Invincible

On 22nd August, 2004, Arsenal took on Middlesbrough at Highbury. Avoid defeat and they would equal Nottingham Forest’s long-standing 42 match unbeaten record in the top-flight. Everyone, Boro fans included, expected the Gunners to make short work of the visitors. It was a gorgeous summer’s day and I remember that I wore sunglasses and a France shirt.

This game is so crystalized in my memory that I even remember what I wore [also because I can make myself out on the TV footage when Bergkamp lines up his shot for the second goal]. I was 20 and about to start my final year of university and life was good. Arsenal were the unbeaten champions, the sun was shining and I was on summer vacation from my degree, in that sweet spot where I had all of the trappings of adulthood and few of the responsibilities.

Prior to kickoff, injured captain Patrick Vieira was presented with a solid gold Premier League trophy which glistened in the August sunshine. I had barely even considered who we were playing, it didn’t seem to matter much. Boro fans politely applauded as a booted and suited Vieira showed the trophy to the crowd.

The visiting support were mere extras in my mind, background figures in the theatre that was the Invincibles. Even Patrick Vieira’s injury couldn’t halt the Arsenal express train- it simply gave 17-year old Cesc Fabregas the opportunity to swagger into the starting line-up. Arsenal took the lead in predictable fashion when Thierry Henry latched onto Jose Reyes’ diagonal ball and lobbed Mark Schwarzer.

25 minutes gone. 1-0. Business as usual. Arsenal toyed with Boro thereafter, with Henry hitting a free-kick against the cross bar and Jose Reyes stabbing a shot against the post. The home side were just playing with their food, pushing their vegetables around the plate until they felt like chewing them up and swallowing them down.

Shortly before half-time, Joseph Desire Job equalises after a move involving an endless stream of ricochets and lucky bounces. Half-time. 1-1. Unexpected, but I recall an air of total calm- Arsenal could score whenever they wanted and, if anything, Boro had simply made us angry. Early in the second half Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink gives the away side the lead with the sort of shot that nearly takes the net clean off the posts.

Wow! We didn’t see this coming, but no bother. Then, Franck Queudrue spots that Jens Lehmann has left an enormous gap in his goal and the Frenchman’s long-range shot snakes through the defence and inside the post. Even by her ear-splitting standards, the ‘Highbury screamer’ lets out a gasp that made every dog within a five-mile radius howl in concert. Now concern finally gripped the balmy summer air at Highbury. ‘Shit, we’re really going to blow this, aren’t we?’

The players shake off the shock instantly. From kickoff, Bergkamp powers towards goal like a cyborg sent from the future to prevent Arsenal from fucking it all up. He slams the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Initially, he moves towards the goal to scoop the ball out of the net, but Thierry Henry is already on message. Bergkamp puffs his cheeks, his nostrils flare and Boro know they’re in trouble.

It takes another 11 minutes for Arsenal to equalise, as Robert Pires beats the offside trap to shovel Henry’s low cross into the net in the manner that he did countless times in his Gunners career. My season-ticket was situated in Block 19 of the Clock End, in the seat before the barrier to the away fans. What was unusual about this game was that Arsenal kicked towards the Clock End in the second half, which they didn’t usually do.

Arsenal have the equaliser they need to preserve the record and the players cavort. What the cameras did not pick up, but those of us in Block 19 did, was that Thierry Henry did not join his teammates. He was on scooping duty again, retrieving the ball from the net, he ran past the Boro fans next to us, wagged his finger impertinently and, I swear this is not a trick of memory, I heard him yell, “WE’RE NOT DONE YET!” in that Vaudevillian manner that Henry had.

Nobody was better at sizing up the theatre of a moment than Thierry. I recall his expression as he looked around to find his teammates celebrating, it was a look of mock disgust. An equaliser wasn’t enough, the hornets’ nest had been poked. I didn’t see the resulting kickoff. Like I said, I was 20 and my season-ticket was next to the visiting support, I was, ahem, still engaged in conversation with the Boro fans.

