Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday December 29 2009
In some ways, trying to build a sense of suspense when considering Arsenal`s Player of the Noughties was a fool`s errand. Really, the anticipation lay in who would be erected on the bronze and silver podia. Many will not agree with the omissions of undisputed club legends Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp. Had the timeframe in question been from 1995-2005, both would have featured in the top two (don`t ask me to commit to a running order!). However, Vieira left the club in 2005 and, in truth, he had really checked out in the summer of 2004, producing an incredibly ordinary season in 2004-05. Bergkamp was perhaps a little harder to leave out, having retired in 2006. Despite entering the millennium as a 31 year old, Bergkamp was still a major player for Arsenal until his retirement in 2006. However, a few too many of those years were spent as an impact substitute to warrant inclusion. (That sounds very frivolous I know, considering the impact he did make in that role, but this is a competitive list indeed and piffling criteria will always be a deciding factor).
I concede that the points above are up for debate. I don`t believe there is any debate about the player in pole position. Quite simply, whatever the criteria or timeframe, when constructing a list of Arsenal`s mesmerising and outstanding performers, Thierry Henry is always likely to be top of the charts. Henry would likely be the greatest Arsenal player of most decades- in fact the 1930s is possibly the only decade where there would be reasonable doubt. (Readers old enough to have seen Liam Brady play may be the only dissenting voices I feel). One of my greatest wishes in life is to live long enough to see the birth of the sort of technology that will allow sufficient genetic cloning to be able to construct a number of mutant super football teams- where the likes of Alex James, Liam Brady, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry in their prime could pit their wits against Best, Charlton, Ronaldo and Duncan Edwards in supreme physical condition. As it happens Henry`s peak is tailor made for the parameters of this era. Thierry arrived in the summer of 1999 as a promising young striker who had lost his way as a forlorn winger at Juventus. "He convinced himself he could not score goals," Arsene Wenger- the man who unearthed him at Monaco, remarked in hindsight. It took Thierry a couple of months to get out of the rut and into the groove in an Arsenal shirt, but with his typically self assured sense of timing, as the new millennium came beckoning, Henry began to start flying.
By the time January 2000 came around, Henry had dislodged Davor Suker and Nwankwo Kanu to become Dennis Bergkamp`s first choice strike partner. After a two goal salvo against Derby at Highbury in November 1999, Thierry simply never looked back, registering a goal every other game for the rest of his Arsenal days. His burst of form came too late to salvage our Champions League campaign, as Arsenal fizzled out in the group stages, but the UEFA Cup gave him a perfect canvas on which to weave his expressive brush strokes of genius. Henry scored in every round as Arsenal got to the UEFA Cup Final, chalking up goals home and away at Nantes, home and away against Werder Bremen and in the Semi Final away leg at R.C. Lens. (He had been suspended for the first leg after picking up the only red card of his Arsenal career in Bremen- a quite outrageously harsh decision by the match official). Unfortunately, Henry couldn`t stop Arsenal losing the Final to Galatasaray on a penalty shoot out. But that summer, he went to Italy as his country`s foremost striker, as France swept to Euro 2000 glory. Henry finished his first season in North London with 26 goals and 11 assists in 47 appearances and was voted into the UEFA Team of the Tournament for Euro 2000- a fine platform from which to build. That summer, Arsenal plundered that seminal French side, purchasing Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires to bolster the Gaelic contingent already evident with Henry, Vieira and Grimandi. The stage was set and with thespian precision, Henry was about to shuffle to centre stage.
