PHILIPPE AUCLAIR thinks Thierry Henry has a right to be considered France’s greatest footballer but in a ‘love letter’ he explains the character of the player changed…
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
IT IS sad that a player who gave Arsenal, English and French football such joy, so many moments of incredible skill, scoring breathtaking goals after a 60-yard lung-bursting run should be remembered as much for a handball (pedants will argue two handballs) as the pleasure he served up.
Thierry Henry remains the only three-time winner of the Footballer of the Year award, a distinction likely to remain for a long time unless double-winner Cristiano Ronaldo returns to the Barclays Premier League or Lionel Messi fancies giving up el clasico for Chelsea v Arsenal or the Manchester derby.
The Hand Of Gaul is a tattoo for life and what Henry did in the 103rd minute of the 2010 World Cup play-off second leg between France and the Republic of Ireland on November 18, 2009 was as surprising as it was unacceptable. It was so out of character – a word Philippe Auclair uses frequently when talking about Henry in a fascinating, absorbing biography Lonely At The Top.
Auclair, France Football’s London-based correspondent for over a decade, believes Henry has a right to be considered an even greater player than Zinedine Zidane whose glorious career ended ignominiously and violently in the 2006 World Cup final. Admiring Henry is one thing; liking him is another. And the more Auclair spoke to people about Henry for the book the more uncomfortable he became about France’s finest.
“You have to make the distinction between the person and the persona,” said Auclair. “I do not know the person well enough to have the right to place any judgment on him. It’s a very important distinction. But I am like many people in France in that I am ambivalent towards Henry, which is why the book proved quite difficult to write. I would come across people who were telling me things about Thierry that I didn’t particularly want to hear and was reminded of the very strong feelings some have about him, not all positive.”
In his book Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King, it was clear that Auclair, perhaps reluctantly, was won over by the player Manchester United supporters still call King Eric.
Auclair said: “There were many flaws in Cantona, we know what they are, but there is a certain generosity of spirit in him and a sparkling wit that, for me, was impossible to resist. The more I worked on the Cantona book the more I became drawn to the character, but the more I worked on the book about Thierry the more difficult it became to retain the very warm feeling I had towards him when I began writing it, but which I thankfully recaptured after his return to Arsenal and that beautiful night at the Emirates, when he scored against Leeds. It was something I found hard to deal with at times, however.
“I tried not to pass judgment which is up to the reader, especially whether I’ve been fair or not. I have tried to be fair with Thierry as I tried to be fair with Cantona.
“But my admiration for the Thierry the player is absolute and I do not think he is revered or admired as much as he should be. The handball in Paris tarnished his image and the strength of reaction to that incident was because such a so-called crime against football was so out of character. “
Auclair writes in the book: “When the British papers tried to find ‘previous’ in Thierry’s career, and tried they did, they failed to do so. Henry’s increasingly aloof demeanour may have grated with some, indeed with many, but he had never been labelled a ‘cheat’ before. He didn’t dive or wave imaginary yellow cards when he had been fouled, and heaven knows he was fouled more than most, when defenders could get to him, that is.”
The stage, with a place at the 2010 World Cup finals up for grabs, inevitably exaggerated the consequences of the handball, but Auclair said: “The image of Thierry sitting on the grass with Richard Dunne after the game as the celebrations went on really hurt a great number of people. I’ve tried [in the book] to express the disarray in French football after that.”
Another paradox of Henry was the lack of emotion he often showed after scoring the sort of stunning goal that lit up English football. “I wouldn’t say he was incapable of enjoying the moment,” said Auclair. “It’s more that he used to transport himself out of the game while being in it. He’s a reserved sort of guy, his own harshest critic, with incredible powers of self-analysis on the field, not someone who jumps up and down. He finds it hard to express this side of himself, he seems to be on his guard permanently, always thinking ahead.”
Auclair has closely followed Henry’s career from his early days at Monaco, where Arsene Wenger was his coach, to his glory days at Arsenal.
