The Man Who Fell To Earth
This is the last in the legends series that I have composed over the summer months. Some enormous characters have permeated these pages as we've looked back over our club's rich and varied history. Some have been included because they have assisted the evolution of Arsenal F.C, some have pulled the club from the doldrums and dragged it kicking and screaming into revolution, some changed the face of the game of football altogether. But some, dear reader, some have been included, because they are fucking geniuses.
Thierry Daniel Henry was born on 17th August, 1977 in the tough les ulis suburb of Essone in Paris. His talent with a football was keenly observed at the tender age of 7, when a young Henry, descendant of Guadeloupe and Martinique immigrant parents, was recruited to play for CO Les Ulis. Thierry was naturally gifted, but not entirely devoted to the game of football. It would take the persistent jockeying of his father to attend training sessions as papa Henry urged his son to expand on his obvious gifts. So Thierry's father, Daniel, drove his son to training every day and kept a nurturing eye over the fruits of his loins. When Thierry was 13, a Monaco scout watched him score six goals in a single game and signed him for Monaco immediately without a trial. He was then sent to the venerated Clarefontaine academy to continue his schooling, both sporting and intellectual. Poor performance at school raised questions from the Monaco hierachy as to his suitability as a professional, but then Monaco coach Arsene Wenger insisted he be signed. Henry made his debut for the first team in 1994, originally as a striker. In hindsight, it's ironic that Wenger moved him out to the left flank as he became integrated into the team, feeling his pace and ability to cut inside would see him become a more potent threat. He was awarded the French Young Player of the Year for 1996, won a Ligue 1 title in 1997 and scored seven goals in a Champions League run which took Monaco to the Semi Finals. That still stands as a record for a French player in the competition.
Henry was called up to the French side in 1998 and included in the 98 World Cup winning squad, finishing the tournament as France's top scorer with three goals. Arsenal came a calling and Thierry wanted to move to North London with a moves for Kluivert and van Nistelrooy thwarted. But the asking price became a stumbling block and Henry instead went to Juventus in a deal worth £10.5m. However, he endured a miserable spell, lacking in confidence and marooned on the wing in a league that demanded defensive efficiency at all costs saw him leave just one year later. Henry's early promise seemed to have fizzled out, just as his friend and compatriot Nicolas Anelka was beginning to cause a stir in North London. A protracted and controversial move to Madrid, saw Arsenal lacking one young, wing heeled French striker. So of course Arsene went and signed an out of sorts winger.
Thierry took a little while to settle in the Premiership, the spirit was willing but the shooting was wayward. Wenger muses in retrospect, 'he had convinced himself he could not score goals.' Henry was less tactful, 'My shots were going nearer the clock than the goal. I was rubbish.' It is an example of his media savvy that has made him such a beacon of the television age. His first goal arrived at the Dell in September 1999 and the weight visibly lifted. In Lee Dixon's testimonial in November 1999, Henry sat on the bench next to Martin Keown. Ian Wright played in the match and Keown instructed Henry to watch and learn. Henry went to the club shop and purchased a VHS Cassette of Wright's goals. He went onto score 26 goals in the 1999-2000 season, scoring in every round of the UEFA Cup on Arsenal's ill fated sojourn to the final. That summer, Henry was pivotal in France's last gasp European Championship victory. Arsene Wenger lifted some amis for Henry from that side, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord were signed, to form a symbiotic quartet with Vieira and Henry. The partnership particulalry between Pires and Henry down the left hand side was like watching two talented graffiti artists leave an indellible mark on the left touchline. In 2000-01, Henry began to grow into the role of virtuoso, with the equally sublime Bergkamp supplying the bullets. Henry's arrival was, in essence, cemented in October 2000 against Manchester United. Receiving the ball with his back to goal, he impudently flicked the ball up and in the blink of an eye, swivelled executed a delightful dipping volley over Barthez. It was this sense of improvisation and unwavering self belief that came to set him apart from mere mortals. Henry again ended up a runner up, this time in the F.A. Cup as Arsenal lost the final to Liverpool. Thierry became frustrated by the club's inability to surmount the final hurdle and infamously implored his manager to buy 'a fox in the box.'
