Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The one that got away

If you forgive the Irish thing (a handball as heinously committed as that by Maradona), it is with a certain sadness that Thierry Henry has announced his retirement from football.

I say 'a certain' as, firstly, he played for Arsenal; second, he pretty much retired when he moved to the New York Red Bulls; and third, there has been enough tragedy in the world already this week for a wealthy footballer ending his career to pick up the equally lucrative shilling of Sky Sports to really be of any great despondency.

Still, football is the poorer for the exit of one of its greatest modern personalities and the only player I can honestly say has ever induced Arsenal envy in this particular Chelsea fan.

There was a time, before Abramovich, Mourinho and all that "buying the league" nonsense that I used to look at Arsenal and think, "why do they have Thierry Henry and not us?". Even casting an avaricious glance at Manchester United's pricey 90s line-up didn't raise the hackles in me as much as watching Henry gliding through defenders like a warm knife through butter, but with considerably greater art to his craft than such a leaden domestic analogy might suggest.

Henry represented the Arsenal we all wanted to beat but couldn't. My beloved Chelsea may have, this season, created an air of invincibility about them, but Arsenal - then - with Henry as the tip of Wenger's spear, were the real thing. Hard to see currently, given their directionless amble, but Arsenal were unbeatable in every sense, and Henry had much to do with it.

In this age of inflated egos and even more inflated reputations, Henry transcended the simple description "football star". He arrived at Highbury for £10.5 million on the back of France's 1998 World Cup victory and his own receipt of the Golden Boot, along with a distinguished club career at Monaco (which he joined aged 13) and then a so-so season with Juventus. 

That, for plenty others, would have been the pinnacle right there. But at Arsenal he would go on to score 228 goals, be named Footballer of the Year no less than three times, pick up winners medals for two Premier League titles, and two FA Cups, before moving on in 2007 to more success at Barcelona.

The silverware, of course, is much deserved, but it is the individual moments for which Henry established himself you could only just marvel at, regardless of your allegiance. The volleyed goal against Manchester United in 2000, that strike against Spurs in 2002 (now immortalized in the Henry statue outside the Emirates Stadium), moments of sheer magic in the Champions League the following season, and his 48-match run in the 2003-4 'invincible' season.

Henry was a player you craved to see, regardless of whose replica shirt you were squeezed into at the time. There was something mesmeric, enchanting even about him - even when he was doing irreparable, humiliating damage to your own side. Messi and Ronaldo might do something similar now, but neither do so with the same charm, elegance and humour. 

In fact, what made Henry an idol, pure and simple, was his intelligence and charisma. Those two words are not often applied in sport, and rarely in football, but Henry, the player, was a beguiling figure on and off the pitch. Even that 'va-va voom' commercial for Renault showed a personality as rare as hens' teeth in football.

Henry was "the great entertainer", as Paddy Barclay wrote in today's Evening Standard, and in that simple appraisal he is spot-on. Some have even suggested that he's the best player the Premier League has ever seen. I'm certainly not qualified to contest that. 

I will still hold Gianfranco Zola up as the greatest player I've ever seen play football, but then I would. Thierry Henry, then, holds the distinction of being the greatest player I've ever seen play football in anything other than a Chelsea shirt. It's just a shame he never got to wear one.

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