Thierry Henry: Just ignore them - what I told my boys about faking of Villarreal

Arsenal's talisman is saying goodbye - to his hallowed Highbury. Steve Tongue hears a speech as eloquent and explosive as his play
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are times when Thierry Henry talks faster than he runs; which is saying something. His va-va-voom patter defies the most assiduous shorthand. Even the tape recorder looks tired trying to keep up. New batteries, please!

Wednesday night in the wake of a deserved but inconclusive 1-0 victory over Villarreal in the first leg of the Champions' League semi-final was such an occasion. The floodlights were going out all over Highbury after the stadium's last European party, and the midnight hour approach-ing, but Arsenal's captain was in full flow, any attempted interruption as futile as a defender's clumsy lunge, and risking the same withering glare.

A good few opponents had felt the heat of that scowl during a game besmirched by the visitors' unexpected antics, recalling the worst days of mutual antipathy between British and Continental opposition. The irony this time was that Ars-enal's side do not currently contain a single British player, and that they themselves have both complained about physical excess from other Premiership teams and been accused of overdoing the amateur dramatics.

Henry's response during the game, which he wanted team-mates to emulate, was the sort of lofty contempt he does rather well: "I don't even bother about this any more. I used to. Before, I would go and try to lift people up - but you get in trouble because afterwards you get booked. I don't know if you saw my face when they went down, I'm just looking at them like, 'I didn't even touch you, what are you doing on the floor?'

"I didn't say anything. Maybe I'm used to the English League. One time on the far side I said to Cesc [Fabregas] and Manu [Eboué], 'Don't even talk to them, just think about the game, not what they're doing'. The ref was spot-on, he was asking them to get up and that's enough. But I don't want to even talk about this sort of thing."

The reason that the flowing rhythm apparent in Arsenal's previous performances was often lacking, Henry felt, was to do with the more legitimate, if still disappointing, influence of Villarreal's star player: "The thing that killed our rhythm is Riquelme. Sometimes when you think he's gonna go forward, he doesn't, he just stays there, passes the ball around. But you have to be alert, because he can kill you. They tried to slow the game down, Riquelme just tried to go sideways and backwards, keeping the ball.

"Maybe it was stupid of me in a way but I was surprised they didn't come out at us sometimes and try to have a go. Sometimes they didn't even look willing to play, they were just looking for free-kicks and things like that. I was surprised they maybe thought 1-0 was enough. Maybe it was naïve of me but I was very surprised they didn't try to score an away goal. They weren't even willing to play the counterattack when they had the opportunity to do so."

What are the implications of that scoreline for Tuesday's second leg as Arsenal attempt to reach a sixth European final, but first in this competition? "I can't think 1-0 is a bad result, especially the way we have played in the past in the competition, the way we can defend and the way we obviously haven't conceded a lot of goals. I always think, as long as we don't concede a goal at home then it is OK, even 0-0 is sometimes not a bad result at home in Europe.

"We want to put great pace into our game. I think you saw against Real Madrid and Juventus they were not used to it, and I am also sure at the finish Villarreal players had heavy legs. I'm sure that this can play on their mind in the second game, because they will have to come out at us over there and leave us some space.

"It will be difficult over there, a small stadium, great atmosphere, but one thing I'm sure about is to score two goals against us they will have to come out and attack more. But I saw them play tremendously well against Inter at home, so you never know."

The Clock End's eponymous ornament ticks on, but still Thierry talks, dix-neuf to the douzaine. Only one subject, it is clear, is taboo. This is, after all, barely 24 hours after he fell out with the daily newspapers for their admirably persistent questioning about whether he intends to stay with Arsenal next season or up sticks to Barcelona.

No point at this stage in reminding him of a remark before the game against Auxerre some three and a half years ago: "As long as Arsenal want me, I'll never walk away from the team." Or even the Sun headline as recently as January: "Henry: I will stay". Playing in the Champions' League next season is believed by many to be a key factor, so one fascinating scenario would be a Barcelona-Arsenal final next month, with the latter needing victory to avoid the anticlimax of the Uefa Cup and Barça knowing that a win could secure not just the trophy denied them for so long, but the striker they want as well.

On the other hand, would Henry be able to hold up that cup in his native and adopted homes of Paris and Islington and then admit to the adoring thousands that he was off? Two factors in Arsenal's favour are the impressive progress made by the youngsters he has formed such a bond with, and the style of play fostered by Arsène Wenger that he clearly loves.

"Sometimes being young and confident is better than being old with experience. It's like Wayne Rooney, he's young and he doesn't care who he is against or whatever, at times he can be unstoppable because he doesn't care. I can tell you, when you start to get older you think a bit more and then sometimes you think too much about stuff.

"Before, we were talking about them not being ready because they had this block in their mind, but once you pass it when you're young and you're not scared any more you will only play good. When I was younger, I wasn't scared about anything. It's only when you grow up you realise that if you do something wrong it may come back at you. I remember when the boss of the national team asked me to take the penalty against Italy in the quarter-final of the World Cup, I didn't even think about it. Now, I'd still go, but I'd think if I miss, I'm dead! But when you are young, you just go."

So the youthful confidence and zest of a Fabregas or an Eboué can provide a positive boost to an occasionally weary 28-year-old: "When I see a player running around in the very last minute, putting a tackle in, trying to get the ball back, it does give me a lift. Whoever you are. They can become as good as they want to be. When you are young and willing to listen, you need to put in the effort. It's up to them."

As for the style and beliefs Wenger has implanted and insisted on nourishing: "Go back to four months ago, everyone said we played too beautiful and don't do anything. But throughout it all we always try to keep playing our game. At one point it wasn't working and people were saying we should have a Plan B and this kind of thing, but we are still doing it by playing football. That is us. The old Arsenal used to win a certain way but now we try to win this way. This is how the club is.

"When people come here they have to know that is how we play, we pass the ball to each other and we like to play football. I don't know if it is the right way - some people play another way and win. I like it our way. That's how the boss wants it to be here and why I think the Arsenal fans enjoy it a lot. Sometimes we do get killed because we overplay but that's just the way we are. I don't know if it's good for football. It doesn't mean you are going to win but that's how I love it, and how the boss loves it."

A final question about "seeing the back of this place" brings momentary amusement. Henry takes it, correctly, to refer to the stadium rather than the club. Gesturing in something like awe at the four stands around him, he says: "You're aware that I love to score here. I have so many memories here. As a team and personally, everything has been great. It's an old English stadium but the thing about it is the grass is so amazing. It's incredible. If you don't have that, the pass is not the same, maybe you have to control the ball two or three times and lose the momentum of the move.

"It's a bit weird that we couldn't quite celebrate the last-ever game in Europe at Highbury, because we have another game to play over there. But it was pretty special tonight - and as someone said, we won the last game in Europe, 1-0 to the Arsenal. Just like the old song."

LIFE & TIMES

NAME: Thierry Daniel Henry.

BORN: Les Ulis, Paris, 17 August 1977.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 2in, 13st 1lb.

POSITION: Forward.

CLUB CAREER: Monaco 1995-99, 115 games, 21 goals; Juventus '99 (fee £14m), 16, 3; Arsenal '99-current (fee £10.5m), 336, 209 (club goalscoring record).

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Debut for France 1997 v South Africa; 69 caps, 28 goals.

HONOURS: Ligue 1 1997. World Cup '98. Légion d'Honneur '98. European Championship 2000. Premiership '01-02, '03-04; FA Cup '02, '03, '05. PFA Player of the Year '03, '04; Football Writers Player of the Year '03, '04. Arsenal captain from '05.

Comments