Review: Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

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Normally, nostalgia is evoked by watching a movie, looking at photos or merely by way of conversation. It’s not, however, normal for someone to come back and do exactly the same thing again. That’s how it felt when Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal in the January of 2012 and, against Leeds United in the League Cup, scored in exactly the same way that he had made a trademark.

Starting from a position on the inside-left channel, Henry darted inside to receive a pass from Alex Song. When the ball landed at his feet, the angle was fairly tight; improbable even to some players as defenders encircled him. But Henry, as we learnt in Philippe Auclair’s biography of the French Striker, Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top, had perfected the art on the training fields of Monaco with then fitness coach, Claude Puel [Page 52]. The open body shape, leaning awkwardly to his left and with almost all of his weight transferred to one foot, and hitting the ball on the bottom-right corner to achieve maximum deviation away from the goalkeeper. When he scored, I gathered this is how it might feel for Napoli fans to see Diego Maradona once more pirouette on the centre-circle. Or for Manchester United fans, seeing Eric Cantona lift his famous collar again.

Of course, that might just be the romantic in me. After all, Henry had played his last game for the club back in 2007, only some four seasons ago. And he came back a year-and-a-half before signing on loan for Arsenal as a Barcelona player with credentials still strong. (The Arsenal fans gave him a rapturous applause when he came on at the Emirates Stadium and then booed him when he touched the ball, somewhat acknowledging the danger he can cause. On an aside note, the first 20 minutes from Barcelona was the most breathtaking and relentless exhibition of football I have ever seen).  But at that age, there was a doubt that he would only be a hologram of the player we remembered; the power, the grace, the athleticism, the absolutefuckingbrilliantness – what of that would remain? Thankfully those fears, how ever much was not already engulfed by excitement, were allayed. Arsène Wenger used him sparingly in only moments he could be absolutely effective (his winner away to Sunderland cannot be overstated) and his goal against Leeds United, as Auclair tells Gunnerblog.com, came “to be the defining image of his relationships with Wenger, the club, and the club’s fans.”

That magical night in January is the somewhat reluctant ending toLonely at the Top because, while the book predominately charts how the love affair with Arsenal came to be, Henry’s story develops into another, less savoury tangent; that of his image in his own country. Whatever reservations the French public had of Henry’s character – the botched transfer to Real Madrid early on in his career certainly didn’t help (although he quickly recoiled those scepticisms with his ability on the pitch), or his aloofness off it – that all came to a head after the “Hand of Gaul” incident which cost lowly, plucky and thus loveable, Ireland a place in the World Cup. France’s subsequent failure in the tournament and the “shameful” bus strike midway through saw Thierry Henry, among others, come under severe criticism. Here, the book switches to a more serious tone and Auclair provides a wonderful, if precautionary, dissection of modern France and it’s relationship with the national team; one that is not limited to one country it must be said, but France’s seems a bit of a watershed.* One of the reasons why Henry might have been as criticised as he was, was that he was seen as a talisman of a mediocre France side and when the time came “when the foolishness of others gave him the chance of being a hero”, Henry did nothing. (Henry’s place in the selection was previously in doubt anyway, as Raymond Domenech admitted in his memoirs, Tout seul: Souvenirs, that he ended up picking Henry for “emotional reasons” as he couldn’t bear to face the impending uproar from the public – who saw Henry as a talisman and leader of a leaderless group before and after the tournament – were he not taken).

*Auclair’s explanation of France’s tolerance to nationalised citizens and its value of supranationality helps understand why Wenger had traditionally, before now it seems, ignored a player’s passport when making transfers.

If that seems at odds with the image of Henry we have on these shores, it’s because Auclair wants to make you aware of the dichotomy “between the troubled image of Henry in his own country, and his status as a genuine hero for Arsenal fans.” His route to the latter might be less sensational but it is no less straightforward. In fact, much of it is owed to hard work, as Henry when converted back to a striker at Arsenal, would practice his finishing for hours on end to the mockery of his teammates because he was horrible initially, and the faith of his father and coaches in his formative years before Wenger (Gérard Houllier and Jean Tigana at Monaco most well-known). Wenger, though, had the foresight – or hindsight one might even call it, to use him in the position he played as a teenager.

The transformation was metamorphic as it wasn’t entirely natural. Henry needed a lot of convincing at first and there even seemed to be a bit of science about it. That owes much to the analytical mind of Henry as Auclair reveals, especially of his knowledge of the game (the striker says he relished playing against Italian defenders like Alessandro Nesta as his game was too quick for them which helps explain his success against them although conversely, my memory of him was that he struggled against the opposite: of pacy, intelligent anticipatory centre-backs such as William Gallas/Ricardo Carvalho or Ledley King). Henry is also capable of being self-critical – self-aware even – to the point of being obsessive, cosying up to certain journalists to make sure that not only does he survive, but his legacy thrives.

Two months before Henry rejoined Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls, his legend was crystalised when a statue was unveiled of him celebrating a fine solo run from his own half before scoring against Tottenham Hotspur in 2002. (The design of which I have a bone to pick because, whilst artistically perfect, it didn’t capture Henry in his usual swagger, his grace: the features that defined him as statues are meant to capture). That might go down as one of Henry’s finest performances but certainly not his defining moment. Indeed, Lonely at the Top fails to underpin one defining moment which might be to Henry’s detriment but certainly not the book’s. There are plenty of great moments; his hat-trick against Liverpool at 2-1 down when Arsenal’s “Invicible” status was yet to be confirmed was probably his best. A personal favourite was his double away at Internazionale to win 5-1 which only further confirmed to me and Arsenal fans of his untouchable status. But he was more than just a goalscorer which is why it’s said “Wenger owes as much to Henry as Henry does to Wenger.” His assist before the assist against Aston Villa (drifting to the right this time, beating two or three defenders before playing a wonderful “banana” pass to Dennis Bergkamp – whose deft touch was just as deadly – found Ashley Cole) best encapsulates how Henry was the system.

As I neared the conclusion of Lonely at the Top, I couldn’t help but feel the real star of the book wasn’t actually Henry but Auclair himself. That’s not meant to be an indictment of Henry’s interestingness, although at first, he doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate for a biography. Indeed, Auclair prefers to describe this as a “biographical essay”, an apt description of a unique account of Arsenal’s greatest player. It’s a brilliantly written book with great distance between the writer and its subject, and Auclair’s insight genuinely adds to the narrative of Henry’s career when with others, it might get in the way (the use of statistics however, does get tedious at times). At the end of it, Auclair won’t make you love Henry more, but you will certainly have a deeper understanding of him. And as such, love him more because we get to appreciate that what we got wasn’t the Henry after the debacle of South Africa 2010, but 8 years of greatness. When he returned and scored against Leeds, and then the adulation he received; perhaps we are the wisest of all when judging Thierry Henry.

Thierry Henry: Life at the Top by Philipe Auclair is available at all good bookstores. (Actually, “good” is harsh because all bookstores are good. I especially like the ones owned by middle-aged men with ponytails. Which is all of them, really).

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