For a period of two to three years, Arsene Wenger was the most admired manager in Europe.
Whilst Alex Ferguson was whittling away his time trying to turn Eric Djemba Djemba and Kleberson into a fearsome midfield duo, Wenger had molded the likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg into world-class footballers.
However, one stood out more than any other. Thierry Henry had been in Wenger’s care since his early Monaco days and is chiefly responsible for his mentor’s Frankensteinian reputation of conferring life upon inanimate matter.
Before his Arsenal tenure, Henry was not a complete unknown. He had been a prodigy at Monaco with Wenger beforehand.
He had top-scored for a World Cup-winning side (albeit all against weak group opposition). But it was his transfer to Arsenal in 1999, and his conversion to centre forward, which began the legacy of the greatest forward the Premier League has ever seen.
Henry had a slow start to life at Highbury. After a failed spell at Juventus, his confidence was at rock bottom. He had been bought with the intention of replacing Nicholas Anelka as Arsenal’s main striker and was failing to hit the target.
But when the goals finally came, they would not cease. For the next seven years, Henry was the Gunners top scorer (he would eventually overtake Ian Wright as their top marksman).
But more than that, he boasted their fear factor. Sides were afraid to play Henry. The only feasible comparison is with the dominance Messi and Ronaldo have had over La Liga.
His pace and skill left opponents for dead every time and, coupled with the finishing ability Wenger had instilled in him, he was virtually unstoppable. At times, Henry resembled an adult playing an under-12s match.
Arsenal won the league in 2002 and the FA Cup thrice between 2002-2005. Their Champions’ League form was erratic but occasionally awesome, most notably a 5-1 win over Inter Milan at the San Siro.
But one campaign defines their legacy. During the 2003/04 season, Arsenal won the league without losing a game and, during that season, Henry was the best player in the world.
Four goals against Leeds United and a hatrick against Liverpool may have been the highlights but in truth his form was consistently awe-inspiring. Only FIFA bias against the Premier League saw him miss out on the World Player of the Year.
With his performances for Arsenal verging on the divine, Henry had key role for their feeder side: the French national team. Despite becoming the French captain and all-time top scorer, Henry was often accused of reserving his best performances for club football.
And I’m sorry but this is the most gratuitous example of national over-expectation available. Henry was the best player for France during their victorious Euro 2000 campaign as well as helping them to admirable finishes at Euro 2004 and in the 2006 World Cup.
True, he underperformed in the World Cups of 2002 and 2010, as well as Euro 2008 but the entire French team was a mess at this point.
Eventually, Wenger made an ill-advised decision to revamp his team of world-class men for a side of talented boys. Henry stuck around long enough to bring Arsenal as far the Champions’ League final but, in 2007, he joined their then opponents FC Barcelona.
Again, he began poorly but the 2008/09 season saw him form part of one of Europe’s most fearsome front lines ever alongside Messi and Eto’o.
That season he finally captured the Champions’ League and, thus, his work in Europe was done. Henry traveled to America to buy a golden boat and who could blame him.
He had done everything on both a European and world stage. However, it is still in England where his name carries most weight.
King Henry. One of the best England ever saw.
By Gregory McNally