They might have lost the European Cup final but Arsenal last night won the battle over the future of Thierry Henry when their captain agreed to sign a four-year deal that will commit his future to the club and allow Arsène Wenger to build his new team around the 28-year-old.
The deal, understood to be worth more than £110,000 a week, has been agreed for months and has simply been awaiting Henry's signature after he first pledged to sign in January and then had serious doubts as Arsenal's Premiership form slumped. However, it is understood that he told the club of his decision last night in keeping with his promise to make up his mind before Sunday when France's World Cup squad meet.
With only one year left on his current deal, Arsenal would have been left with no choice but to sell Henry with Barcelona his first choice had he refused to sign a new deal, or risk losing him on a Bosman free transfer next summer. It would not be implausible for Henry to re-assess his position next summer if Arsenal struggle next season, but the club would then be able to demand an appropriate transfer fee.
The importance of Henry leading Arsenal when they move to their new 60,000-capacity Emirates stadium next season cannot be overstated and with their captain contracted until 2010, and Wenger until 2008, the club appear to be in a robust state as they approach the new season. Their success in keeping Henry means that Wenger's policy of not pressurising the player into making a decision has paid dividends.
The alternative to Henry, had he left, would have been Samuel Eto'o, scorer of Barcelona's first goal on Wednesday night. The Cameroon striker is now almost certain to stay at Barcelona reports linking him to Chelsea are misleading and he would only have contemplated moving had Henry arrived and usurped him in the starting line-up at the Nou Camp.
The deal to keep Henry is a triumph for Wenger, who signed him as a 20-year-old from Juventus for £10.5m in 1999 and now believes he is the best player in the world.
With the season now finished, and rivals Chelsea already active in the transfer market, there was a consensus among the Arsenal board that they had waited long enough for a decision from Henry. The circle of confidants around the player is so tight that even his management company SEM Group were not certain, until the last minute, of whether he would join the new European champions Barcelona or stay in London.
Apart from Henry's family and Wenger, the player is only likely to confide in his nominal agent, and the best man at his wedding, Darren Dein, son of the Arsenal vice-chairman David.
Darren, a solicitor who previously worked for the law firm SJ Berwin, oversees Henry's commercial deals, but is not understood to have had any involvement with the new contract.
Henry has refused to discuss the subject of his future in the last five months, and must surely have realised that he made a mistake in proclaiming exclusively in The Sun on 7 January that he would be staying at the club. In a paid-for column, which came to be a millstone around his neck, the Frenchman said: "I have made my mind up to stay."
As Arsenal's Premiership season began to disintegrate in the following months, especially with the defeat to West Ham on 1 February that saw them fall to sixth place, it became clear that Henry's resolve was wavering and the contract had remained unsigned. In that ill-advised column, he was dismissive of what he described as "ridiculous speculation" around his future, although he subsequently admitted that his mind was not made up.
While more mischievous observers would suggest that Henry enjoyed the fascination over his future and the opportunity to be self-righteously indignant every time the matter was raised it certainly cast a shadow over his team-mates. Such was the importance attached to Henry staying that some of them could have been forgiven for thinking on Wednesday they were playing for their captain rather than for the European Cup.
Henry took over the captain's Tannoy on the squad's flight from Paris to Gatwick in the early hours of yesterday and hinted at his decision in his traditional speech to the supporters travelling on the team's plane. " We have to take it [defeat] on the chin and make sure we come back even better," he said.
"Hopefully we will be back. I would like to say to my team-mates 'Well done', and you can go home with your head held high. We did not deserve to lose to an offside goal."
It remains unclear whether his unhappiness at Barcelona's tactics on Wednesday had an impact on his decision. Henry criticised the club's Catalan-born captain Carles Puyol as well as his defensive partner Rafael Marquez, and also Ronaldinho and Eto'o, unusual for a player who is normally scrupulous in avoiding controversy.
Ashley Cole, who signed a new contract at the start of the season to keep him at the club until 2008, will also decide upon his future this summer, although sources close to the player said yesterday it would not rest on Henry's decision. The England left-back has been courted by Real Madrid but with the Spanish team still without a strong president, they are in no position to make a quick decision.
Among those being looked at as possible summer targets by Wenger, many are young players who would be developed for the future. The 19-year-old Rennes midfielder Yoann Gourcuff has been scouted, as has Derby County's impressive 17-year-old midfielder Giles Barnes.Reuse content