Arsenal Media have recently been releasing documentaries on some of our legendary players from the last twenty years or so through iTunes. Nigel Winterburn and Dennis Bergkamp have already been afforded the celluloid treatment. With Thierry Henry back on his seemingly annual winter hibernation in North London, something a little more glamorous was planned to launch the Thierry Henry legend documentary.
A small gathering of journalists and some familiar faces from Arsenal’s past, such as Sol Campbell, Jens Lehmann, Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, David Seaman and Ian Wright were also on hand for this premiere of sorts. Fortunately, Arseblog News also managed to jimmy their way over the wall, into the opulent surrounds of the Diamond Club and snuck their way into the back row with an obscenely large diet coke and a packet of Haribo to give you the lowdown.
The screening was preceded by a short drinks reception and the Arseblog News mole stayed delightfully nonchalant as a tall, handsome Frenchman chanced upon him, hand outstretched, announcing “Hello, I’m Thierry.”
“Bugger off mate; can’t you see I’m getting stuck into the canapés here?”
With that unpleasantness out of the way, we were invited to take our seats in the auditorium. The director explained a little about the thinking behind the documentary series, which had been conceptualised as early as 2010. If you’re making a documentary series about modern Arsenal Legends, I suppose there’s a half decent chance you might like a chat with Thierry Henry sooner or later. The film had actually finished shooting in late 2011, before the unveiling of the Henry statue at the Emirates persuaded the production team to document this chapter of the legend. Then of course, Henry rejoined for an emotional second spell at the club, which also required chronicling.
We were told by the director that the approach to this series was to be minimal. There was to be no editorial, there are no voiceovers or narration (save for football commentary on some of the clips) and there were no set questions. This was simply to be the player telling the story in his own words. One of the most striking aspects of Henry’s football career was his appreciation of theatre. He was almost the Vaudevillian footballer. His haughty dismissal of Graham Poll’s fussy refereeing immediately after curling in a free kick against Wigan, the irate chest thump and hilarious nutmeg whilst staring the whites of Danny Mills’ eyes against Middlesbrough in 2004. Henry was always a scene stealer.
There’s a delightful section in the documentary when Henry explains his celebration at the final whistle when the Gunners confirmed their title win at White Hart Lane in 2004. Security had explained to the players prior to the game that they ought not to celebrate should the inevitable happen and Arsenal seal the league title. Henry explains that it was an agreement he and his teammates were perfectly willing to adhere to until Spurs’ injury time equaliser when he saw “Taricco jumping up and down so much he got cramp.”
Henry perfectly judged the theatre of the moment. “If you’re going to celebrate a draw in front of me, in one minute I’m going to celebrate winning the title with my fans and you’re going to see how much it hurts.” Given Henry’s emotional compass, he’s an intriguing subject for this sort of approach. One senses he doesn’t need a cue or a leading question to illustrate the poetry of a moment.
Thierry is one of the more media savvy footballers of modern times, but what comes through nicely with this approach is his sensitivity. He reveals some of his more moody goal celebrations had their roots in his desire to impress his father. Henry senior, Thierry explains, was a hugely supportive presence but he was a patriarch that pushed him hard and challenged him to improve. If Henry looked moody when he scored, it was apparently because he saw it as a kind of equalising of an earlier mistake or miss.
It is tempting to look back on the team that Henry played in with rose tints. Understandably, we remember the trophies and associate those times as unilaterally glorious. But in this retrospective, you remember that the teams Henry played in had their fair share of trying moments. Bolton in 2003. Galatasaray in 2000. Liverpool in 2001 (“we should have won 11-0” a still animated Henry asserts). He talks a lot of the character that permeated the club he joined and how that elixir of Arsenal brand determination infused him.
“I came here as a World Champion, but I was nobody and rightly so. I hadn’t done anything at Arsenal.” Referring to the likes of Dixon, Keown, Seaman, Winterburn and Parlour, he adds, “You don’t just arrive with your name and impress those guys.” Henry wasn’t just popular with Arsenal fans because he was a good footballer and scored lots of goals. He has an emotional intelligence which allowed him to relate to Arsenal fans. At the risk of attempting pop psychology, Henry was and is a character that needs to feel nurtured and loved, but when he does, he gives it back tenfold.
I admit that I always wondered if he was a little too cute with the heartstrings at time during his Arsenal career. But when you watch him talk about the last ever North London derby at Highbury and how the prospect of a Spurs victory made him “want to vomit”, even a lamentable cynic like myself sees that the intensity is real. It’s ridiculous to think our world has transformed so much since even the late 90s, but they were less homogenous times culturally. Henry had a perfect mixture of the spirit passed to him by Arsenal’s established English pros and a Gallic flair for poetry. Even his gestures were almost cartoonishly French.
When recounting his incredible solo goal versus Liverpool in 2004, Henry describes the feeling sensually. “I felt Highbury breathing again.” He’s very candid too. He honestly recounts his substitute appearance for Barcelona against Arsenal in 2010, admitting that he didn’t know how to play, how to react or even whether he wanted to play. “Usually I wanted to kill the opponents. I still wanted to win, but I didn’t want to kill them this time.”
Tellingly, he still refers to Arsene Wenger as “ze boss” throughout the documentary. Sitting a few rows behind him, it was difficult not to split my attention and try to gauge his reactions at certain moments. Such as the miss in Paris in 2006. Or the touching moment when, upon seeing himself celebrate a goal by making a “T” with his fingers, he leans over to his daughter Tea and explains that she was the muse.
I’m not much of a crier, but it’s difficult not to get choked up at certain points as an Arsenal fan. When he explains his departure in 2007 it still feels raw, era defining even. Even if, in your writer’s opinion, it was the right time for him to go. His fairytale comeback is also recounted with an emotion that still flickers. “They say love is blind and I had nothing to gain by coming back” he admits. He recalls how he sat in the dressing room in his full kit and boots for two hours after that Leeds match, which he describes as the greatest night of his career.
Henry is the perfect subject for this sort of documentary treatment; he is the quintessential movie star footballer in a sense. I don’t mean in terms of the vapid, vulgar glitz that is sometimes attached to the phrase ‘movie star.’ Henry is de Niro, Pacino and Clint Eastwood and he recognises Arsenal and Highbury especially as his stage. He has a measure of humility and self recognition, describing himself as “difficult” but with an appreciation of his own craft. When recapping his goal against Madrid, he describes its difficulty with relish and pride. This is more than just a nostalgic collection of clips from the glory days; it’s a revealing insight into the man. But then, everything Henry did always was. LD.
Arsenal Legends: Thierry Henry is now available exclusively on iTunes (UK only).