Thanks for the memories

DRIVING ALONG Drayton Park, past the row of partially-built, luxury apartment buildings, rapidly impinging on the Emirates Stadium skyline, the depressing thought was just beginning to dawn on me that I would never again delight in the privilege of watching Thierry Henry perform in a red and white shirt.

Perhaps the ambitious commercial aspirations of the suits have caused them to lose sight of the club’s principal raison d’être, playing and winning football matches. Whilst chasing their dream of creating an Arsenal empire with a turnover that merits a seat at Europe’s top table, alongside the other footballing superpowers, it seems they’ve suddenly managed to destroy one of the Gunner’s greatest assets, that old-school tradition of long-term stability that’s previously made for the sort of secure environment, which has been capable of attracting some of the world’s greatest talents.

In truth the writing has been on the wall for some time. Myself I’m pretty much convinced Thierry would’ve taken his leave last summer if we’d beaten Barca in the Champions League final. With hindsight, perhaps it would’ve been better if he’d left back then, as we might’ve still had sufficient leverage to secure a swap for Samuel Eto’o.

Perhaps I’m a sentimental old fool but I got the distinct sense that in a moment of selflessness last May 12 months, Titi couldn’t face putting the complete mockers on our imminent move to our new dream home, as the rat who left the ship before it was even launched.

However some might suggest that Henry ended up spending last season as the kind but cowardly male who hasn’t got the “cajones” to call time on a rancorous relationship, for fear of causing hurt to his partner, but who hangs on in there instead, subconsciously hoping that his burgeoning resentment will make him so unbearable to be with, that his other half will eventually be left with no choice but to grasp the nettle and end the marriage.

I don’t deny that the ousting of David Dein had an influence on Henry’s eventual decision. Leaving aside the fact that Dein’s son was Henry’s best man at his wedding, doubtless some of the other board members would struggle to recognise half of our squad. Whereas having been instrumental in their acquisition, Dein developed a relationship with every Arsenal player. Moreover I won’t belittle Thierry’s suggestion that the uncertainty over our manager’s future was a significant factor in his departure. I’ve always felt that Wenger was determined to see his vision for the club through to fruition and we all know he’s not a man to break a contract.

Perhaps our latest crop of kids will turn it on sufficiently to encourage Arsène to stay on, to find out just how far he can take them. Yet you cannot underestimate the unrelenting pressure of trying to compete against clubs with far greater resources, where he’s expected to work the oracle each season, fiscally speaking, with both hands tied behind his back.

To my mind it’s been the cumulative effect of another unsatisfying season, Dein’s dethronement and the conjecture over Arsène’s future and the ownership of the club which have combined to give Henry the excuse he needed to be able to walk away, after expressing his commitment to the Gooner cause on signing a new four year contract last summer.

Whether or not he was Arsenal’s greatest ever, is an argument for an afternoon in the boozer but Thierry undoubtedly ranks amongst the very best. However for my money, with Henry it’s not just a question of natural ability but his capacity for repeatedly taking one’s breath away that singles him out from so many of his equally gifted peers, as perhaps the most entertaining player I’ve ever had the privilege of watching perform. With Titi it isn’t just what he does with a football, but the way in which he goes about it, with the languid air of a super fast big cat.

That he was off colour during our last campaign was evident in the fact that we hardly ever witnessed instances of our main man’s explosive speed.

However in the seven seasons prior, there was no more dangerous sight than Henry dawdling in the long grass out on the wing, waiting to catch a scent of a potential kill, before accelerating with effortless ease to pounce on his prey, as if all around him were running backwards. There can be few more exciting spectacle on a football field than the instant when Titi turns on the turbos.

Such is Henry’s ability to attract bums onto seats that the terrace taunt of “You’ve only come to see the Arsenal” has rung true in recent seasons and few will deny (even euphoric Spurs fans) that the Premiership will be a poorer place without him. I immediately recall the trouncing of Inter Milan, the fact that I was fortunate to be in Prague when Thierry made a surprise return from injury to finally take Ian Wright’s goal-scoring record, as if he was taking candy from Czech babies and at Fratton Park for the Pompey fan’s display of mutual admiration, after they’d endured a dazzling demolition.

Yet Henry has left us with so many fabulous memories of his amazing feats in an Arsenal shirt that it is hard to begrudge him bagging this one last big payday at Barca, considering he’s resisted the temptation to cash in his Gooner chips during eight years of loyal service to the cause.

Cynics amongst us might suggest that his exit has been timed to ensure that our season ticket renewals have been paid prior to the announcement. Although it seems Arsène would’ve preferred to have secured a replacement before the story leaked, leaving everyone aware of our need for a striker and how much we have to spend. It will be a daunting task for whoever is charged with filling Henry’s huge boots and his exit will only add to the aura of the Arsenal’s impending crisis. However he leaves with this Gooner’s blessing, with my utmost thanks for some of my most greatest ever Arsenal memories.

Thierry’s top five Gunner goals

Real Madrid 0 Arsenal 1 (February 21, 2006)

It was fitting that in the grandiose arena of the Bernabeu, Henry produced one of his finest goals in an Arsenal shirt. After receiving the ball in the centre circle, Henry breezed past four Real Madrid players before producing a cool left-footed finish past Iker Casillas to give Arsenal a 1-0 first-leg victory.

Arsenal 4 Liverpool 2 (April 9, 2004)

Having been beaten in the FA Cup semi-finals and Champions League quarter-finals in the same week, Arsenal were in danger of slipping against Liverpool. With the game finely poised at 2-2, Henry picked the ball up just inside the Liverpool half and breezed past Dietmar Hamann and ghosted past Jamie Carragher before sliding the ball beyond Jerzy Dudek.

Inter Milan 1 Arsenal 5 (November 25, 2003)

Arsenal needed a win in the San Siro in a crucial Champions League group game. And it was Henry once more who was their inspiration on one of the Gunners’ greatest European nights. With the score finely poised at 2-1 with five minutes remaining, Arsenal broke and the ball came to Henry in his own half. The Frenchman set off on one of his trademark sprints into the box and teased one of the world’s best defenders, Javier Zanetti, before firing an angled left-foot drive across Francesco Toldo.

Arsenal 3 Tottenham 0 (November 16, 2002)

Arguably his greatest goal in an Arsenal shirt and a particular favourite among Gunners fans, Henry scored a quite magnificent solo effort against north London rivals Spurs. After a Tottenham throw had been headed clear of the Arsenal area, Henry controlled the ball deep inside his own half before sprinting to the other end, dummying past two Spurs defenders and smashing a low left-foot shot past Kasey Keller.

Arsenal 1 Man Utd 0 (October 1, 2000)

Possibly the goal which really announced Henry’s arrival in the Premier League. Receiving the ball on the edge of the area, with his back to goal and being closely marked by the tenacious Roy Keane, Henry flicked the ball up with his right foot and in the same movement sent a spectacular volley over Fabian Barthez.

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