2001-02 would see Henry and Arsenal make amends with avengeance. The signing of Sol Campbell something of a watershed in the summer of 2001. As Thierry himself pondered, 'thank God I don't have to play against him any more!' Arsenal won the Premiership and F.A. Cup double and Henry won the Golden Boot, scoring 32 goals in all competitions. Stand out contributions against Manchester United, capitalising on two monumental Barthez errors to steal a late victory. Two late goals against Aston Villa sealed a dramatic comeback, winning 3-2 having been 2-0 down at half time. In tandem with Robert Pires, Henry stood apart as a flambouyant match winner, capable of the extraordinary. But something else made him unique and cemented his reputation. His sense of media savvy charm wooed journalists and neutrals alike, an expressive character who could turn a disinterested Gaellic shrug into a lightning half volley at the twist of a hair. His will of the wisp, instinctive style complimented by camera flirting bouts of moonfaced petulance made him a bonafide legend of the media age. His two minute tirade against Graham Poll revealed his artistic temperament, whilst a bewildered expression following a serendipitous goal against Fulham demonstrated Henry's awareness of himself as an entertainer. Henry was a playful character who wanted to share his boyish enthusiasm for the game. But when things weren't going his way, frankly, he could border on the obnoxious. Both of these contradictory yet symbiotic traits, channelled into a football, made him a truly outstanding specimen.
Buoyed by the hurt of a poor 2002 World Cup campaign in which Henry was sent off for France against Senegal, Thierry was about to enter his unsurpassable phase. The English language simply cannot furnish one with the adeaquate vocabulary to properly articulate Henry's form over the next two seasons. Numbers paint a revealing picture, with Highbury as his green and pleasant canvas (or his 'garden' as he affectionately referred to it), Henry scored 42 goals and provided 23 assists in the 2002-03 season alone. A hat trick against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico, an F.A. Cup winners medal and of course, his sixty yard saunter through the entire Tottenham team followed by typically iconoclastic celebration were irreverant and outstanding highlights. Arsenal narrowly missed out on the League title, but Henry bagged himself the PFA Player of the Season, the Football Writers' Player of the Season and he finished runner up in the FIFA World Player of the Year. That he didn't win it is an indellible smear on the very integrity of the award in this writer's humble opinion.
Once again, Henry and his teammates would use pain and hurt as a platform for success as Arsenal achieved the unthinkable and won a league title without incurring a single league defeat. Were it not for Henry, such a feat would have been an oasis in the desert. After single handedly dismantling Inter in the San Siro in the Champions League (in which he paid Javier Zanetti the utmost compliment by beating him twice before scoring), Thierry was the catayst of a team at the peak of their powers. This was exemplified none more so than on a Good Friday meeting with Liverpool at Highbury. Having been knocked out of the F.A. Cup by Manchester United and the Champions League by Chelsea in the six days previous, the Gunners went 1-0 down in a make or break league encounter. Henry equalised, before a morale sapped Gunners side conceded again before half time. Henry set up Pires for a second half equaliser, before visibly taking the Premiership trophy by the lapels. Picking the ball upon the half way line, Henry slalomed past the entire Liverpool team, even shimmying and dummying to the point that Carragher went crashing into his team mate Hamann, before cooly slotting into the net. Moments of genius are one thing, but in such white hot conditions, they are only to be revered and retold throughout the generations. Henry's performance one week later at home to Leeds United will echo through the annals of history. He helped himsef to four goals, one of which amazingly scored after Gary Kelly, tired of chasing his shadow, cynically tripped him in the area. It seemed you couldn't even immobilise him. Andy Gray told a stunned audience, 'I've seen a lot in my twenty five years in football. I haven't seen the likes of him.'
