Highbury, London Saturday, 8 March
Magic moments were thin on the ground this year. England qualified for Euro 2004, but did so by virtue of a goalless draw in Istanbul. The confirmation, during the home tie with Turkey, of Wayne Rooney's international potential was significant and thrilling but there was too much hooliganism that night in Sunderland for the memory to be magical. The Welsh qualifying campaign offered highlights but, ultimately, failure, as did the Scots' - although James McFadden's marvellously worked goal against the Dutch will have its adherents north of the border, not least for its youthful promise.
In Europe most British contenders went out before the semi-finals, and while Manchester United's second-leg display against Real Madrid was spirited they never, despite the hype, looked probable winners. As David Beckham wrote in his book, of the Real Madrid players talking to him during the match: "They were not trying to distract me or wind me up. They were just stone cold sure they could beat us all night long." This season Arsenal and Chelsea have both won spectacularly in Italy but with the competition barely halfway through, it is too early to gauge the significance.
Celtic flew the flag all the way to the Uefa Cup final, but they lost. Their fans' friendly conquest of Seville was the performance of the year, but it was more than a moment.
Domestically, the FA Cup produced an anticlimax after stunning early matches, such as Wolves' thrilling defeat of Newcastle, Shrewsbury's humbling of Everton (a bittersweet memory given their subsequent relegation to the Conference) and Crystal Palace's storming of Anfield. The Premiership saw Manchester United grind rather than glide their way past Arsenal with Martin Keown's own goal at Bolton the most telling moment.
Which leaves this judge with two contenders: Wolves' 4-3 victory over Leicester City, and Thierry Henry's pirouette goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round. Both have flaws. Wolves still appear destined to go down, while Arsenal, though they won the Cup, did not win that day. Nevertheless, each possessed a rare magic.
Wolves' comeback was enhanced by location and context. Molineux, when the mood takes it, is as intoxicating a venue as any in the game. Redolent of history, architecturally spacious yet claustrophobic, and sparkling in old gold, it will be Sir Jack Hayward's finest legacy.
In recent decades the team have not measured up to its standard and, at half-time, 25 October 2003 appeared no exception. Wolves, one off the bottom of the Premiership, had scored three League goals all season. Now they were trailing 3-0 to Leicester after an abject 45 minutes. They were booed off the pitch by their fans and, said David Jones, their manager, "booed into the changing-room by me".
Yet Leicester were short on confidence themselves and when they began the second half nervously, Wolves went at them. Both sides knew they needed an early goal and, within six minutes, Colin Cameron provided one, driving in Nathan Blake's cross. Leicester disintegrated, driving Micky Adams, their manager, into apoplexy on the touchline. Keith Gillespie, his head still spinning after a row with his team-mate John Curtis, handled a cross. Cameron tucked away the penalty.
Adams made a treble substitution but Wolves were unstoppable. Alex Rae headed in a Denis Irwin cross then, five minutes from time, Irwin burst into the box, crossed low, and Henri Camara became the first Wolves striker to score since the opening day of the season. ITV's The Premiership, confirming its obsession with the big clubs, showed less than four minutes of highlights.
Unbeatable? Not quite. Cast your mind back to 8 March. The venue is Highbury, another ground steeped in history and sympathetically modernised. Arsenal are 1-1 with Chelsea as half-time approaches. Patrick Vieira, from deep, picks out Henry as he outwits William Gallas to beat the offside trap. Carlo Cudicini, the goalkeeper, advances but Henry reaches the ball first, arriving as it lands. There seems no space, for Cudicini is upon him, but after a 360-degree twirl and sleight of foot which needed television replays to unravel, Henry is walking in on goal leaving Cudicini in the mud.
Chelsea scrambled a late equaliser but, in that magic moment, Henry encapsulated a year in which he has consistently played some of the finest football these shores have ever seen. It is an over-used cliché, and frequently an erroneous one given the cost of watching football, but most weeks Henry really has been worth the admission price. The decision to vote him Footballer of the Year was criticised since United, on the back of Ruud van Nistelrooy's goals, won the Premiership. But when the silverware is gathering dust memories such as this will remain fresh in the mind.
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