Wile E. Coyote to our Roadrunner and just couldn’t get near us.
And nor could many others.