Dein to Henry: 'You're king. You might only be a prince elsewhere'
What David Dein told Thierry Henry as Arsenal still feared their captain would leave the club where he is adored and join the European champions
Sunday 21 May 2006
Arsène Wenger doesn't do stoicism; those obdurate facial muscles simply can't summon the impression of a generous runner-up. Never have. As Barcelona's captain, Carles Puyol, hoisted the trophy, and Frank Rijkaard's men set about their jollification, fêted by 23,000 scarf-twirling Catalans, Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell were among the few Arsenal men who applauded. A glassy-eyed Wenger brusquely ushered them to the dressing-room. His medal had already been thrust into his pocket, just as it had been when Arsenal last finished second in a European competition.
That was six years ago in Copenhagen, after the Uefa Cup final, from which his players emerged in a solemn file from a defeat, on penalties, by Gala-tasaray, vowed to a monastic silence. The tone was set by Tony Adams. It was not so on Wednesday. Such was the outpouring of indignation from the Arsenal camp, some were almost in need of a restraining order, and particularly Adams's modern-day counterpart.
Even accepting the vehemence of his emotions, which were manifestly shot through, you sensed that Henry would not be Nou Camp-bound. Could a man deliver this verdict about his opponents, in the knowledge that he may soon be among their number?
"I'm more than proud," Henry said of his team. "We can say that against the best team in Europe we can play good football, even with 10 men. It was a team who outplayed the other team and made them look just ordinary. I'm sorry, but tonight they looked, to me, really ordinary." He stressed that final word almost contemptuously.
The reality was that he was no longer speaking as one of the world's most fabulously endowed and wealthiest footballers; he was talking like an embittered fan. The man whose off-field style can epitomise French chic was imploring us to watch re-runs of the contest. It was like listening to an inebriated punter back in an Islington local.
A day later, his explanation for pledging his re-allegiance to the manager, the vice-chairman, David Dein, and the club who had raised him from anonymity to his place bestriding the world game confirmed the impression of the night before. Arsenal had finally pinned down one of the world's most exotic butterflies. "There are so many things about why I decided to stay," the striker explained. "Mr Dein, Arsène, the club, the fans. I just thought I could not let them down. I could not face leaving the fans. They are like my family."
It is a courageous decision, that four-year pledge of faith. Next season, Arsenal's quest for the title they last claimed in 2004 will never be more fiercely contested. This season, Wenger's men effectively sacrificed their interest in domestic affairs on the altar of Champions' League glory and, for an hour after Jens Lehmann's dismissal, that appeared an admirable trade of priorities, only for Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti to inflict fatal damage. The vanquished forces promise they will regroup and return. Yet, in reality, the prospects of Arsenal progressing to such a rarified atmosphere again are not propitious.
In comparison, Barcelona represent a tantalising promise of instant gratification within what is not so much a football team as an institution; hence the vast yellow flag that rolled down, enveloping much of the end occupied by Barça followers before Wednesday's final, carried the words: "Mes Que Un Club." More than a club.
As he surveyed the euphoric scenes at the end, Henry would not have dismissed their overtures lightly, any more than Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and, most recently, Ronaldinho, had when they were seduced. Then maybe he would have considered his predecessor as captain and friend, Patrick Vieira, and reminded himself that a move to a supposed leviathan of Europe does not necessarily confer consequent success for the individual.
Yet it will almost certainly have been the words of Dein which lanced that final boil of uncertainty. "I am sure Thierry weighed up his decision very carefully," he said. "Maybe he thought about whether he wanted to take a chance somewhere else or maybe he wondered if his [English] wife Claire [and daughter Tea] would be happy away from London."
Dein added: "I said to him that he was the King of Highbury, but that he might only be a prince somewhere else. Maybe he would have gone on to be a king somewhere else as well, but at Barcelona, for example, there are many great players already, like Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Giuly."
What Arsenal have re-hired is not simply a man who performs ballet on turf, one who induces exhalations of appreciation and applause even from within rival followers, and is potentially a 30-goals-a-year man, he is also talent bait. Not only could he discourage some team-mates from departing; he may also encourage Wenger's attempts to reel in some significant additions. For all the virtues of young players including Cesc Fabregas, Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Eboué, Robin van Persie, Wenger must acquire reinforcements.
"This is a massive, massive signing for the club and I think it sends the right message to the existing team," said Dein of the 29-year-old. "They will see that Thierry is here, and we have the ambition to keep our best players and win everything we can. It would have been a massive blow if he had left the club." And it would have done grievous harm to the Premiership.
In a curious way maybe the events in Paris made the decision more, not less, clear-cut for him. Had Henry not spurned that 70th-minute opportunity of placing the final beyond Barce-lona when he eluded their rearguard only for his fatigued attempt to find the arms of a relieved Victor Valdes, he may have perceived matters differ-ently. In his seven years, he would have achieved it all at Highbury: Premiership titles, FA Cups and now the pinnacle of his European aspirations. The way things have transpired, it leaves him with an ambition unfulfilled.
It is also not inconceivable that Henry believes he still owes a debt to the fans, even after scoring 214 goals in 341 games for Arsenal. To be brutal, his missed chance was the defining moment; arguably even more so than Lehmann's departure, the subject of much derision among the Arsenal faithful as they bevvied their way home, with the observation "Who's the Barça in the black?" by far the wittiest.
Certainly, it is debatable whether there would have been any way back for Barcelona had Henry capitalised. "I was tired," he had protested after the game. "I have never been so tired after a game." He added: "You've seen me playing for a very long time in England, and I'm sure you haven't seen me running like I ran tonight, and defend like I did defend, and trying to work hard and be a good captain. I was on my way to do something special with the team. To lose it because someone didn't see an offside decision [Barcelona's first goal, which was marginal], I'm sorry, but it's hard to take."
Nobody could bring themselves to suggest to him that, just, maybe, his heart was dominating the head... just as it was when he finally said oui to Dein and Wenger a few hours later.
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