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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Long Live The King

Thanks Thierry



Ian Wright broke a near 60 year-old Arsenal record in the Autumn of 1997. As we walked away from that game against Bolton my brother pointed out that we would probably never see another goal scorer like Wrighty in our lifetime. Less than two years later Arsene Wenger replaced Nicolas Anelka (who had already displaced Ian Wright) with Thierry Henry. Within eight years of Wright setting his record, this guy Henry had surpassed him. He became, quite simply, The King of Highbury.
When I got up this morning I did my usual thing of putting on Sky Sports News. I was met with their top story that Thierry Henry has retired as a professional footballer. The last faint hope that he would have one last hurrah as a member of the Arsenal squad was extinguished. Even more disappointingly he is going to be working for Sky Sports as a pundit, rather than in any role at Arsenal (BBC have paid the price for putting him on a panel with Robbie Savage at the World Cup). Now is not the time to go in to the wrongs of that so I'll lay off Wenger for a change. Suffice to say that I felt sad that he was finished as a player and all that's left are memories. The wonderful memories of an Arsenal player second only to Dennis Bergkamp. That they played in the same team, along with Lehmann, Campbell, Cole, Kolo, Lauren, Pires, Vieira, Gilberto, Parlour and Ljungberg tells you why Arsenal were so good at the time. 
Thierry arrived at Arsenal in August 1999 at the same time as Davor Suker. I remember him coming on against Leicester in the second half of the opening game of the season and breaking the net in front of the North Bank with a rocket of a shot. Unfortunately the shot had missed the target and smashed the rope holding the stanchion. That mix of explosive pace and terrible finishing was a feature of his first couple of months. He seemed unable to even control a football at times. He got that elusive first goal with a stunner at The Dell, and followed it up with a goal at Wembley against Solna in the Champions League - a goal he created by mis-controlling the ball and wrong footing the defence and goalkeeper. Nonetheless it broke the shackles a little and I remember Wembley physically shaking under the post-match celebrations of over 70,000 Arsenal supporters. We would still have a to wait a little for him to truly spark, but that arrived with a classy brace at home to Derby County. From there on he never, ever looked back.
Henry carried Arsenal to a European Final in his first season, but he couldn't find the net in Copenhagen as we lost to Galatsaray on penalties. His failure to score in Final's was an anomaly in his greatness that he could never put right for club or country, and was often used as a stick to beat him with by elements of the media. Of course that would overlook his contribution, even without scoring, in those big matches but it gave the media a negative narrative they could use against a genuinely World Class talent. I'm sure it frustrated him as much as it did us, but it shouldn't detract from his achievements. He also went on to win Euro 2000 at the end of his first Arsenal season, adding to his World Cup medal from 1998.
The following season also saw us come away from a Final empty handed after we were mugged in Cardiff by Michael Owen and, more particularly, the referee Steve Dunn. That defeat lit a spark in Thierry and a number of the other Arsenal players, augmented by the signing of Sol Campbell. Thierry's goals, with the major assistance of Bergkamp and Robert Pires, took us on the charge the following season. He won the first of his Golden Boot awards as Arsenal won the Double, though he would miss the coup-de-grace at Old Trafford through injury. By this time he was already moving in to Legend status. That was cemented with another FA Cup win the following year (though his Man Of The Match award in that game was "stolen" from the outstanding Oleg Luzhny in his final game for the Club).

 His most important Arsenal goal


The following season was the Invincible season. Thirty league goals tells you all you need to know about his contribution. What it doesn't tell you is just how good he was. Quite simply, Thierry Henry was truly unstoppable in 2003-04. No defender in the World could live with him. Just watch how Javier Zanetti was destroyed by him when we beat Inter 5-1 in the San Siro. We would go on to lose the FA Cup semi-final, largely because Thierry was rested for it. The knock-on effect came a few days later when the Invincibles failed to seal their destiny and lost to Chelsea in the Champions League. Three days later the whole season looked set to implode until Henry decided enough was enough. He'd already won Goal Of The Season the previous year with THAT goal against Tottenham. He repeated it on Good Friday 2004 by waltzing past half the Liverpool side and slotting past Dudek. But is wasn't just the quality of the goal. It was what it meant to the season. This was the best player in the World (criminally finishing behind Pavel Nedved in the official voting) stepping up to the plate an scoring a goal that only someone that special could produce. To do it at all was amazing. To do it in the circumstances that were playing out showed you how special Thierry Henry was as an Arsenal player. To me it was the best goal he ever scored for Arsenal (and there was plenty of competition). It was also the most important as it meant that the Invincible season was still on. To be fair, it was never under threat again until after the Title had been won. I think we all knew, as we left that game, that Arsenal were going to be Champions. Henry would go on to produce the most spectacular performance of forward play I have ever witnessed as he almost single-handedly destroyed Leeds United with his pace, power and technique.
An injury kept Henry out of the FA Cup Final against Manchester United in 2005. Somehow we won on penalties after being battered for two hours. What followed for him was the position of Arsenal Captain. He was given it because he was the main man and Wenger clearly hoped this would keep him at the Club. In truth he was never a real Captain in the way of Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira. In some ways I think the responsibility weighed heavily on him. Not only was he having to lead the side, but he was also having to carry it. Wenger had sold Vieira and not replaced him. There were a few mediocre types in the squad by now, compared to two years previously, and Thierry was swimming against the tide. Nonetheless he would take us to Paris for the European Cup Final. On the way he proved he wasn't the big-match choker the media wanted to put down as he scored another of his great solo efforts at Real Madrid. This was the Real Madrid of Galacticos fame, but Henry and his Arsenal team beat them in their own back yard. He showed that he was a Galactico in his own right. In the Final against Barcelona he had the chances to win us the Champions League, but a combination of poor finishing (he was never a "natural" goal scorer, which I know sounds stupid when he scored so many goals) and an inspired Valdes in the Barca goal kept the opponents in the game. I can still see the one-on-one shortly before their equaliser and it still hurts. 
Thierry signed a new contract and took us to the new stadium. I strongly suspect the deal involved him leaving at the end of that first season in the new place all along. But Arsenal couldn't afford to lose him, as well as Bergkamp, Pires, Campbell and Cole in the Summer that they moved to a new home. In truth it was a poor season for Henry. He was injured for most of it and, when he did play, he didn't always look dead pleased to be there. He lacked effort at times, and certainly couldn't hide his frustration at playing with some of the individuals that had replaced the legendary Invincibles. There was one great goal from him though as he provided the first special moment in the new stadium against Manchester United. However, the writing was on the wall and he left for Barcelona in 2007. It was over. Arsenal's greatest ever goal scorer was no longer an Arsenal player. It was another hole that simply could not be filled. To watch him go on and win everything at Barcelona made it even tougher.