By the beginning of the 2000-01 season, Henry`s confidence was such that not only did he assume the mantle of being Arsenal`s star turn- he positively demanded that responsibility- it was his oxygen. In Henry, we knew we had a great striker, but in October 2000 he would truly arrive with the first in a cavalcade of iconographic moments. In a tight home match with Manchester United, thirty one minutes into the match, Gilles Grimandi played a short free kick into Henry`s feet on the edge of the area with his back to goal, with Gary Neville in close attention Henry produced a moment of inspired improvisation- flicking the ball up before twisting and volleying it in one movement. Fabien Barthez was a helpless bystander as the ball sailed gracefully into the top corner. It would be the goal that won the game and an example of not only Henry`s outrageous technical ability- but the self confidence, arrogance even- to trust in that ability and execute the kind of goals that most footballers would not even have the intelligence to fantasise about. It was a goal for which you feel the invention of slow motion replays was wont. On an emotional day at Highbury in March 2001, on the day that David Rocastle died- Henry would score another picture book goal in a North London derby. It was a goal that was so typically Henry, with Spurs a goal down and pushing hard for an equaliser, Henry received the ball expectantly in the centre circle; he had only Chris Perry between him and the goal. Henry would again show that utter conviction when dawdling around the prone- back peddling centre half before slotting the ball into the net. The situation was dealt with with such insouciance. The body language of Henry, calm, assured, utterly convinced as were all spectators that he would beat his man with the minimum of fuss, was of such a stark contrast to that of Perry- cowered, unsure of what to do, as aware as the rest of us that he was simply being given a front row seat in the theatre that was Thierry Henry. He petrified defenders because they simply did not have the armoury to dispossess him. Get too close and his electric pace will carry him past you. Stand off and his outstanding skill will take him around you. Henry could run faster with a football at his feet than most Premiership footballers given a standing start sans ball.
Henry would finish the season in the PFA Team of the Year- a residence he held every year thereafter until 2007. He would score 22 goals in 53 appearances and win Arsenal.com`s Player of the Season- an award he won a further five times. But team honours still eluded him. The Gunners would get to the 2001 Cup Final only to be beaten in the final seven minutes to Liverpool`s only two shots on target in the entire game. As Henry wiped away the tears at the final whistle, he erroneously revealed a tee shirt he had underneath his shirt bearing the legend- George 71, Henry 01. That he "accidentally" revealed the tee shirt despite unfortunately not getting the chance to air it in the circumstances he would have liked elucidates Henry`s sense of drama and poetry, he wanted to love and be loved and show a connection with his team and his supporters. With two consecutive Cup Final defeats behind him at his time at Arsenal thus far, the Gunners were being written off as England`s perennial bridesmaids, forced to look mournfully on as Ferguson tossed the bouquet year on year. But Arsenal were galvanised by their disappointments and determined to usurp United`s dominance. Thierry Henry was about to become the best striker on the planet.
Henry began his season in his own imitable style, scoring a superb control and volley to open the scoring at the Riverside, a game Arsenal would win 4-0. With the signing of Sol Campbell that summer, Arsenal had a steely backbone with Vieira marshalling the middle of the park and Henry, with the aid of arch providers Pires and Bergkamp, proving to be the jewel in the crown. Henry was adding further strings to his bow as he began to take on the mantle of team figurehead. He began taking penalties, corners and suddenly became incredibly prolific from free kicks. In his first two seasons, Henry`s free kicks were the butt of terrace jokes, but after scoring directly from a free kick for the first time ever in September 2001 in a 2-0 victory over Derby at Pride Park, Henry never looked back. It was a skill that did not initially come naturally to him, but one that he worked on and honed on the training ground. Henry had become a genuine match winner; it would be his goals in December 2001 that would claw Arsenal back from 2-1 down in a heart stopping, 3-2 injury time win against Aston Villa, his two goals from Fabien Barthez errors that would memorably defeat Manchester United at Highbury. Henry`s personality began to come to the fore; he was a cameraman`s dream. His sense of drama endemic, he had a vaudevillian air about him, his comically Gaelic shrug, his moon faced bouts of petulance, he was unmistakably, cartoonishly French. His goal celebration in a home match against Fulham, when Lauren`s header bounced off the post and hit him on the knee before unwittingly ricocheting into the net, he shrugged and laughed ironically into the camera. Or his frighteningly cool celebration for his second goal against Charlton at the Valley, having careered down the pitch at light speed to meet Sylvain Wiltord`s low cross for a tap in, he slid along the floor with the air of a man in his own front room. Or else the goading scowl at Middlesbrough fans who had tossed insults at him at Old Trafford in the F.A. Cup Semi Final. Henry found awards, both individual and team oriented, aplenty come May 2002. Arsenal won the Premiership and F.A. Cup; Henry won the Golden boot, appearing 47 times during the season, scoring amassing a total of 32 goals in 49 appearances. But with the injury to Robert Pires, Henry developed another side to his game. With a major creative pivot of the Arsenal side out with a cruciate ligament injury, Henry would have to shoulder the responsibility of being a provider as well as a scorer of goals. His trademark was to drift out to the left flank and become involved in the build up play to a move much earlier than a striker ordinarily would, in that sense, he redefined the role of the striker in England. His altruistic side was most famously exposed in the season`s final match at home to Everton, when he wilfully created several opportunities for Francis Jeffers to score a much wanted goal against his old club.
