Henry pledges future to Arsenal - 'the club I love'

After one of the longest-running contract sagas in recent Premiership history, the notoriously sensitive Frenchman said that he had endured enough speculation about his future and was ready to negotiate a new deal that would keep him at the club for good. Although his announcement was made in the face of widespread reports that he had lost faith in Wenger's team, it will now be almost impossible for the 28-year-old to change his mind.

Henry has 18 months left on his current deal but this summer had already been identified as the crucial period in his relationship with Arsenal: had he failed to sign a new contract the club would have been forced to realise his value as one of the best players in the world or face losing him on a Bosman free transfer in 2007. Although Henry resolved at the start of the season that he would not discuss a new deal until the summer 2006, he changed his mind abruptly this week.

Henry said: "The truth is I love this club and I have made my mind up to stay. I can say to all my fans and the people who care about me I want to lead the team out in the new stadium. I will talk to Arsène Wenger, to David Dein [the vice-chairman], and the board and talk of the future.

"My mind is to stay and we have to sort this out. They said the ball was in my court. Now the ball is in their court. There was a lot of ridiculous speculation but the truth is this: I never spoke with or met with a single person from any other club at any time. This will put an end to all the stories and we can move on."

The French striker has become increasingly precious about any discussion of his future and earlier yesterday even Wenger was forced to tiptoe around the subject, protesting that the player's desire to take his time over his decision was "healthy". The whole issue of Henry's future had been reignited by comments from the former Arsenal striker Ian Wright that it was his "gut feeling" that the player would leave, and further reports that he had been in personal contact with the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta.

Henry, who signed from Juventus for £10.5m in 1999, was made captain after the departure of Patrick Vieira to the same Italian Serie A club in August and, as Arsenal slumped to fifth in the Premiership, 24 points behind the leaders, Chelsea, looked like he would be forced to pursue his Champions' League ambitions elsewhere. Laporta publicly stated his intention to buy Henry last month and, for Arsenal, the hope that they might hang on to their most famous player had become increasingly thin.

Henry said last night: "Obviously I did think about leaving Arsenal. It's a big decision because I thought if I do commit to this club it could be for life."

Although Henry has been careful enough to qualify his commitment to the club, his readiness to stay with Wenger despite doubts about the capability of the side to mount a sustained challenge to Chelsea's dominance will be an enormous boost to Arsenal. The prospect of the club moving to the 60,000-capacity stadium at Ashburton Grove in August without their star name would have been a grim prospect for a team who have looked ordinary without Henry.

For Wenger, Henry's vow to stay will be a useful tool in trying to keep Ashley Cole at the club beyond this summer. Although the England left-back signed a new contract with the club this season he has been alienated by his treatment over the Chelsea "tapping-up" scandal last January and has been identified by Real Madrid as a successor to Roberto Carlos. With Henry on board, Wenger may feel that he can also keep Cole.

The decision by Henry is also a remarkable show of faith in Wenger, who is yet to prove that he can find a suitable replacement for Vieira to strengthen his now lightweight midfield. The Arsenal manager has not made a significant signing in the past year with Aleksander Hleb yet to prove worthy of the £10m spenton him this summer. Wenger indicated yesterday that he did not have plans to spend money on new players in this transfer window.

Unfortunately for many Arsenal fans, Henry chose to make the announcement that he would stay in his column in The Sun newspaper with whom he has a private contract. As the recently appointed captain of a Premiership side he has been urged to take note of the fact that his opposite number at another - currently more successful - club chose to terminate a similar agreement when he was given captaincy responsibilities.

As a player who scrutinises his treatment in the media very closely, yesterday would have begun badly for Henry when he read in The Sun that Wright, who claims to be a friend of the Frenchman, said that he had a "gut feeling" that the player would leave Arsenal. He added: "If I was in the same position as him, I would. For Arsenal to get into a situation where Thierry Henry is even thinking of not signing a new deal is not good... I fear the worst."

Wenger defended the player: "I feel you have to accept when you arrive at 29 it is your last contract and you wonder 'What do I do now?''' he said. "You have to accept that. That is healthy. I would not rush him into a decision. When he is ready, if he is ready, he has to do it. What you want from your players is that once they are committed to it, they are because they really believe it. Inside of them, they want to be part of it."

Wenger said that, should Henry agree to stay, his "entire life will be at Arsenal". As of last night, that is exactly what Henry has signed up to.

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