Henry transforms the anger that burns within into ceaseless search for perfection

Striker who plays with the streets in his soul will not be content even with a Champions' League medal, writes Jason Burt
Click to follow
The Independent Football

A homecoming is always a time for reflection. Thierry Henry will return to Paris today. He is from the south. Just outside the city. A place called Essonne, a nondescript district of the town of Les Ulis. It was there that he grew up. It was there that he developed his skill, his determination, his commitment to the game. And his anger.

Henry is angry still. It is the fuel that feeds him. That burns inside. That drives him on and, ahead of his return, he reflects on just where it comes from. And why is it unquenched. Indeed, he wants to talk about his anger. It is he who raises the subject.

"The way I've been brought up and the way it was for me when I was young definitely helped me to be what I am right now," Henry says. "That desire and that anger - in the right way - always drives me. People are scared of anger and that's one thing I always say about Rooney. You see it when he plays. That's what I mean when I talk about anger. I'm not scared of using my anger in a positive way. It's really difficult but without that anger I wouldn't be the same player."

The competitive rage is something that intrigues him. As much as speed, ability and dedication it is what he feels marks out the best. "I can't compare myself to a boxer because they are amazing athletes," Henry says. "But it's the same. When he doesn't have that anger any more and he goes into the ring he is dead. If you don't have it any more you might as well stay home. People deal with their stuff in different ways. Everyone talks of Ronaldinho smiling but I can tell you that inside there are no smiles."

The world's two best footballers are friends. Tomorrow they will be in opposition as Arsenal face Barcelona in the most eagerly anticipated European Cup final since the Catalans faced Milan in 1994. Whoever has the greatest influence will determine the destiny of the trophy. Against the Brazilian's wonderful, toothy grin will be the Frenchman's self-confessed "grumpy face". It is not a mask. Instead it is a window to how he feels inside when on the football pitch.

It was the same for one of Henry's heroes, the basketball star Michael Jordan. "I rarely saw him smile on court," Henry says. "And that didn't stop him from being the best. I don't know if anyone will ever touch him. I grew up with a guy who, after the last shot of the buzzer, would go back into the dressing room with his fist clenched and desire to win on his face."

Henry feels the same as he steps on the football pitch and volunteers precisely where it originates. "Everything comes from my dad," he says. "My spirit, my desire, my commitment. My dad taught me to never be satisfied with what you have and that's why even when I've scored some goals, I play everything down and think about the next game. That's my philosophy. I know it might not be everyone's philosophy but that's why I've reached what I've reached and I'm playing the football I'm playing right now. That is my way."

Henry's parents, his father, Antoine and mother Marylese, arrived in France in the 1970s from Guadeloupe. They lived in what the French term un quartier difficile. Antoine pushed "Titi" hard. He was disciplined, demanding and was also convinced his son would play for France. Later he admitted that, maybe, he "suffocated" his youngest son a little.

Henry refers to himself as a "player from the streets", adding "that's why you get tough". His neighbourhood was not the roughest. But it was far from privileged. It was, he says, "a difficult background". Indeed, Henry sees comparisons with the East End of London and has talked to his team-mates Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell - who both come from that area - about the parallels. He sees the similarities too in Rooney and, of course, Ronaldinho.

"There is no better school than the streets," he says. "No disrespect to people involved in my progression but you need that anger factor. When I see Rooney I see a player from the streets. When I see Ronaldinho I see a player from the streets. You have to have that in you and that's why I want it in me until I stop."

There is, Henry says, a significant distinction to be made. "I am happy," he insists. "Don't get me wrong about the anger thing. I'm a happy man. It's just my way of seeing things. If I do something bad on the pitch I blame me."

There is, indeed, a distinction. Henry is wonderfully polite and thoughtful if also clearly sensitive to both criticism and the needs of others and stresses that his on-field and off-field personalities are very different. It all boils down to one thing. The unattainable search for "perfection".

"You can never reach perfection, but I am trying to do it because that's the only way you can progress and get better," he says. "We all know no one is perfect. Everyone in the game is missing something. But trying to reach perfection will always keep you on your toes. Friends say I'm too hard on myself but that's my way."

It can be hard on his father and brother, Willy, also. "If you come with me on holiday and I lose two-against-two against my brother and my dad then I won't be talking to them for at least an hour," Henry jokes. "I can't take it. That's just the way I am. You have to understand that's sometimes the way people are. A guy's a guy."

The status of the contest does not matter. Whether it is among the sand dunes or in the Stade de France. "People forget where I come from," he says. "In front of the cameras I have to control myself but I will not change the basics. For me that's the most important thing."

Sometimes his feelings, he believes, are misrepresented as "petulance". Instead it is just a "respect for the game" that is both innate and also learned.

Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, delivered one of the best lessons. "I will always remember one thing that Arsène told me when I arrived here," Henry says. "Sometimes football players, we have a habit of saying it wasn't our fault and we try to blame other people. Maybe you don't make the right run but in your head you are saying it's because that guy didn't give you the right pass. Arsène just told me 'ask the good question, don't ask the bad question'."

And so, he believes, "when you are one-on-one with the goalkeeper if you do everything right the keeper cannot save the ball. I put that on myself. I'm harsh on goalkeepers because all the time when I watch the game on TV and I hear someone say, 'what a save from the goalkeeper'. I say 'no'. If that guy put the ball in the right place it's never a save. If you allow the goalkeeper to make a save it's because you didn't take a chance properly. You need to be strong to do that because you are putting it on yourself."

Tomorrow will be his first European Cup final as either a player or spectator. He has not attended one before because "I haven't earned the right to be there". It could be some spectacle should the rich potential of both teams be realised. For Henry that is not so important. "It's about winning," he says bluntly before adding that he's not someone who cherishes his medals. Instead he moves on. Just as he has done this season.

"At the beginning when I was suffering with my Achilles and not being fit there were so many people saying 'I don't think he's the right skipper, I don't think his head is at Arsenal anymore'," Henry says. "At the end of the season you have everyone saying 'what a season he's had'. My point is I can never be satisfied." The fire continues to burn.

Comments