But aside from the serious stuff of shooting the Gunners to another Premiership title, as well as winning two more Player of the Year awards and another Golden Boot, Henry never lost his sense of mischief. In particular, an amusing exchange with Danny Mills, who foolishly tried to psyche Henry out of a penalty kick. Henry converted before thumping his chest hyperactively in Mills' direction. Later Henry would leave Mills gawping in embarrassment, nutmegging him delightfully by the corner flag. Henry was a true footballing thespian, and the football pitch was his stage. Another 32 goals in the 2004-05 season, another Golden Boot and another F.A. Cup winners' medal added to Henry's swelling silverware collection. In October 2004, the archetypal Henry goal against Charlton Athletic in front of the North Bank. With his back to goal and Jonathan Fortune holding Henry in a firm grip, Thierry scored unfathomably with a delicious backheel. It was an analytical, intelligent, impudent piece of improvisational genius. It was pure Henry.
But the 2004-05 campaign would reveal less endearing characteristics. Following an outrageous comment from Spain coach Luis Aragones, referring to Henry as 'a black shit' to Jose Reyes in a Spain training session began a tempestuous cooling in relations between the two. Henry began to bully and berate Reyes on the pitch, causing the already introverted Andalucian to shrink even further into his shell. The rift revealed a Franco Spanish split in the camp. It is no coincidence that Pascal Cygan, Robert Pires, Reyes and Lauren (raised in Seville) left the club soon after. That summer, Henry's friend and team mate Patrick Vieira left the club, seeing Henry installed as captain. But with two years left on his contract and Henry at 28, he admitted that he was considering his future in North London. Henry was a less than ideal captain, Thierry's greatness was encapsulated in his individuality. With the role of top scorer, top assist maker, penalty taker, corner taker and media icon already well and truly bestowed upon him, the captaincy became a step too far. It did not prevent Henry making more history, two goals on a chilly night in Praha in October 2005 saw him surpass Ian Wright as the club's all time leading scorer. A goal against West Ham at Highbury shattered Bastin's record of 151 league goals. He iconically sealed Highbury's farewell with a hat trick on the last ever game at the old ground, kissing the ground in recognition after his third goal.
The campaign proved to be an ill fated one. A wonder goal in the Bernebeu set Arsenal on their way to the Champions League final in Henry's native Paris. But a final defeat to Barcelona, with Arsenal playing much of the game with ten men saw the season finish on a sour note. Henry raged at the final whistle, accusing his suitors Barca of playing 'like women.' Henry would also be on the losing side as France lost the 2006 World Cup Final to Italy on penalties. But Henry decided to sign a new contract and stay with the club he felt emotionally bound to. An injury hit season bought down the curtain on Henry's Arsenal career. 10 goals in 17 games was a decent return, but the throne had now been passed to Fabregas. Henry had a heated exchange with Wenger on the eve of a North London derby and the Boss ordered him to go home and take a month off. Adebayor symbolically scored two goals in said North London derby. The torch was being passed as Henry's presence had become inhibiting. The time was right to leave and Henry joined Barcelona for £16.5m in July 2007. In July 2008, he was voted Arsenal's greatest player of all time.
If you were to design some kind of perfect, Frankenstein footballer in a genetics lab somewhere, you would give him Henry's build. Tall and lean, fast as a gazelle, powerful as a marauding lion stalking a zebra in the Serengeti. (Good looking bastard too). Henry was an artist, a poet who treated the football pitch like a blank page on which to weave his mesmeric patterns. He fully understood and embraced his role as an entertainer, he comprehended the sense of theatre in his craft. Thierry was a passionate character, occasionally volatile, but charming in a gentlemenly way. His range of gestures and the openness to which he gave interview made him an engaging and disarming character. He behaved like a gentleman on the pitch too, playing the game with an insatiable love. He understood his importance as a role model, launching a nationwide anti racism initiative with Nike. Thierry was a shot of Gaellic flair who embraced the traditions of the club, a perceptive and analytical character, Titi inhaled the history of the football club and projected it with passion onto a neon mast. But above all, the guy made top level football seem the most asinine of tasks. In a sense, he never lost the feeling of being a child kicking a knackered old football around the gravelly streets of the French projects. The whole world was not so much his stage, as his playground. His garden if you will.LD.