I didn’t see Arsenal win the ball back from Boro’s centre. I didn’t even see Bergkamp’s perfectly weighted pass to Reyes. At this point, I vividly recall my sister, sat next to me, grabbing my shoulder. I looked up to see Reyes chop his way past Michael Reiziger, who slips like a man that has just fallen into quicksand. In the background, Robert Pires’ name is still emblazoned on the jumbotron screen. My view was far from perfect in the Clock End, but the goals I could see really well were the ones that arrowed from Arsenal’s left into that far top corner.

I looked up and saw the ball arc towards the net and, well, I hadn’t even finished celebrating the equaliser, so the elation simply lifted a notch. It was one of those rare moments in a football ground when the significance of the moment hits you instantly and all at once, like a cannonball to the gut. Nobody need explain it and there are no words to do so anyway. There is no thought in a moment like that, just feeling.

When I got home and saw the highlights, I could see and hear that Martin Tyler caught the visceral nature of the moment. “REEEEEEEYEEEES! STAND UP….FOR THE CHAMPIONS!” he screams as Highbury spasmed with joy. I believe it stands behind only ‘IT’S UP FOR GRABS NOW!’ and ‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?!’ as the most evocative, recalled segment of commentary for Arsenal fans.

I don’t even have to hear that piece of commentary for my heart and my throat to fill with air, the hairs on my neck to stand up and my eyes to fill with liquid. I just have to think about it, to momentarily recite the words in my mind and I am transported and I have to blink the tears back and collect myself. Only sport gives you moments like this. Stuart MacFarlane catches the moment perfectly in still form and it’s a picture I revisit almost as often as the match highlights themselves.

Reyes leaping into the air with delight, Bergkamp, in the background, clenching his fist after a fresh swipe at the air. Ashley Cole, before he tainted his memory, almost laughing with the glee of it all. A fresh-faced Cesc Fabregas close to tears in the melee of bodies. Kolo Toure galloping towards the scene like a child running towards swings in the playground. It’s an image and a moment made all the more poignant by the tragic death of Jose Reyes in June last year.

When news of his death broke, I was getting ready for my sister’s wedding [by which I mean I was ready and waiting for my wife to finish getting ready]. I watched my twitter timeline process and absorb the shock of the news. I am not much of a crier, truth told, but I couldn’t fight the tears. Within minutes, my timeline was flooded with that image and that moment.

It became a kind of totem pole for our grief. Reyes was a player who didn’t come close to realising his immense potential, a minor sporting tragedy but one put into bleak, jarring perspective by his death. He was only a few months older than me. His death made me realise that I always felt tremendous affection for him in a way that I hadn’t really realised, that I thought I buried when he departed and Arsenal became mired in a transition that they have never really exited.

As news of his passing broke, Arsenal fans rallied around that same image, that same moment- the high watermark of possibly the greatest Arsenal side of all time. It’s the defining image of the definitive team. For Reyes, it’s probably no consolation for a career that faltered and certainly no consolation for a life terminated so young, but it made me realise again the power that football and footballers can have over us.

They are not aliens; they don’t fall from the sky. They are just people, but what they have is a bewitching power, every now and then they can do things that make you feel…invincible. I was too young to properly appreciate Anfield 89, but I was the perfect age to understand the magnitude of that Invincibles team. Just old enough to appreciate it, but not quite old enough to immediately start worrying about the fleetingness of it all [7 games later it all came tumbling down at Old Trafford]. It just washed over me.

One of my favourite moments of the game, when I review the highlights, is crowd reaction to the fifth goal. Henry puts the seal on the result in stoppage time and the crowd greets the finish, not with a cheer, but a relieved sigh. It sounds so noticeable on the highlights package because it is instantly juxtaposed with the elation of the third and fourth goals.

Frankly, nobody had the energy to do anything other than breathe out and release the tension in their bellies, much in the manner that one does when dabbing the corners of their mouth with a napkin after a bountiful feast. I recall meeting my friends in the pub after the game, as the golden sun had just begun to dip in the North London sky. I was met with a sea of grins as we cradled our pints in the pub garden. ‘We’ll remember this one for a while!’ a friend of mine said, thrusting a sambuca shot into my spare hand. Not half, mate. Not half.

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