Friday, November 20, 2009
Thierry Henry: Remembering the good times...
A winner of Premier League titles and FA Cups, Thierry Henry was the man who brought va-va-voom to England and led an invincible Arsenal team to unbeaten glory.
With two flicks of the hand, though, he has this week tarnished a reputation that for a long time saw him revered as an icon of the game's great and good.
A hero or a cheat? It's worth remembering that Henry had not always been the perfect gentleman on the field. In 2001, he had to be restrained as he fiercely berated referee Graham Poll following a 3-1 defeat at home at Newcastle. After Arsenal lost the 2006 Champions League final, he criticised future Barcelona team-mates Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o for their non-performances and accused Carles Puyol of foul play, saying he would not go down to win free-kicks unnecessarily because he is "not a woman". In that year's World Cup, he got in touch with his feminine side as he went down clutching his face, as though struck by Puyol's elbow, when he had been barged in the chest. Puyol was sent off.
His "I don't cheat" defence after helping condemn Spain to a 2-1 defeat in that match was laughable, but he was excused in some quarters on the grounds of retribution for Puyol's behaviour in the Champions League final.
In truth, his reputation had been on the slide for a while. As Arsenal started to lose their grip on the Premier League, perceptions began to change as he began to look increasingly sulky on the pitch. He defended himself from that charge, too. "People talk about my attitude and body language," he said in 2005. "I know sometimes I can be a pain when I'm like this, but it's just because I want to win."
And win he does. Like many modern greats, Henry became known in England as a big-game bottler, largely because opposition teams - Barcelona, for one - realised that giving him a kicking was one of the best ways to get the better of Arsenal. And that, of course, was because he was, and is, a sublime player who has already won a substantial array of silverware.
Born in a tough neighbourhood in Paris in 1977, Henry rose to prominence in France, Europe and the world as he began his professional career at Arsene Wenger's Monaco. Winning the Trophée du Meilleur espoir - or French Young Footballer of the Year - in 1996, he helped Monaco to the Ligue 1 title in 1996-97 and starred in the Champions League the following season before scoring three goals in the group stages as France lifted the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
In January of the following year, he headed off to Juventus, where Carlo Ancelotti used him as a winger with little success. After a miserable few months in Italy, he left Serie A to reunite with Wenger at Highbury in August 1999 for a fee of £10.5 million.
Henry failed to score in his first eight games in England and there were concerns that Le Professeur had overpaid. However, he broke his duck in a 1-0 win over Southampton in mid-September, superbly holding off his marker before swivelling to fire home from 20 yards. He added his second goal for Arsenal in the following match against Swedish side AIK, but then endured another seven-game barren spell.
Any lingering doubts about his ability to thrive in the Premier League were dispelled as he scored 19 goals in 24 games for his club in the first half of 2000 before helping France to European Championship glory. A hero was reborn.
The following season, he topped Arsenal's scoring charts but the club ended up empty-handed. As would become the trend down the years, he expressed his disappointment that the club was not winning trophies. In 2001-02, he got his wish, topping the Premier League scoring charts with 32 goals in all competitions as Arsenal won the title at a canter and beat a pre-Abramovich Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup final. The next year, they retained the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Southampton and Henry was the runner-up to France team-mate Zinedine Zidane in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
As a man who craves perfection, his Premier League annus mirabilis came in 2003-04 as he reached the peak of his form to lead Arsenal to an unbeaten season in the league. He fired in 39 goals in all competitions as the 'Invincibles', featuring the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pirès, became the first team in over a century to complete a league campaign without defeat, and it was Henry who dragged the players back into contention when the achievement looked to be slipping out of their grasp.
In early April 2004, they had lost 1-0 in the FA Cup to Manchester United and exited the Champions League with a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Chelsea and, when they returned to the Premier League, they found themselves 2-1 down at half-time to Liverpool. But they emerged as 4-2 winners, thanks largely to Henry's hat-trick, which included a spectacular solo effort.
That goal epitomised Henry at his brilliant best: pace and close control combined with the confidence to create something from nothing and the coolness under pressure to pull it off. Again, he was named runner-up at the FIFA World Player of the Year awards, this time trailing Ronaldinho, and added the Golden Boot.
Henry scored 31 goals the following year and became the first player to win the Golden Boot in successive seasons, but Arsenal lost out to José Mourinho's Chelsea in the league and Henry was absent for the team's FA Cup triumph over Manchester United on penalties.
The following year, Arsenal again lost out to Chelsea in the title race, and hopes of ending both Wenger's and Henry's long wait for the Champions League ended with a 2-1 defeat to Barcelona in the final in Paris. By this stage, Henry had clearly become frustrated by the club's failure to match his ambitions - namely, that they win all available trophies. He signed a new four-year deal with the club following the Champions League final despite strong interest from Barca, seemingly cutting his ties with his post-match rant against the club's stars.
Yet, although he had pledged his long-term future to the Gunners, he moved to Barcelona after an injury-ravaged, trophy-less 2006-07 campaign, ending a spectacular eight-year association with Arsenal in which he helped transform English football.
After a so-so first year at Camp Nou under Frank Rijkaard, he became a key part of the side under Pep Guardiola last season, featuring alongside Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi in a three-pronged attack that fired the side to glory in the league, cup and Europe and was widely hailed as the club's greatest team of all-time.
Now 32 and seemingly on the wane, he is not a guaranteed starter for his club and has struggled to inspire his country under the dubious leadership of Raymond Domenech. There is a history of great stars turning to the dark arts in frustration when their talents fail them and the will to win turns ugly, and there is little doubt that Henry's determination to succeed has become so intuitive that, when faced with a split-second decision, his moral compass ceases to function.
But, when the furore over his handball and his attempts to preserve his image die down, let's try to remember him for the good times. He was clearly caught cheating in his waning years but, during his glory days in the Premier League, he was hero.