Despite an underwhelming World Cup- in which Henry was sent off in the opening match as France crashed out of the Group Stages without even scoring a goal, Henry`s astronomical standards would escalate further. Not satisfied with being the club`s top scorer, he began to relish the role of provider too. In the 2002-03 season, Henry registered 24 assists to compliment his tally of 32 goals- all this in 55 appearances. He was responsible in some manner for over half of our goals. No mean feat considering Arsenal still sported the likes of Ljungberg, Pires, Bergkamp and Wiltord in their considerable arsenal. During the season, it appeared every week was a picture book moment. He registered the 2—203 Goal of the Season and in some style too. In a home game against Tottenham, with the scores at 0-0, Henry shielded the ball away from Etherington on the edge of his own area. He sauntered forwards, gazelle like with the ball, the Spurs players unable to keep up with him even though they did not have the handicap of trying to keep a football under control as they sprinted, he moved forwards metronomically, running a total of sixty yards before curving the ball past Keller from the edge of the area. Illuminating his sense of pantomime again, he celebrated by surging back towards the Spurs fans, sliding on his knees before them. His first class Champions League hat trick in Rome that November proved to be another highlight. He also reached the landmark of 100 Arsenal goals one week after Dennis Bergkamp achieved the same milestone after scoring twice at St. Andrews in a 4-0 mauling of Birmingham. Henry was obsessed with statistics and was of course, fully aware that he had notched his 100th goal as he celebrated; his pride in his work all consuming. Thierry was simply on another plateau, playing to the beat of a different drum. He made the football pitch look like his back garden such was the ease in which he moved past players, the comfort apparent in his posture as he stroked home another winning goal or defence splitting pass. If all the world is truly a stage, then Henry was football`s answer to Charlie Chaplin- he wrote, produced, directed, wrote the score for and acted his own scripts. Arsenal fell agonisingly short in the title race that season, but did amass another F.A. Cup for the sideboard. Henry`s cabinet was swelled as he was voted PFA Players` Player of the Year and Football Writers` Player of the Year. Though van Nistelrooy pipped him to the Golden Boot by a solitary goal, the vote was unanimous as to the who the world`s greatest striker was. That season, Arsenal fans began singing the song, "We`ve got the best player in the world." We meant it too and there were few dissenting voices. This was no chant of one eyed adoration or cynical terrace irony, it was bordering on an assertion of concrete fact.
