Thierry Henry: once a Gooner, always a Gooner

The French striker’s spectacular return was a reminder of just how much Arsenal have missed him.

Robin McMichael

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The January transfer window usually brings some big surprises and major talking points – and this year is no exception. Just six days after the window opened, Thierry Henry was back at the Emirates.

It is a move which, many would argue, has been on the cards for the past few months, and some may understandably believe that ‘King Henry’ was always destined to return to his throne at Arsenal. The club had only just unveiled a statue in his honour in December and it was pretty clear from his reaction that his heart still belongs to Arsenal. But still, it’s not often that players get to rejoin a club after they unveil their own statue.

Henry joined the club in 1999 when Arsène Wenger, who had previously worked with him at Monaco, converted him from a winger to a striker, utilising his uncommon mix of pace, strength, agility and technique. By the time he left in 2007 to join Barcelona, he’d scored 226 goals in all competitions – by some distance, the club’s record scorer.

Even disregarding Henry’s history with Arsenal, his short-term loan signing from New York Red Bulls could be considered the bargain of the year. The Frenchman’s CV is remarkable. He is a World Cup and European Championship winner for France and has won league titles and national cup competitions in France, America and Spain, as well as winning the Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup and many individual accolades. In addition, he has played with some of the best players in the modern era, such as Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane. Not only is he still a very good player, but his arrival will also add experience to a youthful Arsenal side at a crucial point in the season.

There are potential downsides to Henry’s return, however. Will Robin van Persie – currently the Premiership’s top goal scorer and the new king of the Emirates – be negatively affected by suddenly being in the shadow of a prodigal son? Furthermore, is a 34-year-old who has not played in Europe for two years really the man to fill in for Gervinho’s absence at the African Cup of Nations? This could have been an opportunity for one of Wenger’s signature youth buys, bringing in a hotshot youngster with a bright future.

But Henry’s status as Arsenal legend gives the move greater logic – and opens up all sorts of possibilities about what happens next. Should Henry notch 10 goals in his two-month loan at Arsenal, will Wenger try and persuade him to stay on a more permanent basis? Any manager in the Premiership would happily have van Persie and Henry as a striking partnership. Although Henry has lost a bit of sharpness, he certainly still has the prowess and instinct to score goals.

To put the icing on the comeback cake, it was a neat coincidence that the first game Henry was eligible for was a home game against a Championship side – Leeds United – in Monday night’s FA Cup tie. Coming on as a substitute in the second half, with Arsenal struggling to break down their lower-division opponents, it was as good as scripted that Henry would score the winning goal. He cut in from the left, peeled off the shoulder of the defender and placed the ball neatly in the bottom right corner of the goal with the inside of his right foot. It was a carbon copy of countless other goals he has scored down the years. The game was trudging along at a stagnant pace when Henry entered; the stadium was rocking when he scored.

Henry is one of those players that even fans of rival clubs begrudgingly admire. So even though many would have delighted in seeing Arsenal held to a draw by a weaker team, football fans in living rooms and pubs were no doubt standing up and applauding a smartly taken goal by a master finisher. (They might even momentarily forget his ‘Hand of Frog’ handball for France that helped beat Ireland in the 2010 World Cup playoff.) The major question now is whether he can keep it up in a Premiership which is faster, harsher and more competitive than the one he left back in 2007.

Henry wasn’t the only old boy to make a comeback in the past few days. Manchester United’s solution to the problem of replacing legendary midfielder Paul Scholes turns out to be… Paul Scholes. But the impact of Scholes’ return and Henry’s are very different. Scholes had only been in retirement for a few months, while Henry had not put on an Arsenal shirt for five years. Also, Henry was a big fish in a small pond, by far the most important Arsenal player of his time, while Scholes was part of that phenomenal side at United that also included Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane.

Henry’s first game back at Arsenal confirmed just how important he is to the club. But more significantly, as his euphoria at scoring showed, it reminded us how important the club is to him.

Robin McMichael is a freelance sports journalist who has previously written for The Times and is a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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