Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday June 25 2007
I received a phone call late Friday afternoon from a good friend of mine who is, for want of a better word, well connected. A couple of hours before the whailing sky sports news banners and the sound of gossip had hit the drinking establishments of Croydon, I had been informed that Thierry Henry had agreed to join Barcelona. I was on my way back from a funeral, and the irony suddenly struck me that I had discovered the sale of Patrick Vieira two years ago on my way home from a funeral. On this occasion, the information barely even pierced my conscience. Even as the chitter chatter hit the bars and clubs and the television screens screamed in mute tribute, it did not feel like a funeral for the future of Arsenal Football Club. Truth be told, it felt like a renaissance.
This may be partly due to the strong current of truth that permeated the speculation surrounding Henry's future. Thierry's infamous, 'For now, I am an Arsenal player' had set tongues a flutter, as well as pictures circulating of Wenger having dinner with Barca representatives. But most of you who read this site regularly will be fully aware of my stance towards Henry for sometime, I have made it very public and, understandably, receieved much criticism for doing so. Nobody likes to hear their heroes being spoken ill of. My stance has always been that Arsenal players are simply human beings, human beings who have the immense privilege to be paid exorbitant sums to play for our great club. They are servants of our club and we owe them nothing, we pay them our money and they owe us their best efforts. Last November I produced an article on here questioning Henry's integrity as he pulled out of the match at the Reebok stadium with an injury. It had become a familiar pattern, Thierry missing tough, crucial away games only to return fighting fit for an easier home game. Last September, Henry missed away matches at Manchester United and Hamburg- with his team yet to register a victory- and returned for Sheffield United at home. Most felt this was due to exhaustion following a long campaign in 2005/06, but the statistics tell a different story. In his Arsenal career, Thierry Henry scored one Arsenal goal at Old Trafford (in a 1-6 defeat), twice at Anfield (one a penalty), once at Stamford Bridge, once at White Hart Lane, once at St. James' Park and never scored at the Reebok stadium. Are you honestly telling me that a player of Henry's unrivalled quality is incapable of gracing such venues with more consistent genius?
Henry has also yet to score a goal in any sort of Cup Final in his career. That's one French Cup Final, 3 F.A Cup Finals, 1 UEFA Cup Final, One European Championship Final and one Champions' League Final. Ample chance for a guy with his peerless scoring record to register on the scoresheet surely? (Especially when one considers that Steve Morrow and Andy Linghan outstrip him in this category). Henry has only scored in one semi final in ten attempts. I always felt that Henry was a mercurial talent, but one seriously lacking in the fibre for the big occasion. His performances in away matches began to recede into self parody, with most of his adoring public glued to soccer saturday or capital gold, he cut a disinterested figure, one unwilling to chase the lost cause. This is where I find the opinions of Henry so revealingly polarised, those that attend away matches with any regularity have been much more inclined to question his attitude in his last two seasons at the club. Henry was always been a physically performative figure, one not unwilling to shoot a look of moon faced petualnce towards a glancing camera. But as Thierry openly revealed that he was questioning his future, camera fodder turned to out and out pouting. Don't get me wrong, Henry had every right to consider his future and the press speculation that followed was hardly his fault. He always said he would make his decision at the end of the season and so he did.
My problem here was that the prospect of him leaving caused the Gooner going public to fawn over him, preening to his whims and polishing his ego with lyrical wax. Henry, like his Gaelic predecessor Eric Cantona, was a player of arrogance. It was what made him so darn good. The poker faced looks he would shoot towards prone defenders, the nutmegging of Danny Mills, the 'now you see it, now you don't' air kick against Middlesbrough which caused several thousand instances of whiplash. The list of outrageous goals is endless, enveloped as they are in self confidence and style. Henry made Premiership football look easy. However, as the pandering and the fawning began during our ultimate season at Highbury, Henry's composed va va voom morphed into a consuming and spiteful selfishness. Henry had Arsenal by the balls and he knew it, any untoward word that chanced his direction, he knew he could say 'au revoir' in riposte. Henry began to openly lambast team mates on the pitch with alarming regularity. Of course, there had been such incidences before. Who can forget his injury time open goal miss in a 1-1 draw with United, culminating in him turning and lamenting his team mate Lauren. An act of cowardice, but one informed by a moment of passion. In 05/06, Henry began to saunter very casually around the pitch, picking and choosing his passes, publicly humiliating the young pretender Reyes. His contribution was fitful, he would stand on the half way line demanding the ball, if it did not arrive he refused to take any further part in the move. Dig out your 05/06 DVDs and take a look at Alex Hleb's goal in a 3-0 win over Charlton and you'll see what I mean.
