The King and The Greatest
The two best footballers I've ever seen at Arsenal are Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Dennis is, quite simply, the greatest as far as I'm concerned. It says it all about how good he was that I don't rate Henry as the best in my time. These two men are responsible, at least in part, for a number of the best things I've watched from an Arsenal side, and they provide some of the greatest memories. But there are two things for which they are responsible, two moments in Arsenal's history, from which I never have, and never will, recover. It seems ridiculous to even mention failures from two men with over 300 Arsenal goals and numerous medals between them. Sadly, they are both one goal and (at least) one medal short of the totals they should have achieved. You're probably reading this and wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Well, in my years of watching Arsenal there are three matches that stand out for me and that I can't forget for all the wrong reasons. The first one has nothing do with the players as we were robbed of the 2001 FA Cup Final by the referee, Steve Dunn. The other two are the FA Cup semi-final replay of 1999 and the European Cup Final of 2006. For those, as far as I'm concerned, the blame for Arsenal losing falls on the shoulders of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. These two games sometimes still come to my mind when I can't sleep and the anger that wells up inside me from the vision I still see of the chances missed doesn't help me to drop off.
There is a supreme irony in the case of Dennis Bergkamp's penalty against Manchester United. That night he had, to that point, his best game for Arsenal. He had been too quick, too physically strong, and far too skilful for Jaap Stam. He had knocked Stam all over the place and scored a deserved, albeit deflected, equaliser in the second-half. He was the best player in our side, the best player on the pitch, and the only man who was ever going to take the penalty when Ray Parlour was fouled in the last minute. One thing we knew was that the Ice Man would not buckle under pressure. For him to miss it having played so well just seemed wrong.
Standing in the Holte End, about 125 metres behind Dennis Bergkamp, many couldn't watch. I did. I can still see it now. The thing is that I think we all knew where the penalty was going to be directed. Schmeichel clearly did. On this occasion it wasn't hit hard enough, or far enough in to the corner, to beat the goalkeeper. Watching some of the more recent documentaries on Dennis something about his penalties becomes obvious. The fact is that whenever he had to take a pressure penalty he always put it in the same place. He'd done it the year before in the League Cup semi-final at Chelsea and just got away with it. There are numerous examples. Most pertinently he had taken a penalty against Denmark at Euro 92 and beaten Schmeichel low to his left. The Dane clearly never forgot.
What annoys me most is that Dennis' miss allowed that Manchester United side, which wasn't really better than the Arsenal team, to go on and win three trophies. It allowed Ryan Giggs to score that bloody winning goal that keeps coming back to haunt me on TV. It allowed Man Utd to hijack 26th May as a great day in their history, as well as ours. But more than anything it meant we went on to win nothing that season. We should have won the Premier League. We should have (would have) won the FA Cup. I am certain that the defeat would have knocked it all out of that Man Utd side, knowing that they hadn't beaten us all season (including a couple of 3-0 thrashings early on) and we'd have completed back to back Double wins. It's one of the great footballing injustices that the Arsenal team of 1998-99 won nothing, while Man Utd won it all. Unfortunately it's Dennis Bergkamp's fault.
Thierry Henry, Arsenal's record goal scorer, is the reason we haven't won the European Cup. I don't say that lightly. Of course there are plenty of other reasons when you dig down, but we have never come closer than in 2006. We have never been in a position, before or since, where the winning of football's biggest club prize was on the end of the right foot of our best player. Shortly before Barcelona equalised in that game Thierry Henry was in exactly that position.
Unlike the Bergkamp penalty Arsenal were attacking the end where we were all stood (nobody was sitting) in Paris. I can clearly see Hleb play Henry in on goal to the right side of the penalty area. I can see Valdes not really in position in front of me, with most of the right of the goal (Thierry's left) available. It is almost identical to the goal Nicolas Anelka scored in the 1998 FA Cup Final. I see Henry draw back his foot, and I see the ball go straight at Valdes. It was an appalling finish. We would have been 2-0 up and the game over, European Cup in the bag. Thierry Henry, the best player in the World, was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He could have gone round Valdes, he could have smashed it, he could have done anything he wanted. Why did he put it so close to Valdes?
Thierry says now that he was simply exhausted as we'd played so long with ten men against a great Barcelona team, and he just didn't have the energy to finish properly. You have to take him at his word, I suppose, but it's not an excuse I can accept. Arsenal should have a European Cup to show off. We should have been the first London side to win it. Arsene Wenger should have had his Holy Grail. We have none of that. Unfortunately it's Thierry Henry's fault.
I've waited a long time to get this all off my chest. I can now get back to honouring Dennis and Thierry properly for being utterly, utterly brilliant for Arsenal Football Club.