Smiling Assassin Proved why Football Should be About joy and Adventure

Published: 17th December 2014 07:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th December 2014 10:48 AM   |  A+A-

Soccer Henry Retires_Moha

To the relief of opposing goalkeepers everywhere, Thierry Henry has announced his retirement as a player. Now 37, Henry's career will be remembered for the relentless accumulation of goals and trophies, scoring 411 times in 917 games in winning major honours ranging from Champions League, World Cup, European Championship, Premier League and La Liga.

As well as for France (51 goals in 123 internationals), Henry did his best work at Arsenal, being the Inventive Invincible in that sumptuous, balanced 2003-2004 side of Arsene Wenger's. Henry was not simply a great goalscorer in terms of quantity. He was also a scorer of great goals in terms of quality, ranging from magnificent finishes, dribbles, volleys and free-kicks. During his time at Arsenal, Henry scored one goal in the San Siro that was so good that even the Inter Milan fans clapped.

He could score from range, netting a thunderous 25-yarder against Manchester United in 2004 or a 25?yarder against Sparta Prague in 2005, a finish so brilliant he just laughed with Robert Pires. That was a feature of Henry, the frequent smile on the face. He loved playing, dribbling, running, scoring, and his example suffused countless young fans with an awareness that the game should be about joy and adventure.

Sadly, Henry will also be associated with a shameful incident in Paris when he handled the ball in creating the decisive goal for William Gallas in the 2009 World Cup qualifying play-off against the Republic of Ireland. "I will be honest, it was a handball,'' he said immediately afterwards. "But I'm not the ref. I played it, the ref allowed it." As he left the stadium, Irish fans chanted "cheat, cheat".

It remains a huge stain on an otherwise fabulous CV. Despite that offence, Henry's playing career deserves to be celebrated. The offence was actually alien to what the conscientious, football-obsessed Henry represents: the joy of playing.

Raised in Les Ulis suburb of Paris, Henry impressed at Clairefontaine before heading to Monaco, shining under Wenger, occasionally playing wide but never a particularly prolific force (28 goals in 141 games).

Juventus came calling, paying pounds 10.5?million, but he never enjoyed the more parsimonious service there (scoring three in 20), was frequently used out wide and was eventually liberated by Wenger. Shortly after completing Henry's signing for pounds 11?million in 1999, the vice-chairman of the club, David Dein, held a small lunch for football writers at a restaurant in Islington. He could hardly contain his excitement, knowing how highly Wenger rated Henry. Davor Suker had also signed, and the talk around the table was as much of the Croatian from Real Madrid but Wenger also knew Henry's potential. Henry was to embody Wenger's successful years at Arsenal.
It was Wenger's utter belief in Henry that helped the striker settle in. It took a few weeks. He struggled early on. At one point, Henry stopped outside the Highbury boardroom, opening up to a few of us reporters about his frustration. His determination to get things right shone through. So did his humour, Henry making a joke about fearing that his wayward shooting might damage a famous Highbury landmark, the Clock.

Within a short period of time, Henry clicked, helped by Dennis Bergkamp's passing and being moved centrally by Wenger to spectacular effect (377 appearances, 228 goals, two spells).

His goals came from every angle, from either foot. He loved a lob, against Middlesbrough in 2004 and Aston Villa in 2006. A mixture of the balletic and athletic, Henry's legs that almost seemed to stretch in the air, plucking the ball out, bringing it down, often without slowing.

Arsenal's No?14 made the ball dance to his tune. He pirouetted on the ball, spinning away from markers. He was a juggler, bemusing Charlton Athletic's defence in 2000 after taking a pass from Tony Adams, guiding the ball past opponents and scoring. The art of the volley came naturally, although he practised hard at London Colney. One of many gems came against Middlesbrough in 2006 when he met Freddie Ljungberg's cross with his right foot, almost breaking the net.

He could weave past opponents like a zephyr, dribbling through Watford's defence or cutting in from the left to score, such as against Liverpool in 2006 or Blackburn Rovers in 2007 when he glided in, played a 1-2 with Cesc Fabregas and scored with his right. He darted imperiously through Real Madrid's defence in the Bernabeu in 2006 before finishing with his left.

Against Spurs in 2002, he ran 70 yards, touching the ball 10 times in creating the opportunity, leaving Stephen Carr sliding in too late, as he swept the ball home with his left foot.

Henry was so quick that he was occasionally wrongly given offside; he timed his run perfectly but the linesman would simply not believe it. So Wenger taught his willing pupil to arc his run, and the offsides ebbed.
He was ruthless with dead ball as well as moving. His free-kicks contained pace and curl. There was one thunderbolt against Manchester United in 2003, a 35-yarder past Tim Howard in the Community Shield.
Another against Charlton in 2003 was bent beautifully past Dean Kiely into the top corner.

Henry was a one-man variety act. He somehow scored with a back?heel against Charlton in 2004 despite being tightly marked. It was probably his goal against United in 2000 that will be best remembered at Arsenal, flicking the ball up and sending it looping over Fabien Barthez.

For somebody tall (6ft 2in), Henry did not score many headed goals.
When Marc Quinn, of the Young British Artists movement, was asked to do a portrait of Henry for a London gallery, he took a photograph of the forward with the ball balanced on his head. A couple of years back, I encountered Quinn and politely pointed out that Henry was rarely associated with heading. Quinn laughed and replied that he felt that Henry was such a cerebral player he wanted to have the ball near his head, as if he was always thinking about it. Quinn added that Henry was a joy to work with.

There was frustration at Arsenal for him, a defeat in the 2006 Champions League final in Paris but, commendably, he stayed on another season, helping the club settle in their new Emirates home. He won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, three Footballer of the Year honours, the undying love of the Arsenal faithful and, eventually, a statue of him sliding across the ground, a popular meeting point for fans before games at the Emirates Stadium.
He did win the Champions League, at Barcelona, whom he joined for pounds 16?million, (49 goals in 121). New York Red Bulls beckoned and he shone (52 goals in 135 games) but he was losing his va va voom and his career was winding down towards this announcement.

Henry will be a natural in the Sky studio, thoughtful, eloquent and photogenic, but his knowledge about the art and craft of placing a ball past a keeper must also be drawn on. Henry still has so much to give the game he graced.


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