The Andy Cole Column: Henry and Zidane will always be among the greats for me

Fired Up! Did I think any less of Zidane because he was sent off in a World Cup final? Of course not
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The Independent Football

Football news travels far and fast. I was in Asia playing Masters football last week, and you couldn't avoid the hand of Thierry Henry, even though I didn't get to see the incident on the night it happened. Still, thanks to the internet, there was no chance of missing the footage or the debate for long. And the controversy is hardly surprising – deliberate, premeditated cheating is never acceptable.

But looking at the Henry incident without hypocrisy, and with no agenda, I have to say as a former professional player that if you can gain any advantage in football from an action you think you can get away with, then nine out of 10 times you'll do it.

Let me stress again: premeditated cheating is different. But I don't buy for a single second the notion that Henry was running towards that near post thinking: "When that ball drops to me I'm going to push it twice with my hand." Anyone who suggests he did that clearly has no idea about the speed of the game, or about Henry. He's an instinctive player. That's what has made him so brilliant.

Instinctively he handled. He took advantage of the lucky break it gave him. He crossed to William Gallas, who scored. A place at the World Cup is a massive, massive deal and the French players, like the Irish, were focused solely on winning.

Nobody would have been less surprised than Henry had the referee blown for handball and booked him. He would have accepted it – he knew he'd handled... But the ref didn't blow, Henry got away with it, and with tens of thousands already in raptures around him – well, what would you have done?

If anyone reading this can say with total honesty that they have never got away with some wrong-doing – premeditated or otherwise – and kept quiet about it, then that's wonderful, sincerely. I suspect that is not the majority experience.

I can see why some people are condemning Henry. For so long he was a Premier League hero and then his handball showed he was as fallible as the next man. I fully understand too why the referee is a target for criticism, because he and his fellow officials failed to spot an infringement.

But the fact is that rule-breaking happens and goes undetected many times in every game, at every level, whether via offsides, fouls, handballs, diving, whatever. Always has, always will. The difference with Henry – and what a difference – was context.

The stakes could not have been higher. It was in extra time, therefore more dramatic. The Republic of Ireland were apparently so close to holding out. The TV cameras had the perfect view. Henry had previously been such a golden boy. But I still don't buy that what he did was any worse than thousands of other infringements down the years.

Perhaps part of the rage was a notion that "even" Henry is now "at it". The more mundane fact is he's an ordinary guy – and in my personal experience, a sublimely talented and personable guy – as susceptible to taking advantage of breaks as the next person.

Do I think any less of him as a player now? No. He was and is a remarkable player. Did I think any less of Zinedine Zidane's talent because he was sent off in a World Cup final? Of course not. That ZZ made an error did not eradicate a fantastic career, built on instinct.

On the subject of instinct, well done to Jermain Defoe for his five-trick against Wigan. He's a good finisher whose recipe at the weekend was "Gain half a yard, shoot!" It took me back to Manchester United's 9-0 against Ipswich in March 1995, when I was fortunate to score five.

Games like that can be a blur, with everything you hit going in, shots from ridiculous angles and tap-ins alike. When you're hammering an opponent it does sometimes – briefly – cross your mind that you're embarrassed on their behalf. Then your professional instincts should kick in as you try to take them to pieces until the final whistle.

News of match-fixing is frightening

I have only just caught up with the news that Uefa and the German police are investigating the possibility that 200 matches in nine leagues around Europe (not England) could have been nobbled by a match-fixing gang this year. As a player I find it unbelievable, extraordinary. I've no experience of this kind of thing and don't really understand how even a couple of bribed players could absolutely guarantee a certain outcome. What about the rest? Most of all, I find the news frightening. The prospect of widespread corruption really would threaten our great game.

The fee for Andy Cole's column is donated to Alder Hey hospital and sickle cell anaemia research. He works on charitable projects with the sport and media team at law firm Thomas Eggar