Highbury was my garden.
Whenever I get a chance to go back to London, I invariably make a trip to the old Highbury. There, I stand at the entrance, looking in through the thin sliver of space onto the garden that was once the pitch. I look in with eyes closed, looking not onto the modernist glass garden as it is now but rather remembering the lush, simple green of Highbury in its last season.
I stand there and reminisce about the one time I got to see Arsenal at Highbury. The one time I got to see Thierry Henry at Highbury. The time I got to see Henry play in his garden.
If Highbury was Henry’s garden, Henry was the gardener and he sprinkled that garden with beautiful goals. Under his care the garden grew FA Cups and Premier League titles. That garden gave life to a team that would finish a whole season unbeaten, the Invincibles, a corner of Highbury with perfect rows of dahlias blooming forever in the spring sun. And that garden gave birth to a style of technically beautiful, powerful, rapier-like football which would be known as “playing football the Arsenal way”.
More than any other player, Henry’s careful tilling of the fertile soil in North London provided the bounty that is now the Emirates Stadium.
Show me a great manager and I’ll show you a great goalscorer
There’s a maxim in football that a great forward and a great manager are symbiotic. A great forward carries his team through the hard times and a great manager sets up the team to get the most out of his great forward. Rodgers had Suarez, Mourinho had Drogba (and now Costa), Graham had Ian Wright, and Arsene Wenger had Thierry Henry.
I feel in love with Arsenal because of Thierry Henry. I’m not ashamed to admit it. He was simply the most beautiful footballer I had ever seen. His silky smooth touch on the ball belied his powerful and predatory nature. In a moment he could turn his man, be past him, bounce off two defenders and pass the ball around the outstretched arms of a hapless keeper as he did against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Or like he did against Liverpool to lead the charge back from 2-1 down to 4-2 win. A goal of such astounding skill that it is widely hailed as the goal which saved Arsenal’s Invincible season.
Henry was powerful, precise, and pretty. Oh so pretty. If you don’t get chills watching that clip above, perhaps you should consider another sport. Whist, I hear is a real hoot.
It may be sacrilege to say this but as much credit as Wenger gets for the Arsenal side which won so much from 2000 to 2005 Henry deserves equal credit. And that goal above along with many more are credited with doing just that.
They are the club of my dreams and I would like to play there
As revealed in his book Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair points out that Henry was such a hot property in 1996 that Real Madrid offered him over £60,000 a week (after tax) plus a £800,000 signing on bonus to sign from Monaco. That attempt at tapping up (through Henry’s father Tony) of a 19 year old Henry failed. Henry was fined, Real Madrid was fined, and Henry signed a contract extension with ASM.
Henry fell out of favor, though, at ASM and after a few years of toiling actually made a surprise move to Juventus. It was a surprise move even for Wenger. Wenger had earmarked Henry to play with Anelka in the Arsenal attack and on 20 November 1998 Thierry Henry was quoted saying that “[Arsenal] are the club of my dreams and I would like to play there.”
But instead, Henry went to Juventus that January and spent a few agonizing months in the Serie A. Like Paul the apostle wandering the desert blind, Henry, I guess, needed time to find himself. Time to throw off the shackles of his father and find shelter from the personal and professional troubles he’d gotten into at Monaco.
Wenger, the man who handed Henry his debut at Monaco, then must be given credit for getting Henry to Highbury. People like to call Dein the architect of those transfers but it was certainly Wenger which prompted Henry’s “dream.”
Wenger deserves credit for assembling the team which would give Henry the platform for success. Without Vieira, Campbell, Toure, Lehman, Cole, Piers, Ljungberg, Edu, and Gilberto, Thierry Henry would have been just another great goal scorer on an under-performing team. Many people are harping on Alexis Sanchez’ passing rate but the Chilean is actually a better passer than Thierry Henry in his first season. The Frenchman was seen by many as a disaster because he could only complete 67% of his passes. Sanchez does give the ball away a bit but is snip better at 77% and well on his way to equaling Henry’s 17 goals in his first season at Highbury.
It took Wenger two years to get the parts right around Henry but once he did, he built a team which could rival any in world football now. Thierry Henry led the front line on that Arsenal team. His job was to score goals and win games. He did that. And as much as Wenger, Thierry Henry was the nucleus of the greatest Arsenal team of my generation.
Maybe it’s just symbolic but Henry, more than any other player, bridged the gap between the old Highbury Arsenal and the new Emirates Arsenal.
Who do they think they are?
I feel like I’ve always been saying goodbye to Henry. I only saw him once in his garden, on a cold Spring day against Charlton. It was Arsenal’s final season at Highbury and I knew this would be my last ever chance to see the club at their old haunt. The day was perfect, the sun shone, the grass glinted deep green, Arsenal won, and even Alexandr Hleb scored a goal, but despite the joy of seeing Arsenal at Highbury for the first time it was a bittersweet match.
Arsenal would never be the same after that season, relocating the whole stadium a block away and modernizing their money-making capabilities in order to compete with the nouveau riche of Chelsea. Arsenal left her heart at Highbury.
Henry would also never be the same after that season. Failing at the final hurdle, losing 2-1 to Barcelona in the Champions League final in Paris, blocks from his boyhood home, changed the man. He stayed one more season at Arsenal as a symbolic link between Highbury and the Emirates. He had tilled the garden of Highbury and reaped the bounty of the Emirates and he needed to stay just one season to say hello and good bye.
I also saw Henry this Summer at the New York Red Bulls friendly against Arsenal in New Jersey. Henry was still Henry. He still had that swagger and silky smooth touch of his Highbury years but without his trademark speed, played more like a cagey old lion then the apex predator I remembered from when I first fell in love with Arsenal.
That match this summer had all the trappings of a testimonial. Fans came from all over the world to see Henry and Arsenal play one last time. There was even a discussion about having Henry play for Arsenal at half-time, which was apparently against some rule set down by history’s greatest monster. And as Henry left the field he received a two-minute standing ovation. He even took the field after the match and made sure to applaud every section of fans who had made the trip out to see him.
Henry has always been like this with us Arsenal fans. He’s always loved us, loved Arsenal, and we have always loved him. In the final scene of Lonely at the Top, Henry had returned to Arsenal on loan and played a few minutes against Aston Villa in the FA Cup. He hadn’t scored or even played a significant part in the match but Auclair describes how a bearded Thierry Henry sat in the locker room, still dripping with sweat, boots still full of grass, trying to savor the very last drop of his Arsenal career.
“Who do they think they are?” asks Emmanuel Petit. Speaking of Theirry’s teammates who all left long ago.
There has never been any doubt who Thierry Henry thinks he is. He is Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer. He is the man who helped to build Arsenal into the club it is today. He is part of Arsenal and Arsenal are part of him. And on the eve of his retirement from playing football, amid rumor that he might want to return to Arsenal as a coach or in some other capacity, let me be the first to say
“Welcome home Henry”