Glenn Moore: Style of Henry proves worthier than the roubles of Abramovich

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The Independent Online

A Russian billionaire and a French millionaire dominated this English football season, an indication of the game's cosmopolitan nature and fiscal realities. Fortunately, personal wealth was only relevant with one of them.

A Russian billionaire and a French millionaire dominated this English football season, an indication of the game's cosmopolitan nature and fiscal realities. Fortunately, personal wealth was only relevant with one of them.

That was Roman Abram-ovich. Previously unknown to all but students of the Russian economy he became one of the most familiar faces of the season, attending almost every Chelsea match. His summer purchase of Chelsea saved one of football's marquee names from what appears to have been impending implosion, but it was his subsequent transfer spree that carried the greater significance.

Overnight, Abramovich made Chelsea the darling of every agent in Europe. His unparalleled spending piqued Manchester United and Real Madrid, hitherto the big domestic and European players respectively, and changed the transfer landscape. Everyone is now playing catch-up, and looking for a foreign sugar daddy. Leeds United, Aston Villa, Manchester City have all been linked with foreign investment and Liverpool's shabby courtship of the Thai prime minister can be directly traced to Abramovich's arrival.

However, even Abramovich discovered some things are beyond price. He offered a blank cheque to Arsenal for Thierry Henry. Neither player nor club were interested. Rubbing it in, Henry then demonstrated just why he was cherished.

The Frenchman will finish top of the goal charts (he has scored 40 goals for club and country, well clear of the field) but that statistic is just the bones of his genius. The flesh is the élan and the joie de vivre he brings to the game. Back-to-back winner of both the Football Writers' Association's Footballer of the Year award, and the players' equivalent, he stands ahead of every player in the Premiership, both for his ability and style. English football is privileged to have him.

Though an individualist Henry points out his honours, and his energies, are meaningless outside the framework of the team. This is a familiar litany but in his case it seems genuine. Arsenal's esprit de corps has been a crucial component of their (probable) achievement in going an entire season unbeaten. It has been suggested that this is indicative of a weak Premiership. There may be some truth in that: European performances remain disappointing, especially in the context of a Franco-Portuguese Champions' League final. But few matches can be taken for granted. Bolton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Charlton Athletic defeated Chelsea, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Portsmouth and Manchester City were among nine teams to beat Manchester United.

Manchester United's decline - Sir Alex Ferguson admitted this was the first Premiership season they had not been competitive - was an absorbing sub-plot. Whether this campaign was a blip, while the team goes through a transitional period, or indicative of something more lasting remains to be seen. They are likely to end with the FA Cup back at Old Trafford, which suggests all crises are relative. United also have several promising youngsters, notably Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher. Their huge resources mean they will always be a player in the market even if they are currently outbid by Chelsea.

And yet. United no longer frighten teams. Roy Keane is on the wane, Ruud van Nistelrooy apparently disaffected and David Beckham departed. In Europe, the triumph of 1999 increasingly looks a one-off. Next season the biggest questions will be asked of United.

Back in August those questions were being asked of Liverpool. Ten months later Gérard Houllier is still talking of having made "progress", after a season in which, had it not been for Stephen Gerrard, they would have been mid-table. A Champions' League place has been obtained by default. As the club's suitor, Steve Morgan, said: "We are in the sixth year of a five-year plan". And yet, with the Mersey millionaire being rebuffed, Houllier looks like surviving to spend again.

Perhaps Liverpool are right to stand by their man. The fate suffered by Leeds is hardly an advertisement for changing managers. It was a reminder that few clubs are immune from relegation - Tottenham Hotspur and Everton take heed. Their demise, and the contrasting progress of Bolton and Charlton, was an encouraging indication that shrewd management, on the pitch and in the boardroom, still has value in this money-driven sport.

This was underlined by the return to the Premiership of Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion. Their next challenge is to survive in the top flight. Portsmouth, spending heavily on wages if not fees, showed it could be done. Subsequent events at Fratton Park have been hard to fathom, but football clubs, usually run by men with big egos, often are. Coventry's dismissal of Eric Black, who had stabilised the club, is a classic example of illogical management.

