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May 16, 2013

Henry gives Highbury crowning glory

Arsenal are a point ahead of Tottenham and in pole position to secure the fourth and remaining Champions League place heading into the final game of the season. Seven years ago, the roles were reversed as the bitter North London rivals tussled for that coveted position.

There were two aims for Arsenal on a glorious day in May in 2006: finish above Tottenham, and ensure Highbury was given a fond farewell after 93 years by collecting one final victory.

For much of the campaign, the Gunners had been below-par as they watched Tottenham flourish under Martin Jol, whose side had occupied fourth since December. While Arsenal had booked their place in their first Champions League final, Spurs were intent on playing in Europe's elite club competition the following season and were in control of fourth spot.

Tottenham required three points at West Ham to do so; Arsenal were relying on the Hammers to do them a favour, while they themselves would have to overcome Wigan.

A couple of weeks earlier, Arsenal and Tottenham could not be separated in the final North London derby at Highbury as Thierry Henry came off the bench to rescue a point for Arsene Wenger's side – a game he described as "the biggest of the season" and with "so much at stake for both teams". There was controversy as Arsenal felt Spurs should have put the ball into touch when a couple of their players collided. Instead, the visitors went forward and scored through Robbie Keane amid a chorus of boos around the stadium.

Never in the Wenger era had Tottenham finished above Arsenal, yet that feat was under threat as the Gunners had blown their opportunity to jump above Spurs in the derby.

"If Tottenham do finish above Arsenal then I will have to congratulate them because, apart from the incident two weeks ago, you'd have to say they've had a very good season," Wenger said in the build-up to the final game of the season.

He added: "I don't believe Spurs are suddenly a better team than us if they finish fourth. I never feel one game is enough to make a great club."

Deep down, the Frenchman knew the consequences of losing the race for fourth spot to Tottenham. If Spurs did claim that place, the only way for Wenger's men to be back in the Champions League the following season would be to win the competition in Paris against Barcelona just under a fortnight later.

Jol was on course to guide Tottenham to a first finish above Arsenal since 1995, but reaching the Champions League was imperative to cap off the solid performances of his side.

"If you would have said at the start of the season, or maybe six months ago or even a month ago, that we would be fighting off Arsenal in the last match of the season then we would have taken it," Jol told the media. "But, for me, finishing above Arsenal brings me no satisfaction personally. The only satisfaction is ending up above a team with a bigger budget. I thought we would be fighting for fifth or sixth so we have done well."

The night before a significant day in the history of both Arsenal and Tottenham, the latter encountered a surprise problem before their encounter at West Ham. Staying at a hotel in Canary Wharf, ten Spurs players were struck down with food poisoning; the story soon emerged that lasagne was the culprit. Michael Carrick suffered the most.

There was talk of postponing or delaying the match, but with the final farewell celebrations planned at Highbury and West Ham ready for the match at Upton Park, Spurs had no choice but to go ahead with the game.

The Gunners arrived to a sea of red and white on the Highbury terraces, knowing their fate was in the hands of West Ham in East London.

Robert Pires gave Arsenal the start they craved, netting eight minutes in, and news filtered through that Spurs had fallen a goal behind.

Advantage Arsenal, but Wigan decided they were going to spoil the Highbury party. Paul Scharner popped up with an equaliser to silence the home crowd, and David Thompson then caught Jens Lehmann out with a long-range free-kick. Spurs were now in the driving seat and back into fourth 12 minutes before the break.

Arsenal quickly responded, Henry netting, but Tottenham too had levelled against West Ham and were on course for the top four.

A gift in the form of a short backpass was gratefully accepted by Henry in the second period as the Gunners' talisman slotted Arsenal back into the lead, and his penalty sealed a memorable Highbury hat-trick.

The image of the Frenchman kissing the turf in front of the famous North Bank stand will forever remain iconic among the Arsenal faithful, and in the space of a minute he was fist-pumping as West Ham had taken a lead courtesy of Yossi Benayoun. The Champions League pendulum had swung the Gunners' way.

The final whistle was blown at Highbury, amid scenes of jubilation on the pitch and among the 38,500-capacity crowd. At Upton Park, Tottenham players had their heads in their hands, and some were in tears in the dressing room.

Highbury had its golden farewell, and Wenger was given a microphone to begin the countdown along with the crowd as the Gunners waved goodbye to their home.

The future of Henry – the club's leading goalscorer – was still in doubt, but whether he stayed or decided to move on, he would never be forgotten on a fantastic farewell to the old ground. Tottenham were left with the consolation prize of a place in the UEFA Cup and, literally in some cases, a sickening end to their campaign.

What happened next? While spoof pictures of Wenger as a chef presenting food were created, police probed Spurs' food poisoning incident, and later the Health Protection Agency ruled the misfortunes suffered by the players were not caused by the food at the hotel.

For Arsenal, they were beaten in the Champions League final by Barcelona, but Henry – linked with a move to the Camp Nou – days later signed a new deal at Arsenal, and the Gunners prepared for life after Highbury with a move down the road to their new 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium.

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