Once Henry signed his contract extension in the summer of 2006, I will not pretend I was anything other than delighted. However, I still had reservations about his attitude which I again expressed publicly. I was very resentful of the suggestion that Henry's contract renewal was more important to Arsenal than winning the Champions' League, I found this a very myopic attitude and confirmation that Henry was being put into a position of unwarranted power. The decision to appoint Henry captain in the wake of Vieira's departure smacked of sycophantic arse kissing, Henry is not captain material, we all know that, that's not his fault, leadership is something inherent. Henry lapped up the adulation and he clearly began to suffocate the team on the pitch as his work rate diminished even further, inhibiting Arsenal's legion of fledgling talents with his domineering, dissatisfied posture. I appreciate that his fitness was not at its peak after his World Cup exertions, but nobody seems to attribute Philippe Senderos' indifferent campaign to the same factor. The Gunners' run to the Carling Cup Final, the victories away at Manchester United, Hamburg the creditable draw at Stamford Bridge were all achieved without him. As Henry was sidelined with injury, Cesc Fabregas assumed the mantle of pivot. The team became his.
Last December, Wenger dropped Henry, and the captain did not react well. A row ensued on the training ground, and despite the annual drubbing of Spurs, Wenger's face was a picture of rage in the post match interviews. I knew we would sell Thierry then. Wenger did not stand for Overmars' apathy, Petit's reluctance to undergo knee surgery or Vieira's indifferent displays. I had no doubt Wenger would follow that procedure again. The emergence of Robin van Persie, together with Fabregas' gifts becoming increasingly indispensible were the death knell for Henry. In Henry's absence, I feel van Persie will relish the role of main man, he has the talent and the self confidence to undertake that role. Henry left Arsenal amidst claims of boardroom unrest and the departure of his new best friend David Dein. I am sorry, but Thierry you're kidding yourself and conning the supporters. If you stay at Barca for three years, you will see three different boardroom every year and, last time I checked, David Dein did not work for Barcelona. My view is that these are excuses designed to protect his pride having been sold.
I would like to finish this long piece by thanking Henry for his immense contribution to our club. Our unbeaten season would have been an oasis in the desert without his unrivalled contribution. He has provided us all with some fantastic memories and is probably the most gifted footballer I have ever seen. However, one of the many harsh lessons life has taught me is that you should always trust your instincts, they never lie to you. I have never truly felt that Henry was a genuine personality, the badge thumping and hyperbolised rhetoric of affection always struck me as an attempt to score high in the poularity stakes. So it is with his departing comments that they just do not ring true. Friederich Engels once said that an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory and I do not believe that Henry 'always gave one hundred per cent.' His status as a legend is secure and I will bore my grandchildren with his exploits, but the time was right for him to depart and this great football club will grow without him. People also neglect to mention that he has a sciatic injury, and they never go away. A player as reliant on pace as Henry will be adversely affected by this. I remember his goal at Anfield in the cup last season, when he dispossessed Jamie Carragher (how I had hoped it signalled a change in attitude), but was struck by the fact that Carra consummately outpaced him in a straight race. The irony of signing Anelka as his replacement is too delicious to ignore and would truly cement the genius of Arsene Wenger. He is the indispensable one, he is the special one, when he leaves I will panic. Let's hope the arrivals of Grimandi and Anelka point to a long term future for our manager, that, ironically enough, point squarely at our delightful past. LD.
Date:Monday June 25 2007
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