Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The legend who defines the greatest era

For Arsenal fans that were lucky enough to witness the team in the early years of the twenty-first century, that side will forever be the standard to which all Arsenal teams are judged. Arsene Wenger created a magical team that achieved something that stands alone in English football, and the comparisons the media make each season to potential Invincibles shows how they achieved the ultimate aim that all sides aspire to every season. Yet within this amazing group of players, there is one man who defines the greatest team in English football, and with his retirement, it feels like the end of an era.
Even though there are one or two Invincibles still scattered around still playing football, Thierry Henry’s retirement feels like the book has been truly closed on that team.
Thierry Henry was the ultimate hero for Arsenal fans as he managed to coTH14_2mbine physical power, pace and incredible skill with a genuine affection for the club, which grew to the same level as the fans themselves. Not only was he the greatest striker in the world, he also became one of the biggest Gooners in the world.
The Frenchman had so much individual talent, but he was the ultimate team player. He was capable of scoring the great individual goals, as was shown at Highbury when he charged away from the entire Tottenham team to open the scoring in the North London derby in 2002, but he was always aware of where his team-mate were, ready to pass and assist others when necessary. Everything was done for the good of the team, and Henry’s incredible goal scoring record was just a consequence of that.
It was more than just his pure footballing ability that made Thierry Henry the hero he was. Never has a foreign player in the Premier League had such a strong connection to an individual club. There have been great players, but Henry embraced everything about the club.
It’s virtually impossible to pick the greatest Thierry Henry moments, but I’ve tried to pick out five of many that stand out for me when thinking of the great man. These aren’t necessarily his greatest goals, but just personal moments that I remember when thinking of what Thierry did for Arsenal Football Club. Put you own personal Thierry moments in the comments at the bottom of this blog.
Arsenal v Real Mallorca – 2001: This might seem like a slightly random choice, but I was in the front row of the West Stand at Highbury for this game, which was near the end of the Champions League group stage. A two-goal victory for Arsenal would secure qualification into the next phase, and after an uninspiring first half, Arsenal went 2-0 up through Robert Pires and a thumping header from Dennis Bergkamp. Mallorca pulled one back, but in injury time, Thierry Henry broke away down the left hand side, could have tried to chip the keeper from distance, but stayed calm and rolled the ball into the far corner in classic style. Given how close the West Stand was to the pitch at Highbury, it was incredible to see Henry in such close quarters as he flew up the left hand side. Being so close showed just what an athlete Henry was. Plus, as he slid in the goal that secured qualification, this photo was taken with me in the front row behind Thierry!
Inter Milan v Arsenal – 2003: This was a seminal game for the club, as well as Thierry Henry. Since breaking into the Champions League in 1998, the 3-1 win at Roma (from a Thierry hat-trick) in the previous season was the only real stand-out away performance in the competition. Needing to win the game to keep the group alive, Arsenal produced a stunning 5-1 win, with Henry at the heart of it. At that stage of his Arsenal career, there were still some critics that said Henry didn’t show up in the big games, and while the Gunners still floundered away from home in the Champions League, those critics would remain. So the sight of Henry burning away from legendary full-back Javier Zanetti and thundering the ball into the bottom corner to secure victory felt like the moment Arsenal had finally announced themselves in Europe, and Henry as the performer for the biggest stages.
Real Madrid v Arsenal – 2006: Despite the win at the San Siro a couple of seasons previously, with the Invincibles slowly breaking up, spirits were hardly high going to the Bernabeu to face the galaticos of Real Madrid. Through sales and injuries, Arsenal didn’t have as many star players as previous seasons to compete with the big names of Madrid, but Arsenal did have Thierry Henry. Even though Henry didn’t win the individual world awards that some of the opposing Real Madrid players that night had, the Frenchman scored one of his greatest Arsenal goals in a 1-0 win. It was a reminder that Arsenal had the greatest player in the world, whatever FIFA or UEFA individual gongs would say.
TH14_1Arsenal v Wigan Athletic – 2006: The final game at Highbury, needing to overtake Tottenham in the league, Thierry Henry scores a hat-trick. Apart from signing off at the stadium with the league title itself, there was no more fitting way to leave the old place with almost the perfect script. The greatest goal scorer the stadium had ever played host to was treated to a final flourish from the master. It was an incredibly sad day to leave Highbury, but that final day was a brilliant reminder of how lucky we’d been as Arsenal fans to witness Thierry Henry at such close quarters in N5.
Arsenal v Leeds United – 2012: The 5-2’s against Tottenham were brilliant, beating Barcelona was incredible, and Thierry’s winner against Manchester United was awesome. But when asked what my favourite Emirates Stadium memory is, there is only one answer. I’d never have dreamed I’d see Thierry Henry score a goal for Arsenal again. He was older, he filled out the shirt more, he was bearded and he’d lost some pace. But as that FA Cup third round game with Leeds went on at 0-0, the whole stadium could sense that Arsenal would be ok because Thierry Henry was going to come on. He came on, he scored, Arsenal won 1-0. Once again, Thierry took the leading role in the perfect script. But there was no acting from Henry in this scene. It was raw emotion as he celebrated scoring for his club.
As an Arsenal fan, it’s almost impossible to write anything that can do justice to how much he means to the club and how much of a hero he was, so I’ll finish by simply responding to Thierry himself. In his statement confirming his retirement, Thierry Henry said: “I hope you have enjoyed watching as much as I have enjoyed taking part.” Trust me, Thierry, we did.