2003-04 would become Arsenal`s finest season ever and probably Henry`s too. Of course, the fact that Arsenal secured the title without so much as a solitary defeat is an achievement that bears repetition. That Henry won himself another Golden Boot, another PFA Players` Player of the Year Award and another Football Writers` Player of the Year award should not go without mention too. That he came 2nd in the running for the 2003 World Footballer of the Year and the 2003 European Footballer of the Year awards is an inscrutable tragedy and one that has rendered the awards completely meaningless to me ever since. Once again, Henry would set the picture book moments for Arsenal`s finest ever season. Who could forget his single handed dismantlement of Inter Milan`s defence as the Gunners soared to a 5-1 victory in the San Siro? Or his thirty yard screamer against United at Highbury? He provided one of the most imperious individual performances the top flight has witnessed in techni-colour when he notched four goals against Leeds at Highbury- his fourth goal perhaps the most memorable. As he once again sank his teeth into Leeds` weary defence, Gary Kelly, presumably tired of chasing Henry`s shadow, wearily clipped Henry`s heels as he bore down on goal, Henry stumbled but still managed to lift the ball over Blobinson as he fell to the ground. His individual genius would be responsible for one of the most seminal goals in the club`s history. Having been knocked out of the F.A. Cup by Manchester United and out of the Champions League by Chelsea within the space of four days, Arsenal trailed Liverpool at Highbury by two goals to one at half time. Henry teed up Pires for the equaliser before caressing the canvas with a brushstroke of genius. He picked up the ball in the centre circle, proceeded to slalom past four Liverpool players, leaving Jamie Carragher and Igor Biscan to collide comically as they limply gave chase, before calmly slotting the ball past Dudek. A moment of pure genius when we needed it most. Henry notched 39 goals and 14 assists in 51 appearances and became the first Arsenal player to register 30 league goals since Ronnie Rook in the 1940s. By now, Henry had become the complete footballer. Tall and lean, quick and strong, intelligence off the ball, poetry on it, a self confidence that allowed him to execute the outrageous, deadly from the spot or from a well placed free kick, power and guile. He had it all. At away grounds, when he would move to the corner of the pitch to take corners, opposing supporters would rise to their feet to applaud, Portsmouth supporters lasciviously sang to him, "We`re gonna sign Henry." We were truly the envy of the world.
Henry continued to set new standards in the English game and aided Arsenal to a record breaking 49 matches without defeat. His sense of theatre again apparent in the heart stopping 5-3 victory over Middlesbrough, when Pires`s tap in restored the scores to 3-3, the cameras followed Pires as he celebrated. Sat in the Clock End, we saw something the cameras didn`t pick up. Henry scooped the ball out of the net, and shouted at the Boro fans, "We`re not finished yet!" before slamming the ball on the centre spot and urging his team mates back from their celebrations. 33 seconds later, Arsenal were in the lead. Henry had a sense of drama and occasion in him, he understood the feelings of the supporters and tapped straight into their emotions, like a gladiator in some great Roman coliseum, standing over his prone opponent in some life or death milieu. Hnery retained the Golden Boot and the Golden Shoe in 2004-05- the first player to ever retain the Golden Shoe award. He scored 32 goals and provided 17 assists in 42 appearances, registering Goal of the Season contenders against Crystal Palace and Norwich City. He was again an F.A. Cup winner though he was injured for the serendipitous penalty shoot out win in the final against Manchester United. The next season was dominated by transfer speculation as Henry refused to commit any word on his future until the end of the 2005-06 season when there would be one year left on his contract, coinciding with his 29th birthday. Despite the infuriating speculation, Henry still provided us with magic. With the departure of his friend and captain Patrick Vieira in the summer of 2005, Henry was appointed club captain. The move was a bad one, designed to tug on the sentimental Parisian`s heartstrings, he had been allowed to become too important to the club, expected to be a constant one man show, the shadow of his brilliance shading a young nand emerging team. It wasn`t all entirely his fault. He did play a prominent part in Arsenal`s run to the 2006 Champions League Final, his most memorable contribution the brilliant solo goal that slayed the might of Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. Though the young side matched and outstripped Madrid, they needed a moment of magic to catapult them above the parapet. Henry was always the man to provide that moment of brilliance. He also came off the bench to score a vital equaliser against Spurs in April as the two North London rivals went nose to nose for the coveted 4th place. As he celebrated another epoch making masterpiece, he bellowed, "It`s not over yet!" in defiance. In October 2005, Henry came off the bench in Praha and scored twice, breaking Arsenal`s all time goal scoring record.
