Legends of club football - Thierry Henry
Last season, in the month of January, Arsenal took on Leeds United in the FA Cup encounter. After a frustrating first half, tied at 0-0, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger signalled for a substitution. The crowd roared as the bald and bearded man entered the pitch, replacing a misfiring Marouane Chamakh. Exactly 10 minutes later, it happened.
Alex Song had possession in front of the opposition box. He looked up, spotted the man and pulled out his through pass for the man on the wide-left of the opposition box. The number 12 made his run behind the two defenders, got to the ball and went on his usual business. He opened his body, leaned to his left, transferring almost all of his weight to one foot and curled in the ball to the bottom corner past the diving goalkeeper. The 34 year-old stretched his arms, ran past the corner flag while the crowd, his fellow players and the boss went berserk to celebrate the goal. It wasn’t just a goal, that’s how Thierry Henry turned the clock back and stamped his return to Arsenal. It was an ideal script and the hero delivered the perfect lines.
Thierry Henry and Arsenal have lived a fairy tale. Not many real life stories unfold as perfectly as the one between the French maestro and the North London club. Since his arrival from Juventus, he has created stories that have carved a special place in every Gooner’s heart and a whole generation was inspired to support the Gunners, thanks to the then number 14.
When Arsene Wenger signed this lanky winger from Juventus, not many were sure about his success in the Premier League, and the doubts weren’t unwarranted. Playing in the wings, he struggled to live up to the reputation that he created during his Monaco days. However, it wasn’t entirely his fault that he couldn’t perform at his best wearing the black and white stripes. He played out of position, was pitted against the best Italian defences and the ambiance at Turin was starkly different from that of a laid back Monaco. The expectations were higher and the fans were less forgiving.
Henry needed a change and Wenger came calling in with the perfect script for a blockbuster partnership. The move, however, caused a furore and Henry added fuel to it as he couldn’t find the back of the net in his first eight matches with the North London giants. By his own admission – “It took me a while to understand what that club [Arsenal] meant.”
Then came Southampton and the wheel turned in the right direction. The lone goal broke the jinx and Henry finished the season with 17 Premiership goals in 31 appearances. The next season opened the floodgates and the stage was set for the man to create history. And he did.
Thierry Henry developed himself into a deadly striker at Arsenal. He became a nightmare for the opposition defenders as he went on to score goals at will. He, very quickly, went up the “best forever” list, but he solidified his perch right on top when he helped the team to go through an undefeated season to acquire the name of “The Invincibles”— winning both the League and the prestigious Golden Boot award.
However, the legend of Henry isn’t about the Cups and the Championships that he won. Henry went beyond his limits to secure the status of a legend. He is neither the best striker to grace the pitch, nor is he the most skillful footballer ever. Though he played as a striker, he wasn’t even the best header of the ball. And a striker who can’t head the ball isn’t considered as a pure goal scorer. He would never be compared to Pele or Maradona or even his fellow compatriot Zidane, yet Thierry Henry created his own cult.
That’s where Henry is different. He has always been about improving and his metamorphosis from a starlet in Monaco to Arsenal’s greatest player ever is nothing short of legendary. His primary strength has been his lightning pace and he has used that to ransack oppositions. He always has been too fast with the ball at his feet and even in the twilight of his career, he does things which most footballers can’t even imagine.
In the words of his long time striking partner Dennis Bergkamp –“You give him the ball in the right place and his acceleration will take him past any defender in the world.”
Even the opposition defenders openly confessed their fright of playing against Henry.
“His best quality is his speed while the ball is at his feet. No defender in the world can keep up with him.” — Lilian Thuram
1999-2006 – the world saw the best of Henry and also of Arsenal. Perhaps, the biggest reason for Henry’s love affair with Arsenal was his image in his country. In France and in the national team, he was never the number one star. With the shadow of Zinedine Zidane looming large, all Henry could muster was a close second place. His statement – “I may be French, but I play for Arsenal…” echoed how both Arsenal and Henry fed off each other. He made them “The Invincibles” and they made him “The King”.
However, like all great kings, Henry’s legend is marred with its own glitch. After leading Arsenal to the Champions League finals in 2006, “the King” left his kingdom in search of unconquered treasures. Though he resisted the temptation for the first time, come 2007, he gave in. He moved away to Spain and Arsenal was never the same again.
Without Henry, Arsenal began the season impressively so as to justify his statement “It was good for the team that I moved on” but with time, a group of youngsters lost their way. Henry went on to acquire the Champions League medal but his legend would have been immortilised had he did it wearing the Gunners’ shirt. He not only left Arsenal, but also unknowingly started the “I want to win trophies…” parade that saw the star players desert Arsenal for the years to come.
However, the Arsenal fans never criticized him for moving away, neither did he face their wrath like Robin van Persie. Maybe because the relationship ran its course and right now, the fans have way too many in their hate list. Henry, too, did his bit. French is a sweet language and the man has used it to keep them happy.
“Arsenal is in my blood as well as my heart….Everybody knows how much I love Arsenal – I became a fan.” - He has expressed his deepest regards for the club and his final comeback, last season, perhaps healed the remaining specks of pain in the Gooner hearts.
But there has never been a day that’s gone by when the fans haven’t felt the void. Even today, every time the balls rolls onto the wings, they wish that the number 14 jersey bore a different name and he would ease past the defenders with style and place the ball into the bottom corner with the commentators expressing their elation as “And it’s Henryyyy….” – Maybe just one last time!
You can read the rest of the club legends here.