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Thierry Returns as Football Triumphs

The script was written in the stars and sprinkled down to Earth for the world to indulge in London’s finest production of theatre for many a year. All the talk in recent seasons that the magic of the FA Cup had diminished has been banished in what’s been the most romantic week in the football calendar.

The drama began to unfold on a Sunday afternoon of FA Cup 3rd action ten minutes before the Manchester derby commenced as Wayne Rooney and co were shocked to learn a new midfield player was signed and selected on the bench for their clash at the Eithad stadium. They barely had time to roll their socks up to realise it was Paul Scholes, who in the most sensational circumstances, came out of retirement to steady an injury rocked ship at Manchester United.

It proved to be an inspired decision by Sir Alex Ferguson as his side triumphed in what was a topsy turvy encounter from start to finish. As enthralling and exciting as this cup tie in Manchester was however, the best was kept for last.

Urban legends rarely lack in excitement. On Monday night at the Emirates Stadium the legend that is Thierry Henry emerged from a bronze statue knelt to its knees that was looking more and more like an epitaph but turned out to be a symbol for greatness to come.

The decision by Arsene Wenger to bring his old captain back to the club had been met with mixed reactions from the football world. Questions loomed over the loan signing from New York Red Bulls whether or not this would damage the spirit in the dressing room.

The potential for a disruption to Robin Van Persie’s superb season as captain, who is arguably Arsenal’s finest goal scorer in the port Henry era, had arisen and the pressure was on the Frenchman from the word go.

Leeds United arrived amidst all the hype. They were a mere back drop to this event. Spectators watching more than competitors’ participating.

Henry sat on the bench alongside Theo Walcott who inherited his iconic number 14 jersey, and is yet to fit into it. They shared jokes, caught up and looked on to a game that lacked all the qualities we came to admire from an Arsenal side once led by the mercurial Henry.

But the reminiscing ended deep inside the second half as the time for chit chat had ended and the moment to provide arrived. Wenger signalled to Henry and his understudy Walcott to enter the fray and try and ensure passage to the next round.

The number 14 entered the pitch but this particular game will not be remembered for an Arsenal number 14 – a rare occasion during Thierry’s first spell with the club.

But as times change so do numbers and 12 followed 14 only this time it was met with the loudest roar London has heard all season. Fans at The Emirates have always been criticised for their lack of voice but they certainly raised the roof and ten minutes after coming on Henry had sent shockwaves through the capital.

Alex Song, the only player left to have played with Henry in his pomp at Arsenal, picked up the ball just inside the Leeds half and began searching. Leeds, who sat deep for much of the game, remained organised and Song was beginning to run himself into nowhere until a gap emerged. The same gap which appeared for 8 wonderful years at Arsenal, just inside that left channel. That channel of perfection. Henry checked his run to perfection. Song released the pivotal pass and the rest is glorious history.

The ball nestled in the far corner for the 227th time and it was beyond trademark. Henry raced away surprised, happy, confused, on the verge of tears. His jaw dropped as The Emirates raised itself to rapturous applause. He leapt into Wenger’s arms and began pounding the badge on his chest and his heart within.

An old star was born again like a phoenix, arisen from the ashes and how, it flew. Romantics, let alone the football community, could afford their sensitive soul a moment to be touched. Brilliance had graced us in a single outstanding moment.

In the post match euphoria Henry spoke of the joys of finally knowing what it felt like to score for the team you support likening himself to the talismanic figures at Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Before this weekend of FA Cup glory had even begun controversy had littered the game with the racism trial of Luis Suarez and the aftermath that ensued. John Terry’s verbal assault on Anton Ferdinand added to the discontent that has left a sour taste in the mouth of English football.

The cup romance was nearly spoiled as well as Oldham youngster Tom Adeyemi became victim of a racial slur directed by a Liverpool fan from the stands in the first of the third round ties.

If football in England, and perhaps the world, needed a moment to bury these indiscretions and produce a moment to stand up against the pit falls of the game then the return and impact of Thierry Henry was more than anyone could have dreamt.

Talk of tribalism in the air clouding the judgement of fans across the game was dispelled because Henry, a fan of football and Arsenal himself, reminded us that sometimes it isn’t just about the colour of the shirt and the badge on the sleeve. Football really can be for everyone.

What North London and the rest of the world witnessed on Monday night was a treat and a true testament of the worlds beautiful game.

Thierry Henry might not be the lung busting, explosively destructive centre forward he once was but he has reconnected the hearts of the people with a game that is in danger of losing its soul. He has made us fall in love with him and the sport all over again.

I know for certain that I will never forget Henry’s goal on his return to Arsenal Football Club because it will forever be remembered as the night a Frenchman brought a smile upon London’s face and perhaps even the rest of the world.

 Esam Sultan @esamsultan