Henry would skipper his side in their first ever European Cup Final, but alas, heart break was afoot and Henry could not become the first Arsenal player ever to lift the trophy- a moment that his brilliance as an Arsenal player would have deserved. He raged at the final whistle that Barcelona players were "Rolling around like women." He signed a new contract two days after that ill fated final, in his trademark poetry he gushed at the press conference about "The club I love." But 2005-06 did provide a moment that will forever be remembered as the iconographic moment of his career. Henry was always forthcoming about his sentimental attachment to Highbury, "my garden" as he lovingly described it in his clipped French tones. With Arsenal needing to better Spurs` result at Upton Park, Henry put the grand seal on the famous old ground. Whilst Spurs were filling their undercrackers, Henry scored a remarkable hat trick to defeat Wigan 4-2. Highbury`s most prolific ever goalscorer scored the last goal in front of the Clock End and the final goal inf ront of the North Bank. As he swept home a second half penalty, sealing his hat trick, he dropped to his knees and kissed the hallowed turf. After the match he sat in the centre circle for over half an hour as the other players disappeared to the changing rooms. Henry was bading a fond and public farewell to the ground he and we loved. As ever, his celebration was an iconic and public appreciation of the moment and it`s artistic substance. He had the sense of occasion of a rock n roll front man. On occasion, he was all Mick Jagger`s elastic hips and performative facial expressions, at others he had a deep, brooding, doe eyed scowl of a Liam Gallagher, peering out moodily on his adoring public.
Henry`s last season at Arsenal was unremarkable by his standards, enervated by a troubling sciatic injury. The team was being handed over ceremoniously to the impudent young Fabregas, Henry`s on pitch moods became increasingly belligerent. Second fiddle simply would not do. Wenger and Henry argued bitterly on the training ground in early December when Wenger instructed his captain to take some time off. It was then the manager realised that the relationship would have to end for Arsenal`s young team to grow. Henry had been allowed to become bigger than the club and our progress as a team would be interrupted with the looming spectre of Henry in the side. His last game was a most unbecoming one for a man of his legend as he hobbled off injured in a gut wrenching Champions League loss to PSV Eindhoven. His Arsenal career was ending as inauspciously as it had started. In the summer of 2007, Henry bade a tearful farewell as he departed for Barcelona, where he continues to collect the game`s greatest honours and forms part of a devastating attacking triumvirate that has literally swept all before it. In the summer of 2008, in an online poll conducted by Arsenal.com, Thierry Henry was voted Arsenal`s greatest ever player.
It is difficult to put into words what a great, great player Henry was. But my Grandchildren will bear my many attempts to verbalise it. In a void of sufficient superlatives, let us look at the figures and decorations.
PFA Players Player of the Year: 2002-03, 2003-04
Football Writers Player of the Year: 2002-03, 2003-04, 2005-06
European Golden Shoe: 2003-04, 2004-05
Golden Boot Winner: 2001-02, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06
PFA Team of the Year: 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06
UEFA Team of the Year: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006
French Player of the Year: 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006
Premiership Winner: 2001-02, 2003-04
F.A.C up Winner: 2002, 2003, 2005
Henry was a once in a lifetime sort of player, ruthlessly consistent. On one hand, an moody artiste, an individual, a non conformist who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the masses. Henry was the moody loner that prided himself on transporting spectators away from the humdrum of their everyday existences. The legerdmains of his now you see it now you don`t flick against Middlesbrough which drew gasps of admiration from the awed crowd. He was part artiste extradonaire, part thespian, almost belonging to the music hall tradition with his array of shrugs and pouts, the dramatic irony of a glare into a camera. Remember that goal celebration against Wigan? Having been told to wait to take his free kick by referee Graham Poll he nonchalantly curled the ball into the net before staring at Poll with dramatic precision and implored, "Is that enough?" Henry, like a great Roman gladiator, relied and thrived upon the adoration of the crowd, he tugged upon our heartstrings like a great concerto and was sustained by the love that radiated back to him. Henry was like a great painter, Highbury was his canvas and he was the blackboard upon which Arsene Wenger etched the basis of his most successful ever side upon his manifold talents. In the words of fellow club legend Tony Adams, "Thierry, bon faire mon frere."LD.
Date:Tuesday December 29 2009
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