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Sunday 24 June 2007

All Good Things…..!

Driving along Drayton Park, past the row of partially built, luxury apartment buildings, rapidly impinging on the Emirates Stadium skyline, the depressing thought was just beginning to dawn on me that I would never again delight in the privilege of watching Thierry Henry perform in a red & white shirt. As, floor by floor these four blocks of flats obscure our impressive new arena from sight and as, around the corner, our once grandiose old ground has taken on the forlorn appearance of a World War II bomb site, with only RSJ frames preventing the gravitational obliteration of the two flimsy looking Art Deco facades, the last vestiges of our ancient Home of Football, one might view these circumstances as a metaphor for the Arsenal’s parlous plight.

Perhaps the ambitious commercial aspirations of the suits have caused them to lose sight of the club’s principal raison d’être, playing and winning football matches. Whilst chasing their dream of creating an Arsenal empire with a turnover that merits a seat at Europe’s top table, alongside the other footballing superpowers, it seems they’ve suddenly managed to destroy one of the Gunner’s greatest assets, that old-school tradition of long-term stability that’s previously made for the sort of secure environment, which has been capable of attracting some of the world’s greatest talents.

In truth the writing has been on the wall for some time. Myself I’m pretty much convinced Thierry would’ve taken his leave last summer if we’d beaten Barca in the Champions League final. With hindsight, perhaps it would’ve been better if he’d left back then, as we might’ve still had sufficient leverage to secure a swap for Samuel Eto’o. However I think most Gooners will agree that during his entire eight seasons at the Arsenal, Titi has gone about his business as a total and utter “mensch” . Whether it was due to some deep-rooted loyalty felt towards Le Gaffer, or towards the Gunners as a whole. Or perhaps it was merely a last-minute, indignant change of heart, at the thought of our Catalan conquerors being able to sift through the wreckage of our unsuccessful season, snapping up the most precious commodity amongst the flotsam of Arsène’s failure.

No matter what Henry’s motivation for staying, it seems an obvious conclusion to draw from the precipitateness of recent proceedings, that he was on the brink of signing for Barca last summer (both parties probably just resurrected their previous negotiations). We can only speculate on whether any arm-twisting went on behind the scenes. Yet after finally making it within touching distance of big-eared trophy for the first time ever, the one elusive prize that would truly validate Wenger’s amazing tenure in the eyes of the rest of the world (as our own faith in Arsène’s deification requires no such affirmation), only to endure the massive disappointment of having it snatched from our grasp at the death, perhaps I’m a sentimental old fool but I got the distinct sense that in a moment of selflessness, Titi couldn’t face putting the complete mockers on our imminent move to our new dream home, as the rat who left the ship before it was even launched.

However as a result, some might suggest that Henry ended up spending last season playing the role of the kind but cowardly male who hasn’t got the “cahones” to call time on a rancourous relationship, for fear of causing hurt to his partner, but who hangs on in there instead, subconsciously hoping that his burgeoning resentment will make him so unbearable to be with, that his other half will eventually be left with no choice but to grasp the mettle and end the marriage.

As we were left in the starting gate, almost out of the race before August had ended, perhaps Titi spent the remainder of the season regretting his decision, thinking the grass might’ve been greener as just one of Barca’s gaggle of Galacticos, rather than bearing the massive responsibility of being the Arsenal’s big fish, as both captain and principle goal getter. It was patently apparent that something wasn’t right and that Henry’s head wasn’t in the right place, as it was accepted that Arsène must’ve had good reason for leaving his leading man out, spending the majority of the winter alongside the rest of the benchwarmers.

I don’t deny that the ousting of David Dein had an influence on Henry’s eventual decision. Leaving aside the fact that Dein’s son was Henry’s best man at his wedding, doubtless some of the other board members would struggle to recognise half of our squad. Whereas having been instrumental in their acquisition, Dein developed a relationship with every Arsenal player. Moreover I won’t belittle Thierry’s suggestion that the uncertainty over our manager’s future was a significant factor in his departure. Myself I’ve always felt that Wenger was determined to see his vision for the club through to fruition and while we all know he’s not a man to break a contract, I can’t help but sense that having led the Arsenal to the promised land (hopefully without a forty year wander in the desert!) he might soon think it is time to call it a day.

Perhaps our latest crop of kids will turn it on sufficiently to encourage Arsène to stay on, to find out just how far he can take them. Yet you cannot understimate the unrelenting pressure of trying to compete against clubs with far greater resources, where he’s expected to work the oracle each season, fiscally speaking, with both hands tied behind his back. We’ve seen ample evidence of how this pressure to succeed has started to get to him, as the boiling point of the previously imperturbable Professeur seems to be reached ever more frequently. They say every job becomes a chore (even Arsenal manager!) and where once Arsène went about his managerial duties with the understated gusto of a man who truly relished the challenge, these days Wenger rarely looks like he’s having much fun.

Obviously a winning team would make all the difference and personally I don’t believe Le Gaffer’s future is inextricably linked with Henry’s. My instincts are that Arsène will wait to see which way the wind blows, both on the pitch and crucially in the boardroom, after having lost the services of the sidekick who took the on the awkward responsibility of contract negotiations and allowed Arsène to focus on the playing side.

