James Lawton: Henry's worth way beyond reach of Chelsea's millions

Arsenal deserve highest praise for standing by purity of Wenger's footballing vision and ignoring temptation to cash in on club's greatest asset
Click to follow
The Independent Football

You don't have to believe Thierry Henry is, pound for pound, the most inspired and gifted footballer the world has ever known, to applaud the wisdom of Arsenal's declaration that as far as they are concerned he is beyond price.

You don't even have to argue that he was the natural choice as World Footballer of the Year yesterday. A more compelling case could have been made for Paolo Maldini, the shining veteran of Milan's remarkable triumph in the European Cup - a prize which for the virtuoso Frenchman hasn't even been within vague touching distance until these last few weeks. The point is that Henry is Arsenal.

He is Arsène Wenger's supreme football creation. He is what makes an Arsenal fan most proud, and if he was sold the fans wouldn't see a calculated transaction but an outright betrayal. That might not be the business calculation but in football there is a truth that no moneyman can ignore. It is that when you lose the belief of your fans, you lose everything. What would Arsenal do with £50m, even £75m, from the strongrooms of Roman Abramovich or Real Madrid? No doubt they would plough some of it into their new stadium and grant Wenger some re-seeding funds. But Henry would be gone, and with him so much of the meaning of Wenger's Arsenal.

What is this meaning? If you cut through the dire failure to impose proper discipline, you find a purity of football purpose that is quite stunning, and in Henry you see the perfection of Wenger's work. It is to find and nourish players of the highest skill and the most refined ambition.

Nothing depressed the Arsenal manager more than the wasted effort, albeit one that brought a profit of more than £20m, that Nicolas Anelka came to represent. Anelka thrilled Wenger with his potential to light up the football sky. But if the young Frenchman had the talent, he didn't have the dream. Henry, clearly, has it.

He is the artist-athlete whose development at Highbury has been astonishing since his arrival as a leggy colt five years ago. Some might argue that Henry's compatriot Patrick Vieira is Wenger's master-stroke, and interestingly Wenger bracketed the pair when he talked passionately at the weekend about the need to keep hold of your best players. "If I was asked to sell Thierry or Patrick, I would say no, simply no, not even for £50m," Wenger said. "If you have money but not the players, it doesn't help you. Don't let's be stupid."

But then if Vieira is the power in midfield, the midfielder Sir Alex Ferguson has most coveted as the sun begins to set on Roy Keane, he is not Arsenal, or Wenger, in the way that Henry is. At his best, Vieira is a magnificent enforcer and play-maker. But he doesn't define the beauty of the game. He cannot flick on the after-burners so astonishingly. He cannot effortlessly draw breath-taking patterns across the pitch. He cannot capture so completely the beauty of the game. Henry does all of that.

Many years ago, John Charles did something similar for a club with little of Arsenal's potential for grandeur, Leeds United. Juventus offered £65,000, a monstrous sum in the middle of the last century. But within two years the money was gone in paying off debts and attempting to replace the irreplaceable. Unlike Henry, Charles was a physically huge man but he, too, brought beauty to his play. He, too, took football way beyond its normal boundaries.

But if Arsenal are right and - this is to say quite something - Leeds were as wrong as they would ever be about anything, what do we make of the dilemma of the Everton manager, David Moyes? Does he sell Wayne Rooney, brilliant but lumbered with the celebrity pressures at 18 years, or watch him become increasingly frustrated in a team that is plainly ill-equipped properly to support his extraordinary talent?

Here the temptation is to say sell, and if this sounds like a contradiction to all that has gone before, there are surely special circumstances. The main one is the Everton board's near total failure to support the brilliant work of their manager with anything like serious funding.

Moyes is beating his head against the wall. He needs to inject new strength into all areas of his team - and at the same time he has to strive to bring measured development to the career of his infant prodigy.

When Rooney exploded into English football last year, smashing the unbeaten record of Arsenal, he was an astonishing gift to a club long separated from the glory of the game. But it has proved to be a complicated one. What would Moyes do with £30m or £40m - and no Rooney? Perhaps he would have the makings of a team - not one to charge immediately among the élite, but one with the basis for some consistent progress. And Rooney? He wouldn't be so isolated in his brilliance.

Arsenal, of course, are on a different plane. They have not only the basis of a team but of a dream, and at its centre is Henry. You might just say that there have been times when his resolve might be legitimately questioned. His performance at the end of last season, when Ruud van Nistelrooy's immense appetite allowed United to snatch the title away from Arsenal, was less than a tour de force. There was a hint of hubris more than once, not least when he disappeared from a game he had appeared to have won at Bolton, and with the consequence of a killing loss of two points. Some of us would have picked Van Nistelrooy as England's Player of the Year.

But what nobody could have done was imagine Arsenal without Thierry Henry. The idea is unthinkable and in an age when money is supposed to mean everything, Arsenal deserve much praise for saying so.

Vinnie deserves a custodial sentence, not our sympathy

Does anything chart more comprehensively the coarsening of life in this country than the profitable times of Vinnie Jones, the former footballer and serial thug? It is hard to imagine.

His tear-jerking declaration at the weekend was that he needs help after committing the air rage which, given his record, was punished, quite staggeringly, by a mere 80 hours of community service and a piddling fine.

Only the appalling negligence of the football authorities prevented him from being banned from the national game for a series of outrages, including the ending of one fellow professional's career with a tackle of such brutality it made the flesh crawl. Jones says he needs help to control the violence of his nature, but it is hard to believe that much more can be done on his behalf.

In football, he traded on a bully-boy's aura. As an actor, he has made millions from his vivid portrayal of professional violence. In real life, he is allowed to behave in a way that cries out for a custodial sentence.

Vinnie Jones needs help? Somebody, please, pass the ether.