Elsewhere in the First Division, credit is due to the play-off quartet, Wigan's Paul Jewell, Ronnie Moore at Rotherham and, despite relegation, Wimbledon's Stuart Murdoch. Franchise FC are deservedly unloved but Murdoch deserves respect for keeping the football side going with players being sold on an almost weekly basis.

Coming into the First Division are Plymouth and Queen's Park Rangers, a pair many will welcome. Argyle have big, oft-unrewarded support while anyone in their forties will have a soft spot for Rangers. Their quotable manager, Ian Holloway, is a worthy successor to the imaginative tradition of Rodney Marsh and Stan Bowles.

Plaudits, in the Third Division, to Dave Penney for the remarkable job he has done at Doncaster, Peter Taylor for re-awakening Hull City and Leroy Rosenior, whose success at Torquay borders on the miraculous. His triumph has added significance with aspiring black managers justifiably feeling they are being overlooked. Many will hope Keith Alexander makes it a double in the play-offs - which would be reward for his courage, and Lincoln City's support, during his illness. Sympathies to Paul Simpson, who almost kept his home-town club, Carlisle United, up, and the supporters of York City. Sacking Terry Dolan was a mistake but they had previously been shamefully treated by several owners and a negligent Football Association.

It has been a mixed year for the game's governers. On the credit side, England qualified for Euro 2004, the hooligans have been relatively quiet (so far), and the FA stood firm over Rio Ferdinand. However, the latest Eriksson affair was handled badly, the National Football Centre remains mothballed, and the FA's inability to act as the game's moral guardians has been shown up by its silence over the ongoing Liverpool deal. Football has long been attractive to small-time crooks lured by the opportunities for laundering money, siphoning cash and gaining some respectability. Post-Abramovich - and his motives remain unclear, though a desire to insulate himself against changes in Muscovy's political wind may be one aspect - everything has been ratcheted up to compete financially. The prospect of Thai taxpayers underwriting Djbril Cissé's wage demands is an unedifying one.

The season's lasting memory will be the gilded recollection of Henry in full flow but Abramovich's arrival may prove to have longer-term significance.

Team of the season (4-4-2): Niemi (Southampton); G Neville (Manchester United), Campbell (Arsenal), Terry (Chelsea), Cole (Arsenal); Gerrard (Liverpool), Vieira (Arsenal), Lampard (Chelsea), Djorkaeff (Bolton Wanderers); Shearer (Newcastle United), Henry (Arsenal).

King Henry the first eleven of Thierry's finest strikes

26 Sept v Newcastle (H) 3-2

80 mins: match-winning penalty nonchalantly chipped down middle only nine days after missing against Inter.

26 Oct v Charlton (A) 1-1

39 mins: free-kick curled home from 20 yards.

1 Nov v Leeds (A) 4-1

8 mins: Outpaced Zoumana Camara before sliding ball past goalkeeper Paul Robinson to open scoring.

25 Nov v Internazionale (A) 5-1

85 mins: Angled drive (right) to put Arsenal 3-1 up after Robert Pires confused Italians with decoy run.

4 Jan v Leeds (A) 4-1

26 mins: Capped brilliant one-touch passing sequence with volley from 12 yards.

18 Jan v Aston Villa (A) 2-0

29 mins: Quickly taken free-kick curled home from 20 yards.

1 Feb v Manchester City (A) 2-1

83 mins: Ended flowing move involving Edu and Pires with fearsome angled shot from 20 yards to give Arsenal 2-0 lead.

13 Mar v Blackburn (A) 2-0

57 mins: Broke deadlock with a superb free-kick curled past goalkeeper Brad Friedel and inside post from 30 yards.

16 Apr v Leeds (H) 5-0

67 mins: Beat four defenders on 35 yard run and still managed to poke ball past Robinson despite falling over.

28 Mar v Man Utd (H) 1-1

50 mins: Put Arsenal ahead with a magnificent 25-yard swerving strike from open play.

9 Apr v Liverpool (H) 4-2

50 mins: Set off on a run from just inside the Liverpool half, holding off Dietmar Hamann and Jamie Callagher before putting Arsenal 3-2 ahead.

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