A few years ago I was given a book for Christmas. Recently I reread the book in the season of festive memories. Long gone are the days of remote control fire trucks and shiny new bikes. The book was not the latest in technology or what would have been on many children’s letters to Santa. However, it was a door into a world of one of the most iconic footballers in my lifetime – possibly ever; it was a portal in which I could get lost in a world of wonder, memories and understanding. The book I refer to is Arsenal & France legend, Thierry Henry’s biography “Lonely at the Top.” Written by French journalist and a close personal friend of Thierry’s, Philippe Auclair the book is a moving account of how Henry was indeed, lonely at the top.
The book is about a lot more than football. Thierry Henry was his own prisoner and warden it would seem at times, what we consider footballing genius he would consider little over adequate. It is a story of how a flawed genius was found very lonely at the pinnacle of football immortality. A tale of how one man who gave pleasure to so many others and made the beautiful game truly beautiful was tormented by his quest for perfection in all aspects of football.
He is a man who has never been completely at satisfied with himself or his performance on the pitch and even now off . The man who I, and millions of others, watched destroy defences week in week out was merely just a one part of his complex DNA. Henry has faced many controversies during his illustrious career and at times in the book I questioned my affection for the Arsenal great. In fact what the book did do is enhance my love for one of football’s most feared strikers for over a decade, starting as most (auto) biographies do there are many detailed accounts of Thierry’s childhood. You get the sense that Henry’s quest for perfection and being his own biggest critique came from his father, Tony, who pushed Henry relentlessly to do better. More than that he believed he always knew what was best for Thierry, as a lot of fathers do of course. His father made life very difficult for Thierry when his football career was little more than fleeting, he would shout at coaches. He also acted as Henry’s agent with his bulldog style aggression and one particular chapter of the book involving a proposed transfer it highlights how his father, with all the good intentions in the world, only made Thierry’s career harder to mould.
Throughout the detailed account of Henry’s life, especially in England, you get the sense that he was a gentleman, a man who made time for others, even the English press. One specific entry is after an Arsenal match he stops in the pouring rain to conduct an interview with journalists, he brings with him an umbrella to shelter himself and a few of the press and cracks light jokes as they all prepare to record and take notes. In today’s game I look at very few players and think they would conduct themselves in such a manner. Not only that but the image of Henry compared to that of many footballer’s is one that scream class rather than this “swag” that has got the fashion market jumping. You often see football players dressed in all manner of whacky clothing and their attitude reflects their dress sense, questionable. However Henry’s attitude and dress sense went hand in hand, class and sophistication all the way, Auclair writes with sniper like precision on not only Henry’s attitude on the pitch but his class, grace and humbleness off it.
Auclair paints a picture in the middle chapters of the book, when Henry’s Arsenal career was coming to an end, that the French marksman’s aura was in danger of becoming tainted, his body language painted a picture of a lonely man, a man who was no longer interested in football, I get images of a man who looked like he had fallen out of love with the game. Many emotions are painted in the book from Henry’s standpoint as a leader, a man, a team mate and an icon. As captain he was never one to point and scream and shout, he was more within himself, focusing on what he needs to do better, rather than what the team needs to do better. Selfish that may sound but Henry the perfectionist had no time for Henry the leader.
Philippe gets the best out of his French connections and recalls Henry’s tales with the national side with such analysis and poise that reading it I almost believed I was a fly on the wall. Henry had to constantly fight it seems to be in the national side, as a younger man his competition was Nicolas Anelka, a player whom many believed had just as much, if not more ability, than his French teammate did. As Henry developed and became one of the more experienced heads of the national side he constantly battled with out of control head coaches, a governing body (FFF- French Football Federation) in disarray not to mention a whole nation of angry Irishmen and women all lusting for his blood after a fateful world cup playoff game in which Henry cut a very remote figure after the final whistle blew. Henry always seemed to stand alone, in his days at Monaco he was seen as a prodigy, yet the powers that be never saw him as the answer to their problem. During his days at Juventus the young French winger (Arsene Wenger converted Henry into a striker) was often isolated on the pitch in terms of being marked and isolated off it as he was feeling homesick.
The final chapter in the book is one of pure beauty, this I will admit to sending shivers up my spine as a fan of Henry, football and Arsenal. It recalls The King’s return to Arsenal on loan over five years after his last appearance in a Gunners shirt. The stage was the F.A. Cup 3rd round against a tough Leeds United side. With the game at 0-0 the Emirates Stadium erupted when number 12 came on, sure his pace was not as electric and he was sporting a beard, a far cry from his usual clean cut look. But it was still Henry, the book creates artistry within the closing pages, so much so that I had to watch Henry’s comeback goal in that game just to drink in the sheer joy that a once isolated, perfectionist never felt. Being such a phenomenal player Thierry Henry, unintentionally, almost became a victim of his own success. Suddenly everything he did was magnified and there was no hiding place for a man who was once considered the best forward, even the best player, in the world. Arsenal beat Leeds 1-0 in Henry’s return. His celebration was one that you will seldom see him do again, he simply ran, like a child would sprint downstairs on Christmas morning, towards Arsene Wenger, he was embraced by everybody. He beat his chest, beating the Arsenal crest with pride and passion but above all else, with joy. The euphoria was visible to see for everybody, he was no longer seeking perfection, Henry was just seeking pleasure and enjoyment and that he received. For the first time in his career Thierry Henry was not a footballer, he was simply an excited fan who felt acceptance, joy and pride.