Thierry Henry. Photo by Jason Joseph
Tim Hall’s View From 101
Thierry Henry announced his retirement from football on Tuesday. His list of accomplishments read like something out of a video game, so staggering the breadth as to seem unlikely one player could possibly achieve all of it in one lifetime.
Just to touch on the major notes: World Cup, European Championship, Confederations Cup, Ligue 1 winner, two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two La Liga crowns, UEFA Champions League, Club World Cup, MLS Supporters Shield, four Premier League Golden Boots, and on and on and on. More awards and trophies than can possibly be listed and still fully appreciated. To read the entire list in one sitting is folly as it eventually just becomes a sea of words and numbers.
And yet they don’t even do the man justice. Henry was one of the last players of the satellite television era where not every game was available all the time and his greatness was something often just whispered about. In this day and age, to hear about a player the brilliance of a Messi or a Ronaldo and not immediately be able to switch the TV to their game or pull up their highlights on Youtube seems like sacrilege, a denial of joy that we will have to explain to our confused, sympathetic and likely aghast children.
Henry of course did play long enough – 20 years – to be a part of the digital age as well, and we as fans were able to see what all the fuss was about, and it was of course well earned. The adjectives we use to describe him are cliché, but for a reason, because our language naturally limits the words we have to describe greatness and beauty so eventually when they are all used up we are forced to stand silently and simply witness what is before our eyes.
Obviously Henry was good, great, among the greatest. Any conversation beyond that is meaningless, because if you want to say that Best or Pele or whoever is better than Henry, that’s a fine argument to have on a barstool, just so long as you realize that the argument is incomplete without mentioning the Frenchman. He is one of that pantheon, floating in the rarest of rarified air.
While he may be universally respected, he was not universally loved, and that duality underlies the qualities that make him among the best. Henry is among the quintessential examples of a player that you adored when he was in your colors and despised as an opponent. Why? Well, it’s because Thierry Henry was not consistent as a player, and here the discussion veers necessarily away from the statistical side and towards the ethereal. While like any player of any caliber, he had his hot streaks and his cold streaks, peaks and valleys, Henry was always consistently good, and always consistently able of getting out of one of those valleys with an individual moment of brilliance at any time.
Henry’s greater “inconsistency” if you will allow the term is that it was never clear which Thierry Henry would show up until the game was well underway. There was the standard model Henry we were treated to most of the time, Stock Henry, a fluid player capable of working as a target striker, winger or central midfielder, brilliant passer and shooter of the ball, capable with both feet and in the air. If this version of Henry was all you ever saw as an opponent, depending on the rest of the team, you were in with a chance of winning and you were lucky.
But there was that other Henry. Upgraded, After-Market Henry. There was never one set of circumstances that seemed to bring this Incredible Hulk version out of Titi Banner. Perhaps the game was more important in the standings, or a trophy was on the line, or it was the local derby, or it was televised to more homes, or he was fouled hard early on, or he simply didn’t like the defender’s haircut. Whatever caused it, Henry had the remarkable ability to elevate his game to 15, and when he did he was untouchable. He seemed to literally grow in size and speed, and that flash in his eyes must have made more than one defender sleep with their lights on.
Henry always knew he was better than you, even on his off days. Some call it cockiness, some call it confidence, both are correct and yet inadequate. But when he was on, when he flipped that switch, it wasn’t enough just for everyone to know he was dominant. He had that rare trait that only the greats have where he wanted to tell his opponent about his greatness, smile that devil’s grin, laugh at how woefully inadequate your attempts to stop him were, and grind his superiority into your face. Take your lunch money, and punch you in the gut for good measure. At his very best, Thierry Henry was a contemptible bully, and at times the only saving grace you could have as a fan was to shrug your shoulders and say “Yeah, but at least he’s our bully.”
It was that killer instinct, that demand of himself and, soccer being a team sport, his teammates that made Thierry Henry both a hero and a villain, a misunderstood genius, a locker room cancer and the consummate leader. It is also the quality that the sport will miss the most now that Henry is moving to punditry. As we scan the landscape, who among the stars has that teeth-on-jugular mindset tempered just so? Not Messi, too shy. Not Ronaldo, too self-absorbed. Not Suarez, too unstable.
Henry was a holdover from another time. Yes, he was glossy. Yes, the advertisements were there globally. But even though he was mindful of his image, he never took it too seriously and could laugh at himself, and above all else it was always substance over style. You never once had the sense, among all those goals, that he had spent a millisecond practicing his goal celebrations, or prioritizing which model to date to get the best press, or anything other than the game, and putting the ball over the line.
With a few possible exceptions: the stories of him staying late on the practice field to work with a young player. The video of him putting an arm around a teammate’s shoulders and explaining some bit of wisdom. The times he grabbed a teammate, got into their face and got them refocused on the challenge ahead, not the yellow card challenge behind.
There is a right way to play. Can we ever say that anyone, 100% of the time, embodies that? No. But if you want to get close, you could do much worse than study Thierry Henry. It has been a pleasure, an honor and a privilege to watch him up close.