Football can often seem a world inhabited by people who do little else but engage in vicious rows, fuel ancient feuds, earn enormous sums of money and, sometimes, neglect to shake hands.

Happily an antidote was delivered on Wearside. Widely accused, thoroughly erroneously, of forcing Steve Bruce out of the manager's office because he is a Geordie, not to mention being overly demanding, Sunderland fans have had a bad press lately.

On Saturday, though, not only Martin O'Neill but Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger queued up to sing their praises after Henry signed off from a Premier League sabbatical by volleying Arsenal's 90th-minute winner.

The Frenchman, who returns to the New York Red Bulls immediately after Arsenal's Champions League tie in Milan on Wednesday, had begun on the bench but soon found himself the subject of generous serenades from home supporters when he warmed up and, later, replaced the well-shackled Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

"It was an amazing feeling," said Henry who connected with Andrey Arshavin's whipped-in, lobbed cross before finishing adroitly from close range. "It's always been a pleasure to come to Sunderland. I've always found this a very special place to play football and, when I was warming up, the fans near me started clapping.

"The atmosphere was fantastic and, with it being my last Premier League game, to score in the 90th minute was so special, something really magical. Andrey's cross was amazing, all I had to do was get a touch. It was so emotional."

Farewells are rarely more fitting but was it really the 34-year-old's last goodbye? "Sometimes you never know when something is going to end," said Henry. "I guess you can never say never. I never thought I was going to come back and play for Arsenal now. Who knows if I can say that this was definitely the end? We'll see."

O'Neill's instinct is that Wenger's star protege may return. "He doesn't have the same pace as before but he's still a very fine player," said Sunderland's manager, who must hope the Football Association does not elect to review footage of Stéphane Sessègnon's apparent, unpunished, stamp on Mikel Arteta. "You wouldn't be surprised if he comes back."

Henry's expert volleying technique certainly served as a sophisticated airbrush here, smoothing out the blemishes in a generally undistinguished away display in which Bacary Sagna and Alex Song proved Arsenal's best individuals and Wenger's initially bleak mood was exacerbated by the need to scrape technical area mud off his smartly polished shoes.

Having enjoyed a lucky first-half escape when the referee controversially declined to award Sunderland a penalty for Per Mertesacker's handball, Arsenal fell behind after the German defender's stumble allowed the irrepressible James McClean to sweep in a low, angled, left-foot shot.

In attempting to control the ball Arsenal's centre-half tore ankle ligaments but this latest cloud on Wenger's horizon came silver-lined. With virtually his first touch, Mertesacker's replacement, Aaron Ramsey, equalised.

Ceding Arsenal plenty of possession and playing on the break a tiring Sunderland looked poised for a point. Then, with time evaporating and McClean, Craig Gardner and John O'Shea vying for man of the match honours, Wenger withdrew the disappointing Theo Walcott and introduced Arshavin. Four minutes later the Russian centred and, dodging Michael Turner, the day's departing hero did the rest.

"I told the lads that Sunderland have played so well since Martin O'Neill arrived that we should be really happy with the win," said Henry. During his original Arsenal pomp the idea of being relieved at victory on Wearside would have been risible but Wenger's infinitely more fragile class of 2012 is engaged in a fight with Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool to simply finish fourth.

"We've gone through a bit of a crisis, losing a few games," acknowledged Arsenal's manager whose side return to the Stadium of Light for Saturday's FA Cup fifth-round tie. "Young players' confidence can drop quickly but Thierry helped keep us positive. He's been fantastic off the pitch and, on it, he's given us a big boost now. Let's hope we can continue like this without him."

Man of the match Craig Gardner (Sunderland)