Ken Jones: Stylish Henry transcends the game's facts and figures

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The Independent Online

People know better than to involve me in sporting trivia. I've never been on a quiz team. If the television remote gets me on to Question of Sport, I switch to another channel. If anyone says: "Here's one for you," it had better be a drink, otherwise I'm out of there.

People know better than to involve me in sporting trivia. I've never been on a quiz team. If the television remote gets me on to Question of Sport, I switch to another channel. If anyone says: "Here's one for you," it had better be a drink, otherwise I'm out of there.

It's not that my memory is bad, just that I've never bothered to fill it with facts and figures. Don't see the point. I was there when Muhammad Ali demolished George Foreman in Zaire, but for the life of me couldn't tell you which round. I know England won the World Cup in July 1966, but don't ask me the exact date. ,That's what record books are for.

Recently, no more than a couple of weeks ago, I answered the telephone and heard someone say, "Can you tell me..." "Listen," I said. "If it's one of those dumb-arsed questions forget it." "No, no," the caller said, "I want to talk about style. Who in your opinion is the most stylish sports performer ever?"

"Depends on what you mean," I said. "Style without substance is nothing at all."

I could think of footballers by the dozen who had a maximum for artistic impression and zero for effectiveness; boxers who stylishly dropped out of the ratings while fooling some of the people all of the time; cricketers who stylishly batted themselves into alternative employment; golfers who stylishly made work for ball spotters.

On Monday, against Crystal Palace at Highbury, came another opportunity to watch Thierry Henry turn out for Arsenal. Emerging from a dip in form that coincided with Arsenal's loss of momentum, Henry remains the most stylish player at work in the Premiership, probably the world. Henry is not perfect because perfection is unattainable. But when the Frenchman goes into overdrive your heart leaps in unison. You think of Carl Lewis in full flight, the graceful flourish of Garfield Sobers's cover drive; Ali in his pomp; Barry John gracefully evading tackles.

We have to remember that style is not an essential ingredient for greatness. Roy Keane is no stylist, neither was Diego Maradona. Though there was grace in Pele's movement, he was more dramatic than stylish.

At a time when broadcast and print organisations provide followers of sport with more information than they can possibly absorb, a practical definition of style is not easily made. Sometimes, of course, style is merely camouflage.

There also has to be an understanding that style is natural, formed in the womb and, if not accompanied by desire, probably worthless. Style must not be confused with class. Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are in the highest class of attacking players but nobody thinks them stylish.

Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships but nobody, least of all Nicklaus himself, thought his swing to be a thing of beauty. The most graceful golf swing today belongs to Ernie Els. Some people wish they had been born to sing like Pavarotti, act like Brando, paint like Monet. The more I think about it, the more I wish I had been born with Ernie's swing. There again, I probably would not have known what to do with it.

When you think about style in sport, you do not automatically think Tiger Woods. Class certainly. As Bobby Jones once said of Nicklaus, so Nicklaus would say of Woods: "He plays a game with which I'm not familiar." A pretty sure thing is that Woods and the present world No 1, Vijay Singh, do not give a second thought to style. They think method. The perfection nobody has or ever will find.

Getting deeper into this, I tried it out on some friends who could be relied upon for objective thoughts about the subject. One thing fascinated me. It was the general conclusion that style, as in the case of Henry and Ryan Giggs, may not be obvious until potential is fulfilled. Without that fulfilment, the style may go unnoticed.

In general terms, it is difficult to think of a footballer from the past who played with more style than Danny Blanchflower. "There was style in everything Danny did on the field," Dave Mackay once said to me. "But I'll tell you this, it wasn't style for style's sake. He made it work."

You can say the same thing about Henry and Zinedine Zidane. I don't know how many appearances they've made, the number of goals they've scored or how many honours they've piled up. But they've got me pulling for them.

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