When running through a list of the greatest foreign imports to grace English football, a few names automatically spring to mind. Cristiano Ronaldo deserves immense recognition as the only Premiership-based player to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, whilst Eric Cantona was the catalyst for Manchester United’s dominance for the past 20 years. Yet Thierry Henry, who announced the closure of a glittering career in December, has legitimate claims to be declared theagreatest player the English game has ever seen.
Henry’s retirement is an announcement that has been greeted with much weeping and gnashing of teeth across North London. For all his immense achievements in football (a treble winner with Barcelona, World Cup and European Championship medals with France and his countryís all time record goal-scorer), his name will forever be associated with Arsenal.
Yet his success at Highbury had initially been far from guaranteed, having arrived in 1999 under a cloud after an unhappy spell at Juventus and appearing ill-equipped to fill the considerable void left by Nicolas Anelkaís departure to Real Madrid. When he failed to score in his first eight games for his new club, Arsene Wengerís gamble to convert the winger into a centre forward appeared to be doomed to failure. Then he netted a scorcher against Southampton and never looked back.
Henry’s statistics, achieved in the most competitive league in football, make for astonishing reading; seldom has a player in the English game maintained such impossible standards for such a length of time. On four out of five occasions between 2001-2002 and 2005-2006, he won the Premiership Golden Boot and became the first player to retain the PFA Player of the Year Award, yet such impressive statistics utterly fail to capture the majesty of Henry in full flight.
He was a primal force of nature, an astonishing combination of speed, power, close control, intelligence, movement and lethal finishing from varied distances and angles, equally capable of scoring a scruffy tap in as he was a screamer from outside the box. His tendency to drift out onto the left wing and link up with Robert Pires was one that caused right-backs across the land to psychologically keel over. As his compatriot Lilian Thuram said, ìno defender in the world can keep up with himî.
Critics of Henry tend to dismiss him as a flat-track bully. It is true that his legs had an unfortunate tendency to turn to jelly in cup finals (his miss in the 69th minute in the 2006 Champions League Final still induces physical pain). Yet it is also notable how many of his finest moments came against high-calibre opponents. The volley against Manchester United in 2000; the hat trick against Roma in 2002 and the solo effort at the Bernabeau in 2006 all roll nicely off the tongue.
However, the game against Liverpool on a sunny Good Friday 2004 perhaps provides the finest demonstration of Henry at the peak of his powers. With Arsenal knocked out of the FA Cup and Champions League in the same week and losing 2-1 to the men from Anfield, the league season also looked like floundering. Step forward the king. He demolished Liverpool with a breath taking hat trick, the second goal of which makes for sublime viewing in slow motion as the Frenchman weaves his way through the massed ranks of Liverpool defenders who collapse like dominoes before him. Arsenal would go on to the win the game, record a unique unbeaten league campaign and achieve immortality.
He would eventually depart for Barcelona and then New York Red Bulls, although he would pull on the red and white one last time during a loan spell in which he would famously come off the bench to net the winner against Leeds in the FA Cup in 2012. Normally a self-possessed individual, even Monsieur Va-Va Voom couldn’t contain himself as he wheeled away to celebrate with those who welcomed the return of the prodigal son. Long live the king.