However to my mind it’s been the cumulative effect of another unsatisfying season, Dein’s dethronement and the conjecture over Arsène’s future and the ownership of the club which have combined to give Henry the excuse he needed to be able to walk away, after expressing his commitment to the Gooner cause on signing a new four year contract last summer

It was a measure of our unstinting respect and admiration for Thierry that Arsenal fans accepted his extended absence last term without complaint, (contrary to some reports!), even as we began to run out of striking options and our need for someone capable of converting goal scoring opportunities became ever more desperate. Such was our gratitude for the previous seven seasons of Titi’s astonishingly consistent contribution that a season with him out of sorts was a small price to pay.

Whether or not he was the Arsenal’s greatest ever, is an argument for an afternoon in the boozer but Thierry undoubtedly ranks amongst the very best. However for my money, with Henry it’s not just a question of natural ability but his capacity for repeatedly taking one’s breath away, like no other (at least not in all my many years) that singles him out from so many of his equally gifted peers, as perhaps the most entertaining player I’ve ever had the privilege of watching perform. With Titi it isn’t just what he does with a football, but the way in which he goes about it, with the languid air of a super fast big cat.

That he was off colour during our last campaign was evident in the fact that we hardly ever witnessed instances of our main man’s explosive speed. However in the seven seasons prior, there was no more dangerous sight than Henry dawdling in the long grass out on the wing, waiting to catch a scent of a potential kill, before accelerating with effortless ease to pounce on his prey, as if all around him were running backwards. There can be few more exciting spectacle on a football field than the instant when Titi turns on the turbos.

Moreover, with him having been converted from a winger by Wenger, Thierry must be a dream to play alongside, because he lacks the selfish instincts that we’ve come to expect from more single-minded front men. Equally remarkable as Henry’s astoundingly consistent goal tally over the course of the previous seven seasons, was his contribution as far as assists were concerned. I’m fairly sure that there can be few strikers who’ve ended a season as Thierry did in 2002/03, with 24 goals and 20 assists!

Such is Henry’s ability to attract bums onto seats that the terrace taunt of “You’ve only come to see the Arsenal” has rung true in recent seasons and few will deny (even euphoric Spurs fans) that the Premiership will be a poorer place without him. I immediately recall the trouncing of Inter Milan, the fact that I was fortunate to be in Prague when Thierry made a surprise return from injury to finally take Ian Wright’s goal-scoring record, as if he was taking candy from Czech babies and at Fratton Park for the Pompey fan’s display of mutual admiration, after they’d endured a dazzling demolition. Yet Henry has left us with so many fabulous memories of his amazing feats in an Arsenal shirt that it is hard to begrudge him bagging this one last big payday at Barca, considering he’s resisted the temptation to cash in his Gooner chips during eight years of loyal service to the cause.

Cynics amongst us might suggest that his exit has been timed to ensure that our season ticket renewals have been paid prior to the announcement. Although it seems Arsène would’ve preferred to have secured a replacement before the story leaked, leaving everyone aware of our need for a striker and how much we have to spend. It will be a daunting task for whoever is charged with filling Henry’s huge boots and his exit will only add to the aura of the Arsenal’s impending crisis. However he leaves with this Gooner’s blessing, with my utmost thanks for some of my most greatest ever Arsenal memories.


Anonymous said...

a very interesting piece that i enjoyed greatly...1 thing about your spanish - 'cahones' are drawers (desk ones, not grannies' knickers), whereas balls (chads, knackers, not the footie sort) are 'cojones'

Anonymous said...

I've followed Arsenal passionately/obsessively since 1972 and in that time I've 'put four players on a pedestal'. My boyhood hero Liam Brady( my first true love!) was on his own until Dennis came along( Rocky didn't quite have the longevity). Vieira came next and most recently Henry. The reason I write about my Arsenal heroes over 35 years is to make the point that players come and will eventually go but the favourite memories last forever. My memories of Henry will NOT be from last season, they go further back. His head would not have allowed him to produce those performances that made most supporters stick him on the same pedestal I have.
What excites me is that there are a whole list of players in our squad that have the potential to join the greats. Arsene will do what's necessary to nurture these players and allow them to flourish(eg sell Henry). Bring back Anelka, upgrade Freddie, sell Senderos(too slow) and replace him with Micah Richards.
Thanks for the memories and rock on 11th August! Come on you Reds! Bob N7

Anonymous said...

Any good thing will one day or another end. That's life.
But at the moment, we are not a club at crisis. We might be if we were o lose AW. But as you said, and I agree with you; AW 's contract extension will mostly depend on how well the kids will perform, and not what came from TH14's mouth.
At the moment, there are only two clubs in the Premiereship which could be in crisis if they were to lose their individual players. They are United losing Ronaldo and Chelsea losing Drogba; not Arsenal for losing TH14. Th14, thanks for the memories.

Anonymous said...

how many other managers of top clubs are allowed to mess the fans around, not win anything, and still act like they personify the history of the club?