May 7th 2006 was a day that brought about many emotions and the end of an era!
And for once it wasn’t a change in manager!
Arsenal said goodbye to Highbury after 93 years at their spiritual home, doing so in spectacular fashion.
Cast your minds back to the last day of the season, where we needed a win to take fourth spot in the league, in a battle between Arsenal and rivals Tottenham Hotspur!
It would be an afternoon of excruciating tension and drama, yet with Thierry Henry in the side anything was possible and so we secured the fourth and final Champions League place with a dramatic 4-2 win over Wigan Athletic as Henry scored a hat-trick after an early Robert Pires goal, stealing fourth from under the noses of Sp**s.
It was a bittersweet end to the Highbury era, with a blurry final few minutes that were full of joy, excitement, tension and fear. It all built up to an overflowing of emotion at the final whistle and in the 2010th and final game at Arsenal’s wonderful old ground one final memory to treasure was produced and the script couldn’t have been written any better.
It was a moment in which Henry echoed what every fan was thinking when he said: “My celebration said it all. I kissed the ground goodbye. Highbury is just a special place.”
And so we said goodbye to Highbury in an emotional closing ceremony that brought the curtain down on 93 years of history where the door and turnstiles were locked and closed and the lights went down over the Highbury era for the final time..
Highbury will always be Arsenal’s spiritual home, but the Emirates Stadium was seen as the key to the future.
Despite the emotions of leaving Highbury, positive days were to come as after one era ended another one began and the club’s relocation from Woolwich to Highbury gave the Club a chance to climb the football ladder, but the move to the Emirates Stadium would help to keep it at the top no doubt.
Over to the Emirates and the first ever game to take place was on July 22nd 2006 and was Dennis Bergkamp’s farewell testimonial against Ajax, a club he also played for from 1986-1993.
After 11 years, 423 games, 120 goals and a number of wonderful memories, it was time for this exceptionally talented Dutch footballer to hang up his boots. Only something massive and memorable would be good enough to rightly reflect his impact on Arsenal Football Club and fortunately this occasion fitted the bill perfectly.
The ground, the atmosphere and the legendary level of the players involved were just perfect!
Specially-made T-shirts were left on the seats for the fans and the ground was a sea of red, white and orange when the stadium was formally opened with a small ceremony 45 minutes before kick-off.
At the start of the game, the current squads of Ajax and Arsenal came out and formed a guard of honour for Bergkamp, along with his family and the match was kicked off by Dennis’ father Wim, and three generations of Bergkamp’s as his 10-year-old son Mitchell also played a part.
This would be a proper game of two halves. The first 45 minutes was current Arsenal v current Ajax. The second 45 minutes would be Arsenal Legends v Ajax Legends and eight minutes before the break, Edgar Manucharyan found some space on the left to cross over to the near post where the leaping Hunterlaar would volley past Mart Poom and in we went 1-0 down.
At the break ex-Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson announced the Legends team for the second half. Ajax managed by Johan Cruyff included Frank Rijkaard, Jan Wouters, Wim Jonk, the De Boer brothers, Edgar Davids and Edwin van der Sar in their side.
Arsenal included Thierry Henry, David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Patrick Vieira, Ian Wright, Steve Bould, Marc Overmars, Edu, Ray Parlour, Kanu and Emmanuel Petit.
Clearly this was the game that the stars had truly come out for the night to honour Bergkamp.
And it took just eight minutes in the second half for us to equalise. Bergkamp fed Dixon on the right, who floated a cross to the near post and Henry latched on to it, held off his marker and side-footed a shot past Van der Sar from close range.
Arsenal now had the upper hand and chances were aplenty. With 10 minutes left, the crowd was sprung two surprises. Ajax brought on two players for whom the word “legend” is not good enough – Johan Cryuff and Marco van Basten and the latter showed his class almost immediately, flicking the ball over the head of Bould at the near post and forcing a fine one-handed save out of Alex Manninger.
Ian Wright also had chances when he hit the side netting. But it was another legend who would have the final say when in the final minute Kanu darted inside and saw his shot deflect off Jaap Stam and beat keeper Stanley Menzo at the near post for the winning goal and that would be that!
After the final whistle, Bergkamp received a special presentation from the Arsenal chairman and the board of Ajax. He said a few words to the crowd, did a lap of honour and was lifted on to the shoulders of the Legends, alongside that and a fanfare of fireworks, Bergkamp’s career ended and the curtain came down on his footballing journey!
It is clear that some players draw admiration, some provide inspiration but a precious few can do both and Bergkamp was definitely one of them. His cast-iron technique was forged on the youth team training ground at Ajax, his steely character developed at Inter but his best years will always belong to Arsenal, especially that wonder of a goal in the 2-0 win against Newcastle in March 2002! And we were oh so lucky to have him.
The testimonial teams were as follows:
First-half Arsenal: Manuel Almunia, Justin Hoyte, Pascal Cygan, Matthew Connolly, Armand Traore; Alex Hleb, Alex Song, Mathieu Flamini, Ryan Smith; Dennis Bergkamp, Jeremie Aliadiere Subs: Mart Poom, Sebastian Larsson, Nicklas Bendtner, Fabrice Muamba, Joe O’Cearuill, Mark Randall, Vincent Van den Berg, Arturo Lupoli, Anthony Stokes.
Second-half Arsenal squad: David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, Gilles Grimandi, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Edu, Ray Parlour; Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Oleg Luzhny, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Alex Manninger, Patrick Vieira, Glenn Helder, Kanu.
First-half Ajax: Maarten Stekelenburg, Zdenek Grygera, John Heitinga, Jaap Stam, Thomas Vermaelen, Hedwiges Maduro, Kenneth Perez, Wesley Sneijder, Jan Vertonghen, Tom de Mul, Klaas Jan Huntelaar Subs: Olaf Lindenbergh, Urby Emanuelson, George Ogararu, Ryan Babel, Edgar Manucharyan, Robbert Schilder, Markus Rosenberg.
Second-half Ajax squad: Edwin Van der Sar, Stanley Menzo, Danny Blind, Wim Jonk, Frank de Boer, Marciano Vink, Aron Winter, Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Jan Wouters, Stefan Pettersson, Bryan Roy, Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten.
Arsenal goalscorers: Henry 55, Kanu 80
Ajax goalscorers: Huntelaar 37
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