Back to the future ....

WHEN seventies giants The Eagles broke up amidst mutual threats of “ass-kicking” in 1980, Don Henley announced through gritted teeth the band would only ever play together again “when hell freezes over”.

Fourteen years later they were back on stage for the first gig in a lucrative reunion outing which they called – what else? — ‘The Hell Freezes Over Tour’.

The spectacle of rock ancients reuniting after years in the wilderness – otherwise known as unsuccessful solo careers – is a well established industry phenomenon, so much so that the first question which should really be asked of any act announcing a farewell tour is: “How sad, and when do the tickets go on sale for the comeback?”

Now, all of a sudden, another branch of the business they call show is getting in on the act, with the Premier League playing host to a trio of unlikely superstar comebacks in the space of a week. Offering their own take on that Eagles classic, it seems Thierry Henry, Paul Scholes and Robbie Keane might have checked out but they didn’t leave. Of the three, Ireland’s favourite Frenchman has already delivered what the fan base craves most of all: a note-perfect rendition of one of his greatest hits. Even if the rest of his time as a relief Gunner proves uneventful, Henry entirely justified his return to the red and white shirt with that wonderful goal against Leeds. Arsene Wenger will be hoping it wasn’t a one-off, of course, but for most of us it was enough that Henry was able to produce at least one instance of the old magic, especially considering how depressing the alternative would have been.

With the obvious exception of those who can never forget Paris – or, rather, are still incapable of remembering it without hysteria – nobody would have taken pleasure in seeing a once-great player hobbling around the Emirates in a fruitless search for his lost mojo. Instead, it all came together for Henry in one shining moment: the glide in the stride, the nuanced first touch, the body opening up and the ball steered unerringly along a curving path which took it away from the keeper’s outstretched hand and inside the far post.

At that moment, it was as if Thierry Henry had never been away, and no-one seemed more overwhelmed by the significance of the goal than the man himself, his Marco Tardelli-like celebration suggesting his mind has gone to that place where, as Hunter S Thompson would have it, you begin to hear the strange music.

Even when he spoke later to the media, Henry sounded more like a wide-eyed fan than an old pro, still lost in the wonder of his own creation. “I’m just trying to take it all in,” he said.

“That’s something I didn’t do enough of when I was playing here before. You don’t enjoy it like you should.” Those are wise words not all those fortunate enough to play football for a living appear to take on board. Of course, not everyone in the Emirates was celebrating, and I don’t just mean the Leeds fans.

A North London blogger told this week of how an Irish Gooner was disgusted by the joy of his fellow supporters as they departed down the Holloway Road last Monday night. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he lectured. “He’s a cheat and always will be.”

There was plenty more of this sort of guff in the twittersphere too.

Understandably, the ‘Hand Of Gaul’ might be a moment no Irish supporter will ever forget but Henry’s career as a top-flight footballer has been composed of so many moments of grandeur that forgiving, if not forgetting, ought to come easy to all but the most bitterly prejudiced. His goal against Leeds was another such moment, a reminder that when it comes to providing top-class entertainment, the one thing he has never done is cheat the paying public.

While Paul Scholes has already done his bit to justify his comeback by helping United to a narrow cup victory over City, I’m not convinced that, in the time added-on of a long career, even the once peerless Scholes will be able to shoulder the burden of responsibility he could be expected to carry at Old Trafford. True, as the Red faithful are always happy to remind everyone, Scholes scores goals too, but the task of effectively trying to make United tick seems to me much more onerous than the cameo input required of Henry.

Robbie Keane’s role falls somewhere in between at Villa Park, the club badly needing his goals but the player himself most in need of game time to keep him sharp for the bigger tests to come in the summer. If the two requirements intersect then so much the better for club and country, as the Irish skipper looks to follow Henry and Scholes back to the future.

One wishes all three well, even if those old Eagles lyrics won’t stop nagging at the back of the brain: “This could be heaven or this could be hell”. Perhaps better, then, to recall the inspirational words of Carole King in ‘Going Back’: “Thinking young and growing older is no sin/And I can play the game of life to win.”


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