One last time for the May sunshine on the old art deco stands and the plush green velvet of the pitch. As it prepared to finally close its doors yesterday, Highbury looked resplendent, the setting for a remarkable occasion and so it proved, when 93 years of history came to a sublime end at the feet of Thierry Henry.
The football narrative that unfolded over the course of the afternoon was one that seemed to cram the glory and the despair of an average football club's lifetime into 90 minutes. It was punctuated by the roars of the crowd relaying Tottenham's demise at Upton Park and the clinching of the fourth Champions' League place but above all it was about the brilliance of Henry. When he completed his hat-trick he dropped to his knees and kissed the turf. Was that a pledge to stay or simply goodbye? They gathered their friends around them at Arsenal yesterday, around 80 former players and managers from Charlie George to Ian Wright, Pat Jennings to David Seaman but none stands taller in the Highbury story than Henry. Yesterday, Arsenal teetered on the precipice of missing out on Champions' League qualification and then in 57 minutes Henry dragged them back to take fourth place.
"We would have felt guilty to have walked out here on a low after what has happened over the years," Arsène Wenger said. From the moment that Robert Pires prodded home the first goal on eight minutes the match lurched from the surreal to the brilliant in seconds. David Thompson scored one of the finest goals of the season and then gave one away to Henry with a calamitous backpass. And Wigan's Swedish substitute, Andreas Johansson, gained a strange kind of notoriety by being sent off within 88 seconds of coming on.
It was the match that had it all. Was this the spirit of Arsenal distilled into 90 minutes? "We had fantastic excitement, strength of character and quality," said Wenger, "and a team that only thinks of going forward." He said he tried to keep his players "calm" despite the news about Tottenham's food poisoning and then the scores that came through from West Ham although, it has to be said, there was very little calm about Highbury. Gilberto Silva knocked the ball down to Pires for the first goal and a strange fervour took hold.
Within a minute Wigan had ventured to the other end and contributed their first unscripted part of the afternoon. As Highbury roared to the news of Carl Fletcher's goal for West Ham, Paul Scharner turned in Thompson's free-kick at the near post for the equaliser. In the ensuing exchanges, Sol Campbell was lucky not to concede a penalty for a trip on Jason Roberts.
The referee Uriah Rennie evened that score when Jose Antonio Reyes was felled by Pascal Chimbonda in the other penalty area. The French full-back added another bizarre postscript when, at full-time and still in his kit he handed in a transfer request. The Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has told the player, who has two years on his contract, that he can stay in the reserves until his deal expires.
Back on the pitch and Thompson struck the stadium dumb on 33 minutes when he hit a 35-yard free- kick from the left flank that bounced once and crept into the net not Jens Lehmann's proudest moment of the season. One minute later and Arsenal were level: Pires slipped the ball through the Wigan defence and Henry slipped the ball past Mike Pollitt. The Arsenal captain was, Wenger said, the "best player in the world". "Today he is certainly the best striker in the world and it looks like the captaincy has given him another dimension. He has grown in stature as a player and in his responsibilities on the pitch." Four minutes before the hour, Thompson struck what his manager Paul Jewell described as a "ridiculous" pass back towards his own goal that Henry collected and swept past Pollitt to score his second. If those circumstances were unlikely then the build-up to his hat-trick goal was remarkable.
On as a substitute, Johansson was forced to chase Freddie Ljungberg into the area, pulling him down. Without even touching the ball, Johansson was sent back to the Wigan bench after 10 seconds of action. From the penalty spot, in front of the North Bank, Henry could not have asked for a greater farewell to Highbury. Arsenal tried to make a goal for Dennis Bergkamp in the closing stages without luck and, at the final whistle, Highbury was confronted with a trip through its collective memory. Roger Daltrey murdered a version of "My Generation", and, as Henry picked up his Premiership golden boot for his 27 goals, the crowd sung "Sign him up". They will have to do it all again at the European Cup final in Paris on 17 May.
As the last supporters reluctantly made their way home, Henry sat with Ashley Cole and Pires in the centre circle of the pitch. Read into that what you like but of all the Arsenal squad, the future of those two players is most in question this summer. If they were hoping for a moment of calm reflection then they would have been disappointed: yesterday they were not the only ones who did not want to walk away from what turned out to be the best possible ending.
Goals: Pires (8) 1-0; Scharner (9) 1-1; Thompson (33) 1-2; Henry (34) 2-2; Henry (56) 3-2; Henry (74) 4-2.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Campbell, Cole; Hleb (Van Persie, 79), Fabregas, Gilberto, Pires (Ljungberg, 73); Reyes (Bergkamp, 79), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Djourou.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Pollitt; Chimbonda, Jackson, Scharner, Baines; Thompson (Johansson, 76), Kavanagh, Ziegler (Francis, 66), McCulloch; Camara (Connolly, 84), Roberts. Substitutes not used: Henchoz, Wright.
Booked: Arsenal Fabregas. Sent off: Wigan Athletic Johansson.
Referee: U Rennie (West Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Henry.