Exasperating but oh so exhilarating

Hail Henri: A terrace tribute
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The Independent Football

A fantastic thing occurs at the Highbury Library when Thierry Henry sees killing space to run into and - whether he has the ball or not - just takes off and goes. It's a kind of judder, a hard, neural ripple, which shoots instantaneously around the stands like a special effect in an expensive sci-fi movie. The noise it makes isn't va-va voom. It's "woooo, bloody hell, there go the afterburners!"

And within three-quarters of a second the whole joint is transformed from a library into a weird conflation of bacchanal and chantry, in which Gooner and arriviste, spotty Herbert and hormonal Henrietta, turn to one another and experience the football equivalent of the joy of spiritual oneness. All you need is love? All you need is Tel.

The Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has, I believe, said that over 10 yards Nicolas Anelka is the fastest thing he's ever seen in football boots. But over any distance long enough to stretch and break a whole football team, no one can catch this year's shoo-in for Footballer of the Year. Why bother to catch him anyway, you might add, when you can just stand and watch?

If there is a finer sight in sport - and I include all the historical ones, including Hagler's jab and Gower's cover drive - then I haven't seen it; and I don't expect to see it ever again (a thought, incidentally, which is almost too sad to contemplate). As a spectacle, Henry running fast and purposefully has come to define a specific kind of beauty for me - beauty as a dynamic, supple thing to do with the relationship between space and time: things happening all at once, spontaneously, in a semi-chaotic, semi-organised fugue of separate but interconnected micro-events - but all of it stimulated by the exercise of one will and its tool, a singular body.

This is the very model of why sport is aesthetically as well as emotionally compelling. (The classical example of that would be the optical illusion created last season at Anfield when Jamie Carragher appeared, all of a sudden, to be going backwards as Henry pushed the ball beyond the defender as he turned and then... swoosh, switched on the afterburners. It was as if Carragher were being yanked out of the engage-ment by his ears.) It can be quite druggy, watching Henry earn his money.

But you do have to be there in the flesh to get the full effect. Television does not convey anything like the truth of the experience, in the same way that it does not convey the whole of it. I think it's fair to say that although we love Thierry stupidly at the Clock End, we are also horribly aware that that feeling of gormless devotion comes at a price: the awful, reasoning, whining burden of expectation.

You see, Thierry also drives us mad. What you don't see so much on the highlights is the posturing - the big shrugs, the sulking, the theatrical signalling, the self-involved hovering in the spotlight of his own imagination, the varied forms of passionate narcissism that accompany every Henry performance. More importantly, you don't get to see the ways in which Thierry can be crushingly ineffective for what, to those absorbed in a state of heightened expectation, can seem like more time than you have to spare.

The "French flicks", the neuter challenges, the crass over-extravagance, the bloody-minded determination to do the difficult thing beautifully rather than the straightforward thing perfectly - thank God, we are moved to say most weekends, for Patrick Vieira and Kolo Touré.

Yes, Henry is proof of what makes genius peculiar: he doesn't see things our way. Yet, for all that, one of the ways in which he has got better and better this past season is in seeing things our way: in his efforts to show that there's effort in his genius too.

His recent performance against Liverpool will always be remembered by those who watched it on TV for his eviscerating hat-trick. I will always remember it for the way he flogged his knackered, out-of-form body to the limit, tracking back, chasing his own mistakes and finally, and triumphantly, dragging his team on to a victory that owed a little to poised athleticism and searing pace but everything else to unquenchable thirst.