Paris. November 2009. World Cup qualifier second leg. All it took was the flick of a wrist, the firm caress of a football destined to die beyond the goal line.
Handball is the most basic of fouls. Debate swirls if the villain’s intentions are unclear but there is no excuse, no mitigation, for deliberate transgressions on a field where fairness remains a largely admired tenet. When punished, egregious breaches of the rule may brook few protestations.
For a nation strangely proud of its history of grudges and glorious failures — sporting or otherwise — it felt apposite then that Ireland should fall victim to one of recent football’s nastiest deceits. Thierry Henry’s craven gamesmanship in the 12th minute of extra time stands as a paean to the dark arts, its effectiveness as horrifying as the gall with which it was executed, the glee with which it was celebrated, the swiftness with which it was dismissed by the powers that be.
By using his arm to save a wayward free kick from falling out of bounds, diverting it across goal for a waiting William Gallas to score an easy winner and soaking in the resulting praise, Henry plumbed the depths. The Irish reaction was typically furious, as one might expect, yet it came laced with disbelief that someone of such superlative gifts should resort to a tactic generally frowned upon in playgrounds around the globe.
He soiled his own name in that moment. For many, and not just the Hibernians amongst us, the Frenchman’s actions on the austere turf of the Stade de France mounted a virtual asterisk next to a career now due to be spoken of in the past tense.
Henry is officially retired, an expected development following the conclusion of his season at Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls. All that is left to do is reflect on his time in the ranks of the English game’s greatest ever practitioners.
That is not a label applied lightly though it is one unlikely to engender much consternation. Henry’s time as the devastating spearhead of Arsene Wenger’s invincible champions sits fresh in the memories of those who prefer their football fast, fluid and fantastic.
Truthfully, Henry did not personify the sport’s nobler character, he was no totem of virgin-pure good form. To label him thus would have been less accurate than calling Zinedine Zidane an exceptional defender. Henry floated, often almost literally, above the fray; he had little interest in the agrarian business of protecting the game’s honest spirit.
What rendered his misdemeanour on that chilly evening so gut-churning to the millions who had once watched him recalibrate the settings of football, was its grubbiness. Henry had never before needed to engage in brazen dishonesty, its stain unwanted by a player who, during the peak years, could secure victory on his own terms. He operated at the outer edges of his mercurial talent while staying, mostly, within the rules. To see him fall shamelessly short of those standards induced not only disapproval in the minds of countless admirers, it induced sadness.
Whatever the faults, however, his is a legacy demanding genuine acclaim. It is one built on a goal-scoring record at Arsenal that sees him rest atop the impressive club list of professionals who never enjoyed Henry’s propensity for inducing sheer awe in spectators. If his metamorphosis from speedy, ineffectual winger into a feared attacker of prototypical proportions constitutes one of the more compelling stories in this modern era, then that is something onto which Arsene Wenger should cling in these stressful times of soft centres and irritated supporters.
Wenger famously spotted a boundless potential inside his compatriot. A mentor during their time together at Monaco, the Arsenal manager paid Juventus a tidy sum of £11 million, in August 1999, with the aim of remoulding his former charge.
Granted, Henry hardly appeared the callow ingenue. A graduate of the haughty national technical centre at Clairefontaine, he had played in the Champions League and won the World Cup, on home soil, as France’s top scorer in 1998. Domestically, however, and in Turin especially, his distinguishing characteristic was that he ran around an awful lot without actually accomplishing anything.
Deployed as a striker to replace the departed Nicolas Anelka, Henry waited eight matches before opening his Arsenal account. A delicious curling effort at Southampton was the seminal moment, there would be no looking backwards thereafter. By the end of his tenure in north London he had installed himself as a legend: 226 goals from 369 appearances. His tally of 175 in the league, places him comfortably in the top five of all-time Premier League scorers.
While these statistics cannot but fail to excite, abstract numbers tell only a portion of the tale. When Henry memorably endorsed Renault’s Clio model, the connection rang true. The car’s nimble, city-dwelling cheekiness melded perfectly with the urbane ‘Va Va Voom’ nature of Henry’s own post-millennial cool.
Indeed, he straddled the channel, faintly stereotypical in his quiet European nonchalance — a trait underpinned by a ravenous desire to win — yet a proud resident of London’s booming cosmopolis.
Stylistically, of course, a humble Renault Clio was a poor representation of his craft. Part thoroughbred race horse, part high-performing German automobile, Henry wielded more Vorsprung durch Technik than his inherently Gallic swagger suggested.
When operating at his optimum, the effect was dazzling, unplayable. He possessed that rare brew: a finely tuned, once-in-a-generation combination of explosive power, quicksilver elegance and searing pace; confident without the streak of egotistical indulgence that has kept many others from greatness; a voracious appetite for goals. A man for the big occasion and a ruthlessly efficient slayer of minnows, he was Wenger’s finest creation.
His technique tightened under the old master’s watchful eye, every element coiled to explode at a given moment. The Premier League has known dominance by one individual or another throughout its 21 years but Henry, a great scorer of equally great goals, stands as its towering icon. It was the Parisian’s title-winning, defence-throttling exploits, rather than David Beckham’s hairstyle, that launched the competition into the stratosphere.
A world and European champion with France, a winner of the Champions League and owner of various medals from home, England and Spain, Henry’s trophy haul speaks to his pedigree. From the gilded heights of a richly rewarded spot on Sky Sports he must now assess his old club’s continuing struggle with life after Thierry.
It should be fascinating if Henry opts to mirror the strident, unbiased approach adopted by fellow aged stalwarts Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. In many ways, Arsenal continue to seek an identity away from his shadow. With each passing campaign, frustrated fans pine for the time when he epitomised a new-age side: incisive, creative, lethal.
That group fostered the cosmopolitan air which passes for normality at contemporary Arsenal and Henry symbolised the stylish finish in a collective propped up by Patrick Vieira’s steel, the cold wizardry of Robert Pires, the movement of Freddie Ljungberg. Alongside Dennis Bergkamp — a footballer superior even to Henry — he formed a partnership to warp time and space, the ultimate expression of dashing artistry as substance.
Having ushered his beloved club from Highbury to its glitzy new home at the Emirates Stadium, Henry would depart for Barcelona in 2007, the Catalans having long coveted his unique abilities. For the forward, this was new dawn in a team finally realising an elusive ideal ever pursued by Wenger, that stylish crossing of aesthetics and victory.
Seven years on, the brilliance of his erstwhile pupil nips at Wenger’s heels still, regardless of the latter’s untouchable omnipotence within the vaunted halls of Arsenal Football Club.
Ironically, when the apprentice made a brief comeback in 2012, his presence, outside of the romance, did little to aid Wenger. It offered instead a flesh-and-blood reminder of those lost glorious days, of unbeaten seasons, of tangible success.
Henry no longer has the Atlantic to separate him from the chronic underachievement at the Emirates, occupying as he does a position in which his opinion carries significant weight. The direction he takes from here on out, the views he expresses on a host of subjects, from Arsenal’s maladies to the scourge of cheating, will be worthy of scrutiny.