The King returns


Of course, it wasn't the end of the story. Having moved to New York Thierry was always at a loose end in the English Winter. He started to train with Arsenal and, with us having nobody other than Van Persie to play up front, Wenger was convinced to sign him on loan in January 2012. What followed was a glorious few weeks where The King was back where he belonged. The night he made his comeback against Leeds will stay with me forever. It was an awful game, with an awful Arsenal performance against a poor side from the lower leagues. And then Thierry came on as a sub. As well as I can picture him missing in Paris, I can see even better his goal that night against Leeds. Special doesn't even begin to cover it. To have been in that stadium and experience that feeling is the reason we go to football. What a noise for a goal in such a game. It was the sort of thing that makes you believe in fate. Clearly it was meant to happen. But also, much as with the Liverpool goal, you have to be special to do that at the very moment it's required. Only truly great footballers have that ability, that composure, that sublime skill.


One last goal


He would go on from there to have a deflected goal taken away from him in a home game with Blackburn Rovers. It still disgusts me to this day that Arsenal accepted the "judgement" on the goal and re-adjusted their official records at the end of the season. Christ, Frank Lampard would have scored about fifty less goals than he has if the same rules had been applied to him!
But Henry wasn't quite finished. He decided there was one more moment. One more special thing to do. Coming on as a late sub at Sunderland for his last ever Premier League appearance he stuck in a last minute winner from a cross by Andrei Arshavin. Fate again? Maybe. It was a particularly special goal for my family as my nephew was Arsenal mascot that day. I was in a hotel room in Southampton jumping up and down and screaming (and gutted that I was working rather than being at the Stadium of Light) at the thought that The King had decided there was one last goal to be scored for Arsenal.
Wenger should have signed Thierry Henry on a permanent deal at that time. He still had plenty to offer in a proper football league. In truth he wasted his final few seasons when he should have been at Arsenal. I am certain that, had he been offered the chance, he would have bitten off Wenger's arm at the prospect of finishing his career at Arsenal. Sadly, it wasn't to be. Chances to bring him in on loan in the next two years were also passed upon by Arsene, and Thierry had played for Arsenal for the final time.



TH14



In the four year period from 2001 to 2005 Arsenal played football in a way that no other English side has ever done. Thierry Henry, under the guidance of Arsene Wenger, was re-inventing the position of striker throughout that time. If you watch Messi and Ronaldo now they are playing in the same role that Henry did - not a striker as such, but without doubt the main goal scorer. To be fair, he was never a centre-forward as we would know it. He wasn't a natural "finisher" in the way that Ian Wright had been. He got better and better in front of goal, of course, but he would never be considered a poacher. Thierry was an athlete, an incredible physical specimen with pace like we'd never seen, with or without the ball. He had skill, touch, technical ability and plenty of temper when he needed it. Moving in off the left hand side he became virtually impossible to mark (just like Ronaldo is now), with unsurpassed movement that only the brilliance of Bergkamp and Pires (and Zidane) could find when he was at his peak. Another reason I would say he wasn't a "proper" centre-forward is that he was too unselfish. Ian Wright would never have even considered squaring the ball to someone when he was in on goal. Henry would actively look for someone if he could, rather than just have a goal for himself. And when you consider how many goals he actually scored, it's incredible to think how many he created, or could have had for himself, were he not such a team man. People can try and compare Alan Shearer of Didier Drogba etc to Thierry Henry all they like. The fact is there is no comparison. Thierry Henry had it all. Not just a World Class striker, he was a World Class footballer, full-stop. He could play off the shoulder of the last man, or he could drop deep to destroy anyone he wanted. He was two-footed, better in the air than he ever allowed himself to show, and had skills to die for. Zidane says he is technically the most gifted player in history. That is high praise indeed, but anyone who had the privilege to watch Henry as often as I did can see what Zidane is talking about. He was a phenomenon. It was an honour to watch and enjoy Thierry Henry play for Arsenal. As with Dennis, we might never see his like again. 

Thanks Thierry. The King.

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