Dermot O’Leary: Thierry Henry is one of those players that every fan should love
Thierry Henry tells Dermot O’Leary who inspired him to join Arsenal, why he came back and his slight unease over his 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 school girl as I have to introduce Thierry Henry on to the stage at the NTA's to give an award. I manage it whilst 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 funny, proper funny, he listens rather than just waits for his turn to talk, and he thinks.
He's also the last of the generation of players that I can venerate. I love the Arsenal, but I'm 38. My relationship with Arsenal players that I know now is more big brotherly, or worse, paternal. Let's stick with big brotherly.
Thierry's plying his trade in New York with the Red Bulls (they are vying for a play-off spot as the season winds down) 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, where they were like locals, to the detached stockbroker belt favoured by footballers.
"That's the thing I love about London. You can do that. London is home for me. And that's where I right now consider home and for ever."
A lot is made of Henry's conversion from winger to centre-forward, and alongside Thierry himself, Wenger gets credit for this. For me, as a fan and a Wengerite it's been hard this season watching the criticism Wenger has faced and in the darkened hours with the dim light of Match of the Day illuminating my despair, witnessing the thumpings from Man Utd and Spurs, I confess I have wondered where we go from here.
So what is it about Wenger that makes him such a good manager, and motivator? "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 care of it and 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 loves them that much that sometimes ... he's not going to lose it like all managers. And that's the beauty of him; he believes in his players so much, that sometimes, like you see recently, his players can turn around a situation just like that. 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 Arsenal, or come to think of it, our brothers in white over in N17. 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."
Henry's return to Arsenal for a spell this year was unlikely and the stuff of fairy tales. Losing players to the African Cup of Nations, Wenger, in a very unWengery (trust me, it's a word) way, did two things. He brought back a former player (weird, but great) and he brought one back who was over 30 (weirder, as Wenger believes over 30s should be farmed out to the football equivalent of the point-to-point circuit). But it worked. He scored a peach against Leeds in the Cup, and the team started to play with more direction and pace. Not bad for an over 30.
"I don't think I ever felt what I felt when I scored against Leeds. I don't think I'll ever feel that again because that will never come back. I'm not saying I'll never do another comeback. I mean you can never have another first goal on a first comeback. That can never be done again. It was kind of weird because everyone was hoping it would happen. You know you dream about something that will never happen? And it did happen. It's weird."
It also united the fans behind the team and lifted the Emirates, reminded us of what it's like to have that winning mentality.
If this piece sounds like a eulogy then it's unapologetic. Henry is one of those players that every fan should love. He transcends club loyalties. For me, only the most mean-spirited of fans don't at least appreciate Henry. He's up there with Cantona, Giggs, Scholes, Zola and Bergkamp as a fans' player.
I'm Irish and despite an instinctive handball that knocked Ireland out of the World Cup I won't hear a bad word said about him.
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.
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