English football fans are about to say goodbye to Thierry Henry for perhaps the final time. The Frenchman has travelled with the Arsenal squad for their Champions League tie in Milan to be played tonight, and that will be his final game before he heads back to New York for the start of the Major League Soccer season.
It seemed like a distant dream when Henry began training with Arsenal in December, with speculation that he could make a playing return being quashed. But as time went on, and Arsené Wenger saw what his former captain could add to the team, that possibility became much more feasible.
By the time Henry had gained clearance, anticipation levels for his return had reached fever pitch. His debut from the substitutes bench against Leeds United in the FA Cup had a sense of inevitability about it. The striker found a pocket of space, got the ball, opened his body and found the corner. Arsenal won. It was vintage Henry.
That goal could have come from any of Henry’s previous years at the Emirates or Highbury. His eye for goal and knowledge of space is clearly undiminished. It is clear he lacks the searing pace of seven of eight years ago, but that does not detract from his Va Va Voom.
In his short loan spell, Henry has scored three goals from a total of four shots. The last of these came at the Stadium of Light, an instinctive flick to break Sunderland hearts in the last minute on Saturday afternoon. Such a goal would normally ensure the scorer became the subject of vitriolic abuse. Not Thierry.
In fact, the reception Henry received from the Black Cat’s fans was as close to affection as opposition fans can possibly get. Applause during the warm-up, applause afterwards, it was a relative love in. The Arsenal legend was moved to say afterwards that Sunderland was one of his favorite places to play because of the crowd, but they will not be the only set of fans that appreciate his talent.
Henry played the game the right way. Full of grace and poise, as well as with pace and power, he went about his business with a smile on his face. The only time when he let this grin drift was during his last season and a half of his first spell, when his ego started to outgrow the club.
Most people, outside of Ireland at least, have forgotten about the infamous handball incident of 2007. It’s easier to forgive the ones you love.
He will best be remembered for his stunning strikes in the biggest games. The solo run against Spurs, the swivel and volley against Manchester United, goals that won matches previously hanging in the balance. At the time these goals will have felt like daggers to the heart to Tottenham and United fans. Now it feels almost a privilege to have been the victim of such brilliance.
Tonight is the perfect chance to root for one last piece of Thierry Henry magic. In the past, it has been hard to support English clubs in Europe when they are direct rivals domestically. But with Arsenal not challenging for the league title, the thought of a victory for them in any competition does not fill one with bitterness.
Henry has previous at the San Siro, having scored twice against Inter in 2003, and it would be hard to discount him striking again. Whether or not it is the last time we get to see Henry in an Arsenal shirt, who knows? Arsené Wenger has said a third spell is not beyond the realms of possibility, but just in case it doesn’t happen, let’s sit back, enjoy tonight and at the very least marvel at his beard.