Football: Henry at home in another country
Arsenal's World Cup winner is one product of France to cross the channel successfully
Sunday 19 December 1999
It would be unfair to question the motives of every foreign player, but the Nicolas Anelka transfer saga, the Benito Carbone affair, and the recent Emmanuel Petit spat about "thinking every day about my future at Arsenal", have not exactly endeared the "foreign mercenaries" - who supposedly move to England for a quick franc or lira - to the majority of football fans.
Thierry Henry is different. He is proof, if proof were needed, that there are large numbers of imported players who are willing to make England home from home. "It's tough, especially when you don't speak the language and stuff. But I just stuck at it, because this is where I want to be," said Henry, now in his sixth month in England. "The important thing I keep reminding myself is that it's my responsibility to adapt to this country, not hers to adapt to me."
On the pitch, Henry can legitimately claim to have achieved that. Having started slowly, he has progressed as the season has gone on and is now finding his Premiership feet. The settling-in period seems complete. "I was a little short on confidence when I joined the club in August," he said at Arsenal's training ground. "As a forward, if you don't score goals, it affects you. But since I came back from playing with the French Under-21s [in a two-leg play-off match against Italy, for next summer's Under-21 European Championship] I feel reinvigorated."
It was on his return, during last month's Uefa Cup match against Nantes, that Henry's Arsenal career took off. He came on as a second-half substitute and, although he failed to score, he created two or three clear-cut chances for himself. Those 30 minutes were enough to persuade his manager, Arsene Wenger, to give him his chance in his favoured position - as an out-and- out striker.
"I was very excited," Henry remembered. "When le coach [as Henry likes to call Wenger] told me I was going to play in the centre of the attack I was determined to prove to everyone that I could be counted on."
The fact it has taken Henry five years - since the day he was given his Monaco first-team debut at 17 in that role - to be moved back to the centre- forward position is intriguing. That it was Wenger who made both decisions is altogether more ironic. Indeed, following Wenger's acrimonious departure from the principality, Henry was played on the right wing by a succession of club, as well as international, managers.
Henry marked his return at the heart of the attack in the League match against Derby last month. Not that completing the cycle from striker to winger, back to striker again, was straightforward. Henry admits he found the adaptation difficult at first. "Ask any player, and they'll tell you how hard it is to play in a different role. I've literally had to go back to school and be re-taught everything about the art of striking. I've still got plenty to learn, but I am finding my automatisms and all the hard work is paying off."
Wenger's move was nothing short of brilliant. Henry has now scored five goals in the last six games (including yesterday's equaliser against Wimbledon) and should, in his own words, "have got another against Blackpool" in his FA Cup baptism last Monday. Wenger must take the credit for the improvement. He has been patient and supportive of his young protege and, as a result, has remoulded him in a matter of months. "I trusted le coach's judgement," Henry said. "He's worked with some of the great strikers and knows what's best for a player."
Henry truly is a rare breed. Here is a man who has won more medals than General Eisenhower, yet refuses to rest on his laurels. Still only 22, he has competed in the semi-finals of the Champions' League, has won the French league with Monaco and the World Cup with France (he was their top scorer with three goals during France 98). Oh, and he is one of the youngest recipients of the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest award. "Of course I know what I've been lucky enough to achieve," he said modestly, "although I haven't really had the chance to let the World Cup victory sink in properly. But I don't want to stop there. I want a long and fruitful career. I don't like fixing myself specific goals, because there's no point in putting yourself under pressure. Having said that, I want to be remembered as a great player."
It is this genuinely humble yet fiercely ambitious streak which marks Henry out. He knows his worth, both on and off the pitch, but has no illusions of grandeur. "I wouldn't have come here if I didn't feel I had more to learn," he said. "This is a new adventure, a demanding challenge. The easy thing would have been for me to go to a club where I could do what I wanted, but I chose Arsenal's competitive environment and I know I'll have to work hard to succeed."
Henry took longer than expected to join the Gunners. Having made it clear, in the wake of France 98, that he wanted to play for them, a few eyebrows were raised in N5 when Henry signed for Juventus in January. Had nobody told him that the quickest route from Monaco to London was not via Turin? "I know, it was a bit of a long way round the houses, but I'm delighted now. I always wanted to play for Arsenal." Pardon? "Honestly. I loved watching Ian Wright. He was a prolific goalscorer and always gave the impression he was enjoying himself as well. I know this is a job, but a lot of people forget that it's just a game too. The main thing is to take pleasure."
Apart from the playing difficulties which he faced on arrival, Henry has also had to adapt to a new culture and way of life. "That wasn't too much of a problem for me," he said. "I left home at 13 [to join the national academy at Clairefontaine] so I'm used to taking care of myself. I've always been very independent and liked trying new things. Also I was born in Paris, so I'm used to big cities like London. I'm happy here."
It is all a far cry from the days when one of his best friends led the Arsenal line. They may both be from the Parisian suburbs and have two brothers, but there the comparisons end. While Henry continues to impress with his adaptation in England, Anelka continues to struggle with his in Spain. "He'll turn the corner," Henry said. "We all have ups and downs. It's by having these setbacks that you get stronger and progress. Don't forget he's joined a huge club in crisis. Everyone is pointing the finger at him because he was the season's biggest transfer, but it's the whole team that's struggling, not just him."
Henry, for his part, insists he is enjoying the relative tranquillity of London. "I only just got a car last week. Before then, I'd been going everywhere by public transport. Sometimes people would look at me as if to say, `Is that him? No, it can't be. He wouldn't travel on the tube.'
"The other day I took the train back to London after a match. It was funny, really. There I was travelling with some of the very fans who had come to see me play. It was nice. If I was in France, it would be impossible to do that." Henry may find, sooner rather than later, that his anonymous reign is over.
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