Welcome to Last Word on Football’s ‘Returning Players’ series. In this edition, we take a look at Thierry Henry.
Returning Players – Thierry Henry
First Spell at Arsenal
Initially coached by his compatriot Arsène Wenger at Monaco, Thierry Henry endured a forgetful spell at Juventus, where he was shunted out to the left-hand side, often used as a wing-back by Marcello Lippi and outscored by, then team-mate, Antonio Conte.
However, Arsenal needed a replacement striker after allowing Nicolas Anelka to leave for Real Madrid, which reminded Wenger of the talented youngster he had coached whilst still in France. Henry made the move to Highbury for £11 million in 1999, a fee that garnered its fair share of scepticism at the time. Critics and supporters of the move alike could never have predicted the impact Henry would go on to have at Arsenal.
Despite initially struggling to become a dependable marksman in England, Henry hit the bullseye for the Gunners’ in the 2001/02 season, scoring 32 goals in all competitions for the club to lead them to a second double in four years under Wenger. Statistically, his most impressive season came a year later, with an astonishing 44 direct goal contributions in 2002/03.
However, after losing out on the league title to Manchester United, Henry and his team-mates smelt blood.
With a ruthless, unforgiving, Dracula-like edge, Henry became chief killer the following season, putting opponents to the sword with clinical disdain. Arsenal fans who have seen better days may recall a banner made in homage to ‘the Invincibles’ that read: ‘P38, L0: Immortal‘. Although Henry never won another piece of silverware at Arsenal as fellow ‘Invincibles’ left in search of greener pastures, it was over the subsequent seasons that the Frenchman asserted his immortal status at the club.
An outrageous back-heel against Charlton Athletic here and a nonchalant free-kick against Wigan Athletic there, Wenger knew he could always rely on Henry. Yet as the manager looked to develop the next generation of young stars in N5, league performances declined.
After losing out agonisingly to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League Final, rumours swirled and twirled like dancing hurricanes over Henry’s future. He signed a new contract mere days after defeat in Paris, to the delight of the Arsenal faithful, but the damage had been done. It was time for the talisman to go.
Teams That Henry Played for in Between
A summer of speculation and uncertainty culminated in a move to Barcelona for €24 million in June 2007.
Henry did not find life easy at first in Spain, unable to replicate the consistency he had shown in his latter years at Arsenal. Following a year of acclimatisation, Henry found himself ready to play a pivotal role in one of the greatest teams modern football has ever witnessed.
Tiki-taka, total football and Thierry: the Barcelona side of 2008/09 had it all under Pep Guardiola. If the Seven Wonders of the Ancient and Modern Worlds merit a place in human history for their sheer, unrivalled beauty, the starting line-up of this Barça merit the name of ‘the 11 Wonders of the Footballing World’ for their beautiful contribution to the sport. It would be an understatement to say that, under Guardiola, this team changed the modern game as we know it.
Henry played a pivotal role in firing the Blaugrana to the treble, scoring 26 times in all competitions to secure his first and, unbelievably, only Champions League trophy as a player.
The rise to prominence of Pedro limited Henry to just 15 La Liga starts in the next campaign and, disenchanted with life in Cataluña, he became one of the first high-profile footballers to move to the MLS upon signing for New York Red Bulls.
Return to Arsenal
Whilst Henry was training with Arsenal during the MLS off-season in 2012, fortune favoured the Gunners. Having been awarded a statue outside Emirates Stadium as part of the club’s 125th anniversary, the icon was on his way back.
Fans may have been glad to see the back of Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh, who were on international duty in the Africa Cup of Nations. However, concerns remained about the calibre of their replacement.
Out of the blue, Henry announced he would be signing a two-month loan deal with Arsenal and was given the number 12 shirt because Theo Walcott had inherited his hallowed number 14 jersey.
Arsenal fans welcomed the chance to see the man they cherished play for the club again, but nobody could have foreseen the fairytale that was on the horizon, about to be etched in highest echelons of romance.
The Return of the King
Given a hero’s reception when introduced as a substitute on 68 minutes in an FA Cup tie against Leeds United, it took just ten more before warm welcomes transformed into delirious celebrations.
Picking the ball up on the left-hand side, Henry slid a trademark side-footed finish into the bottom right corner to send the Emirates into ecstasy and announce the return of the king.
Securing Arsenal’s place in the next round of the FA Cup looked to be Henry’s only contribution before the magician was to return to New York.
And yet, in the dying moments of stoppage time, with Arsenal struggling to overcome a stubborn Sunderland side who had kept them at bay for 90 minutes, Henry had one last trick up his sleeve.
As a hopeful ball was hoofed into the box, Henry was quickest to react, turning the back the years with a sumptuous volley that flew past Simon Mignolet. His last-gasp winner ensured that the master striker will remain forever in the hearts of Arsenal fans, who bid him a fond farewell at the final whistle.
On his return, he had a record 226 goals for Arsenal. After a final salute, he left with an extended record of 228 goals and two unforgettable contributions that make one thing certain: Thierry Henry will forever be an Arsenal legend.