'Fans love it if you fight for every ball'

Thierry Henry tells Dermot O'Leary why he first joined Arsenal, why he came back ... and how he is a little uneasy about that statue

I remember the game only vaguely. Sat with my dad in Highbury's grand old East stand. It was a nondescript match, the ball is played through the inside left for an agile young winger-cum-centre forward to run on to. My Dad looks up from the programme and asks me what the new boy is like. I answer something like: "Wenger has high hopes."

Fast forward 12 or so years, and 229 goals, and my heart beats like a schoolgirl as I have to introduce Thierry Henry on to the stage at the National Television Awards. I manage it while not looking like a crazed stalker ... just, and recover enough to have a chat and earn an invite to watch a game as his guest. Since then, we've kept in touch, and I consider him a friend. He is intelligent, witty, actually no, he's proper funny, he listens rather than just waits for his turn to talk.

Thierry's plying his trade in New York with the Red Bulls but we're catching up as he is in London for just one day, visiting Fabrice Muamba, who he knows from his time at Arsenal. This gives you an insight into the man. One day off and he flies home to wish an old team-mate well.

He may be one of the greatest players ever, but in 1999, Henry arrived at Arsenal when another great, Ian Wright, was coming to the end of his playing days, and poignantly it was Wright who first attracted Henry to Arsenal.

"The first English game that I saw was the FA Cup final: Man United v Palace. Ian Wright came on as a sub and scored. Then he went to Arsenal. I always liked the kid. And obviously after Arsène went there, [Patrick] Vieira, [Manu] Petit. So, I thought, 'I like that club and if one day I can go there, I'll go'."

And go he did. In an age where the division between footballer and fan has never been wider, the Arsenal of the Henry generation was a tonic. The spine of the team may have been French, but they were Londoners, preferring Hampstead to the stockbroker belt favoured by most footballers.

"London is home for me. And that's where I consider home right now and for ever."

So what is it about Wenger that makes him such a good manager? "He makes you believe in yourself. He will let you be what you want to be. And obviously at times he has to be hard. That's him, he will make you aware of your abilities and make sure you take advantage of it."

I can't imagine Le Professeur shouting at anyone, but does he ever deliver the hairdryer treatment? "He does now and then, but that's often the way it has to be, kind of political. He believes in his players so much, that sometimes, like you see recently, his players can turn around a situation. In those four games, Arsenal were losing and they came back. He believes in the team."

He might believe in them, but do they believe in themselves? I think we're not far away from being a brilliant team. We have a good first-choice back four finally fit and with Tomas Rosicky, Wojciech Szczesny and in particular Robin van Persie, we are getting there, still probably one or two players from making a league challenge but still in with a shout for third (although there's something awful about cheering your team on so they can finish third). Against the big-spenders of City, Chelsea, and Man Utd, this is no mean feat. For Thierry, he believes character is all-important.

"The fans will always recognise that, whether you lose or you win, if you put everything in and lose they will understand that the other team was better.

"What the fans don't like is if you give up. We've all done it, it happens. If you're fighting for every ball, every minute, then usually you're not far from winning. The fans love the commitment."

As a fitting epitaph to his contribution to Arsenal, last December a statue of Henry was unveiled outside the Emirates. It was overwhelming for him.

"My friends tell me to embrace it and be happy. And I am. But at the time ... but that's the guy I am. I know about the fun you give to people when you play but for me, the statue is like, a war hero. But I embrace it. What a place to have it. I love Arsenal and to have it right there in front of the stadium. I'm still speechless."

And that is one of my sporting heroes. Writing this as Henry is flying home after being at the bedside of an old friend, I feel I'm glad to know him. They say never meet your heroes, you'll only be disappointed. Well, I have, and I'm not, I'm humbled. Thanks T.