The Return of the King

by Sam Fordyce

They say you should never go back.

In the case of Thierry Henry, some were
saying he definitely shouldn’t go back.

His legs had gone, the days of trademark
bursts past defenders and clinical finishes past goalkeepers were behind him.
The only meaningful contribution that Henry would make would be as the
definitive distillation of the decline that had occurred in the intervening 5
years.

In his first life as an Arsenal player, he
had been a revelation. He came to England as a promising but misfiring winger,
struggling to have a meaningful impact at Juventus. He flourished in North
London and became one of the most feared and respected strikers in the world.

During this time, Arsenal were consistently
challenging for silverware, the zenith being the Invincible of 2003-04. Never
before in the modern era had a team been so dominant and won the league title
without losing a game, and never before had Arsenal had a striker as potent as
Henry. Between 1999 and 2007 Thierry Henry scored 226 goals in 369 games and
made himself a legend.

When he left for Barcelona, Arsenal had
gone 2 years without winning a trophy and there was a creeping sense that leaner
times may lay ahead. By the time his return was confirmed, those worries had
borne fruit and the winless run lay at 7 years and counting.

After the disastrous start to the season endured by Arsenal, some
saw bringing Henry back as a desperate move from Arsène Wenger. Some
saw it as a futile attempt to evoke the spirit of years gone by and galvanise a
team in dire need of the nous and experience that only winning can bring. The fact that a month beforehand the Frenchman had been cast in
bronze as part of the club’s 125th Anniversary celebrations only
furthered the case of the doubters. Thierry was Arsenal’s past, not their
present.

Arsène Wenger,
however, saw things differently and TH14 became TH12. All that was left was to
play.

The game in which he was to make his second
debut was an FA Cup tie, with Leeds United visiting the Emirates stadium. Some
names on the team sheet that night were of players who had less than endeared
themselves to the Arsenal faithful. For many fans and pundits alike, the sight
of 29 Chamakh, 18 Squillaci and 23 Arshavin were now indicative of the lowered
standards at Arsenal Football Club. But the sight of 12 Henry, even if only
amongst the substitutes, brought a shiver of excited anticipation to everyone
in attendance on that cold January night. 

The match itself was eminently forgettable.
Classic lower-league side away-from-home tactics from Leeds saw Arsenal
dominate possession but fail repeatedly to break down a well-marshalled wall of
black and yellow shirts. An altogether far-too-common story was being played
out.

And then the moment it seemed the whole of
North London had been holding their breath for. Elated cheers greeted the sight
of the Fourth Official’s board going up, no.29 coming off and no.12 going on.
Pariah replaced by hero. Surely it couldn’t happen, could it?

The crowd waited with bated breath. A
further ten minutes passed. With 77 showing on the clock an Alex Song through-ball
sliced through the Leeds defence. Time seemed to slow as Thierry Henry
controlled instantly and caressed the ball past the ‘keeper and into the far corner
of the goal.

Cue delirium.

In the stands, in the dugout, and on the
pitch nervous anticipation dissolved into unadulterated joy. He had done it.
Twelve minutes later the final whistle was blown and Arsenal were through to
face Aston Villa in the next round. But there was only one really significant
outcome of the match. Thierry Henry’s goal-scoring record for the club had
nudged up to 227. The dubious goals panel may have taken away his 229th,
against Blackburn, but the goal scored against Leeds United – and the euphoria
that followed – will live forever in the memories of Arsenal fans, Thierry
included.

The doubts had evaporated. Class is permanent.



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