Thierry Henry was, simply, ‘player who almost all fans wanted to watch play’

Jonathan Wilson recalls the 'remorseless and beautiful' game of Thierry Henry as the French legend announced his retirement from football on Tuesday.
Thierry Henry retired on Tuesday from football after a decorated 20-year career in the sport. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Thierry Henry retired on Tuesday from football after a decorated 20-year career in the sport. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Time eventually catches up with even the greatest. There is still a youthfulness about Thierry Henry, but the reflexes are not as sharp as they once were, the legs not as fast and, aged 37, after 915 games and 411 goals, he has announced his retirement.

Of all the goals, one, in April 2004, stands out. Arsenal had drawn against Manchester United in the English Premier League and lost to them in the FA Cup semi-final, and they had gone out of the Uefa Champions League to Chelsea.

They were top of the league but had drawn two and lost two of their previous four games. At half-time on Good Friday, at home to Liverpool, they trailed 2-1. Was this, we wondered, a blip turning into a slump? Were all those fine words about a potential unbeaten season about to crumble to naught?

Four minutes into the second half, Henry and Fredrik Ljungberg combined to set up Robert Pires to equalise. The crowd was still celebrating when, a minute later, Henry, having dropped unusually deep, picked up the ball a few yards inside the Liverpool half.

There were 16 players between him and the Liverpool goal. He took two touches as he plotted his assault, then suddenly accelerated and went by Didi Hamman 30 yards out. There was still a line of five Liverpool defenders plus the goalkeeper to beat. He jinked by Jamie Carragher, steadied himself and rolled a finish past Jerzy Dudek. Arsenal, suddenly, led 3-2.

Others will have memories they prefer, but that goal encapsulated everything that was great about Henry at his best: explosive pace, skill, grace, a mind that saw spaces where others did not.

If 10 defenders with 50 yards between him and the goal could not stop him, what could? It seemed at that moment he could score whenever the whim took him. Arsenal, of course, went on to win the title and finish the season unbeaten, the first team to do so since Preston in 1888/89.

Irish fans, perhaps, will never forgive him for the handball with which he scored a vital goal in a World Cup qualifying play-off for France in 2009, but they are in a minority.

It is not even a case of forgiving, more a case of acknowledging that one moment of gamesmanship – whether instinctive or thought through – should not devalue an entire career, just as Diego Maradona’s handball against England in 1986 or the butt with which Pele broke Jose Mesiano’s nose against Argentina in 1964 do not devalue their genius.

More significant, perhaps, is the puzzlement in France that Henry did not do more to avert the crisis in Knysna in 2010, when the national squad effectively went on strike.

He had the prestige to nip the rebellion in the bud but chose to do nothing, and he has never publicly spoken about the incident since. He did, it seems, discuss what happened with French president Nicolas Sarkozy after the tournament, but his motives remain a mystery.

No career, though, is without its blemishes and its doubts, and for the most part, Henry was somebody who brought joy. There was something both thrilling and comical about watching him zip by defenders, all poise and feline balance. And he improved over his career: there was a time when it was said he could not finish.

He won a World Cup and a European Championship with France, a French league title with Monaco, two Premier League titles and three FA Cups with Arsenal and two Spanish Primera Liga titles, a Copa del Rey and a Champions League with Barcelona, but he won something far more precious than that. He was a player who almost all fans wanted to watch play, whoever they supported – just as long as he was not playing against their club.

At his best, he was both remorseless and beautiful. Age, though, brings an end to everything.

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Published: December 17, 2014 04:00 AM


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