We’ve all got one. The one we weren’t allowed to look at; the one we had to admire in secret, from a distance. One more appropriate to deny than to acknowledge, to dismiss than to appreciate.
Guilty pleasures in football usually cross supporting lines. It’s very seldom that one can support one of the top sides and not suddenly themselves in awe, in nearly shameful veneration of a particular talent that not only plays for a rival team, but in fact produces footballing displays worthy of respect and justified envy.
This series of articles is about those players. Some of them played for your club’s worst of enemies, some of them even contributed to nights of disappointment for you and your supporter brethren. Whatever the narrative, they all share the characteristic of being so good at what they do in football, that you found yourself marvelling at them while despising their allegiance, jealous that their talent didn’t manifest in the colours of your beloved club.
When you think about the best strikers to bestow the Premier League. Not one football appreciator I know, wouldn’t include Thierry Henry in his all time 11. For a spell in the the early to mid 00’s, he was truly unstoppable, a force of nature, all opponents feared. A scorer and creator of world class goals, all executed with effortless grace. He was a real game changer and one of the finest players I’ve ever seen.
Thierry moved to Arsenal in 1999 for £11 million, aged just 21. He’d had a poor spell at Juventus, but Arsene Wenger saw his undoubted potential when he managed him at Monaco. He knew exactly what potential he was signing and went onto harness it in full. At Arsenal, he went onto score 228 goals in 377 appearances, an average of 0.67 goals per game. That stat alone is incredible, but when you look at the occasions he scored and the calibre of the goals, it’s even more telling.
The famous goals, which stick in my mind include this….
And how could you forget this….
He wasn’t just a great goalscorer, but a masterful creator. Technically impeccable, his touch and control were perfect. He amassed 80 assists in his time at Arsenal, and still holds a 13 year old record for the most assists in a single EPL campaign (20). His ingenuity and vision was rarely matched, he was a joy to watch. If you focused closely, you could see the time he created with skill and subtlety of movement. At times it was poetry in motion and he did things that almost defied physics.
His skill at times was so outlandish, both home and away support mouths, often gaped open. The sheer audacity of the the wrong foot pass, the Maradona turns, the back heeled goals and the ability to juggle the ball in motion, was breathtaking. Henry was a master with the ball at his feet, but it was never without purpose. He always used his skill with a goal in mind, he was hungry and driven to entertain and thrill, but also to punish the opposition.
A player who always played with a smile on his face, on the surface Henry was one of the games gentlemen. An global icon, both on and off the pitch. However he had an edge, a cynical side, which to me is required for the truly elite to reach their potential. He had a hunger to be the best, and whilst that never boiled over to Luis Suarez or Diego Maradona proportions, Henry wasn’t a choir boy. I love that edge in a player, it shows how much desire they have to reach the top and Thierry undoubtably did.
He was strong, deceptively so. You rarely saw him get dominated by a defender and if he was losing the physical batter, he had the intelligence, ingenuity and ability to find another way. His movement made him impossible to mark, drifting wide, dropping deep or penetrating right down the middle with his blistering pace. He was a defenders nightmare and many will have been happy to see him depart, when he moved to Barcelona in 2007.
At Arsenal he was surrounded by world class players, including Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires, but he outshone them all. Of all the ‘Invincibles’, Henry was surely the most indispensable. He lifted the crowd and inspired his team. He was a true game changer and the most feared striker in the league, scoring 39 goals in all competitions, in the 2003/04 legendary campaign.
His eight year reign in the Premier League saw him pick up player of the season twice, narrowly missing out on European player of the year on both those occasions, perhaps harshly finishing second. He won the Golden Boot four times, more than any other player in the modern EPL format. He won two league titles and three FA Cups, plus two Charity Shields. That’s some haul, almost a medal for each season spent in England.
If my son grows up to love football like I do, one of the first players I’d show him compilations of, is Thierry. He was the original YouTube sensation, but unlike many you’re not looking through hours of footage to find the star moments. Watch any full game he played and you’d see moments of sublime skill and that clinical brilliance; nobody ever kept him quiet.
Global superstar, talisman and footballing legend, Henry had it all and then some. Mr Henry I salute you and thank you for your contribution to the game I so dearly love. Simply put, he was a phenomenon.