In the book he writes: “It was hard to reconcile the sweet, generous Thierry who had stood talking to us at Highbury, barely protected from the rain by an umbrella-wielding press officer, with the increasingly aloof Henry I had to deal with on a weekly basis later in his career.”
Auclair said: “His status changed. Thierry became Henry. He was very aware of his status which saw the progress from ambition to its realisation. For that you need to be focused to such an extent that I think you can lose touch…lose contact with your environment in such a way that you will appear distant, haughty not scornful though not very far from it.”
While it is common for players and managers to claim they never read the papers – yet they always seem aware of criticism, if not praise – Henry not only made a point of seeing what had been written about him, but contacting any journalist whose comments he felt unfair.
In the book, Auclair writes: “Oliver Holt of the Daily Mirror has told how – on the eve of the 2006 Champions League final – Thierry spent 20 minutes chastising him for having mistaken the council estate he grew up in with another in a preview piece. An amateur psyschologist would perhaps explain this hypersensitivity as a direct consequence of the willingness of his father to simultaneously praise (in public) and chastise (mostly in private) his son for his performances, which ultimately he found unbearable. What is certain is that at the heart of this superb player lay a feeling of insecurity that he often found impossible to disguise and which he tried to assuage by trying to exercise an ever-growing measure of control over what he said and what was said about him.”
Auclair said: “He set himself extraordinarily high targets. If you look in terms of the honours he won and how he won them, he’s achieved almost as much as anyone in modern football yet somehow still does not belong to that extra special group of players who dominate an era.I feel this is an injustice, which I hoped to set right.
“If you asked me which was the greater player, Henry or Zidane…in terms of achievements in his career I’d be tempted to say Thierry, even though Zidane scored two goals in a World Cup final and the winning goal in a Champions League final. In this respect I’d place Thierry on a par with Zidane, perhaps even above him, despite the fact that Zidane, in absolute terms, thinking of his vision and technique, was superior to him – and to everybody else, for that matter.
“But going back to the persona of Thierry, everybody who had to work with him noticed the changes between the player between 1999 and 2004 to the player of his last few years at Arsenal and then Barcelona. He became more and more remote. Maybe that’s the consequence of fame or success. Most people who experience such an ascent within their profession, whatever it may be, have to build mechanisms of self-preservation. Thierry had to, in order to survive, from the very beginning. It only got tougher. This is a guy who has been driven to become a great footballer almost since he was born and has been under tremendous pressure.”
The distance clubs place between players and the press these days makes it increasingly difficult to build up a close relationship with the people those who cover football write about. In the book Auclair is dismissive of those writers “willing to concur with Henry being able, with some luck and provided they wrote for a publication that carried enough clout, to join the inner circle.”
He writes: “Each paper has at least a couple of these privileged reporters on its staff; some of them are groomed from a very young age, sent out to follow youth teams in the hope they’ll sympathise with players whom it’ll be indispensible to develop a close working relationship with later in their careers. The first time I engaged in small talk with one of them I felt like a concert-goer who had crossed the path of a record company executive wearing an invisible ‘access all areas’ badge around his neck.
“Likewise, some of those who, much to their chagrin and despite their best efforts, were not asked to sit at the master’s table or who were told to leave it, contributed much to darken the player’s reputation out of sheer spite and resentment, with scant regard for their target’s outstanding achievements.”
Auclair, who makes no secret that his favourite French player and the one he considers the most charming is Robert Pires, said: “Thierry didn’t exploit that as many other players have, but if that was unusual, it wasn’t to have a select group of journalists who he used as PRs, so to speak. When you surround yourself with people who will not criticise you it is not the best recipe for having as open a view of the world as possible.”
When Henry reads Auclair’s book what does the author believe the subject will think about his efforts?
“There are elements in it that might not please him, reminders of difficult moments in his career, not just the Ireland episode but his early days when things almost went pear-shaped at Monaco. He made some mistakes which he paid for. But I hope he will feel that this book is also, in the end, a love letter to a magnificent player, whose greatness is not always recognised as it should”.
THIERRY HENRY Lonely At The Top: A Biography by Philippe Auclair (Macmillan, £17.99) is out on November 8.