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A San Siro Farewell

BY STEFAN VLIEGER / @stefanvlieger

Arsenal away from home, especially in the Champions League, has probably been the most enjoyable feature of being a Gunners fan during these barren trophy-less years. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Arsenal win a Champions League game in person! I thought I had seen our worst European performance ever when I went to Camp Nou last season, but then there was the recent game against AC Milan. Despite the terrible performance and a horrible result. I will never regret going to the San Siro, thanks to one man - Thierry Henry.

I became an Arsenal fan when RTL 5, a Dutch television channel, began broadcasting Premier League games at weekends. It was about eleven years ago that they started and thanks to a certain Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal were often selected as the televised game. I didn’t know much about the club at that time.

In fact, I rather fancied Manchester United. I even had a fake David Beckham shirt that my sister had bought for me during a holiday in Italy. She’d let me choose between two shirts, the other one being an Arsenal shirt with Overmars on the back. However, he had just made a transfer to Barcelona, so I decided to have the Beckham shirt. The other one was for my twin brother René. But when I saw those live games on the box, with Dennis Bergkamp playing at that fantastic stadium called Highbury, I turned into an Arsenal in an instant. Winning the league at Old Trafford, the Invincibles season two years later, I couldn’t have picked a better moment to start supporting Arsenal.

I was about 15-years-old when I visited Highbury for the first time. It was during a college excursion in October 2003. To my disappointment, I had no chance to visit a game, because there was an international break that week. A big guy with glasses as thick as jam pots who was sitting at the entrance wouldn’t even let me and a few classmates have a look inside the beautiful stadium. “You can come back on Friday for a stadium tour,” he said. Unfortunately, we were going back to Holland that day. During the last season at Highbury, I was in my last year at school, preparing for my exams. I had to make peace with the fact that I would never see a football game at the Gunners home of 93 years.

My first visit to an Arsenal game was in April 2009 against Middlesbrough, which means I also never saw Thierry Henry play for us. I will never forget those images from the unveiling of his statue at Emirates Stadium, a few months ago. There he was, our all time top goal scorer with tears in his eyes. It gave me goose bumps and I was thinking: “If only I could turn back time…”

In the next week, we were drawn to AC Milan. I immediately started to plan a trip to the San Siro, with my brother and two friends, who also visited the pre-season friendly in Cologne and the away game in Dortmund with me earlier in the season. Obviously I couldn’t wait for the game in Milan. Seeing your favourite team play in one of the most iconic football stadiums in Europe is certainly something to look forward to. But the most exciting moment was still to come. Arsenal signed Thierry Henry on loan on the day I bought the tickets for AC Milan away. I can’t explain how happy I was when Arsene Wenger said he would be eligible for the first leg of the Milan tie.

The build up to that night at the San Siro was very exciting as well. Thierry’s winning goal against Leeds United and especially the one at the Stadium of Light made me realize I was finally going to see Thierry Henry play for Arsenal. We travelled to Milan on the day of the game. The pre-match atmosphere at Piazza Duomo was just awesome. A big part of the square was full of Gooners, singing many different songs and chanting Thierry Henry’s name. We arrived at the stadium just before kick-off, not knowing we were about to witness ‘our worst European game ever’ as Arsene described it afterwards. 2-0 down at half time, there was only one thing that, besides an Arsenal goal, could make my day.

And there he was. Huge cheers erupted from the Arsenal crowd as Thierry Henry took to the San Siro pitch – the same placve he’d once ripped Inter’s defence apart. I think we started to play better and Robin van Persie fired a dangerous volley at goalkeeper Abbiati after a nice flick by our Gallic top scorer. Unfortunately, our back four were never able to control Milan’s attacks. The dramatic 4-0 defeat certainly wasn’t the farewell Henry deserved…but you can’t have a fairy-tale every week.

When the game entered injury time, we started the Thierry Henry song for one more time. And after the final whistle, when Milan’s club anthem was already echoing through the stadium, he thanked the travelling supporters for the very last time, before disappearing into the catacombs of San Siro.

Goodbye Thierry Henry and thanks for the great memories!


To check out Stefan's great gallery on the transformation of Highbury since 2006, click here. 

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