“Every time I saw him play for us it felt like an honour.”
“He was ours. Totally ours. [Chokes up]. There’s never been anyone else like him.”
“I never met him. But I felt like he was my friend. Or my dad.”
“I would let him do anything to me. Actually anything.”
All of the above are things that genuine Arsenal FC fans said to FHM when we asked them to explain their feelings about Thierry Henry. Ask a Chelsea fan about Frank Lampard and they’ll talk about what a good bloke and brilliant midfielder he was. QPR supporters will wax lyrical, when prompted, about “Sir” Les Ferdinand. The Nottingham Forest faithful will forgive Stuart Pearce (almost) anything.
But give a Gooner a chance to open up about Thierry Henry and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Their eyes mist over. Their voice becomes reverential and low. A mysterious, melancholy smile hovers over their lips – the smile of an elderly man remembering
his first sweetheart or someone gazing at a Polaroid of a long-gone but dearly beloved family pet. It’s love, pure and simple.
Today, we’ve travelled to a photographic studio in north east London (very much Thierry country) to try and get to the bottom of this intense example of cross-channel infatuation. On the eve of his big debut as a fully paid-up member of the Sky Sports punditry team, we want to know if, you know, he likes us too.
“It’s difficult for me,” he says tentatively. “And I’m not saying that to try to be nice – it’s difficult for me to find any bad stuff to say about British people. I’m being honest. And that’s why I’m living here. If not I wouldn’t be here.” We eye him dubiously. “I’m not actually lying,” he repeats. “This is home for me.”
Outside, it’s raining heavily. The sky is flat and overcast. Can a globe-trotting, cosmopolitan super-athlete like Thierry Henry really prefer this to Monaco’s sun-kissed beachfronts or the Rioja and red-hot glamour of Barcelona? I mean, Britain’s great and all. But really? “You guys here…,” he thinks for a moment. “You’ve been educated in a certain way, you’re polite. You’re… cool.”
Thierry Henry will be 38 this year, but in the flesh he is the healthiest-looking person we’ve ever seen. Dressed in black, his head gleaming, every square inch of arm covered in tattoos, he’s like a superhero in his civvies or the world’s most expensive personal trainer. Standing next to him you can’t help but feel God might have short-changed you a tiny bit. “Well, I do have to watch what I eat still,” he says when asked if there’s any chance of him pigging out on junk food now that he’s retired. “You guys are going to have to look at me on TV.”
And then there’s the way he chats.
Most footballers – both current pros and those who have hung up their boots – behave in interviews the same way most of us behave while getting our hair cut. Polite, weirdly stiff and eager to get it all over and done with. Not Thierry. Sat low in his swivel chair, he talks in a loose-limbed, thoughtful way, debating points, stamping on the floor for emphasis (“I keep my feet… on the ground”), his eyebrows repeatedly riding north to project that recognisably Gallic mixture of bewilderment and nonchalance.
“I have opinions on a lot of things,” he explains. “It is what it is. When you have an opinion, you’re going to get into trouble sometimes.” What’s got him into trouble in the past? “I just see everything,” he says, sighing. “When I was a player, I noticed everything. Every little detail. I always wanted to ask questions. I always wanted to know why.”
Did people find that…? “Annoying? Yeah. Annoying to everybody – even myself. Because sometimes you don’t want to notice everything. Sometimes I wished, when I was playing, that I couldn’t see everything. When you go through a game, or life, not noticing or bothering about the details, sometimes you live better.”
Thierry did bother about the details. He bothered about them so much, became such a perfectionist, that over the course of a 20-year senior career he maintained an upwards trajectory that never let up.
Is it even necessary to rattle through the man’s achievements? To anyone with an interest in football, the peaks of Henry’s career can be summoned up in a series of mental images. There he is in 1998, eyes closed, kissing the World Cup trophy with Youri Djorkaeff, and again, two years later, having a blast while winning the Euros. Later on, looking slightly bashful, holding various golden boots and awards in the Premier League, and of course, in 2004, standing, laughing, alongside his all-conquering Arsenal team mates having just eviscerated the Premier League in a feat of footballing dominance yet to be equalled.
Oh, there he is again, in 2009, beaming at the Champion’s League trophy, cradling it like a father holding his gigantic metallic newborn son. And finally – for all time – cast in bronze outside the Emirates stadium, knee-sliding his way into immortality.
Does he miss the adulation? The white-hot, unknowable (to us, at least) thrill of having 50,000 people sing your name? The ego-boost of seeing your own face on the back – and sometimes front – of every newspaper?
“The celebrity thing? No,” he states matter-of-factly. “Trust me – that wasn’t the part that I enjoyed. I would have stayed in Europe my whole career, if I wanted that.” He is alluding to the point in 2010 when he decided to up sticks, leaving the apex predator of club football – Barcelona FC – for the fledging frontier of Major League Soccer in America. “I’d had enough of being back page news,” he says. “I’ll be honest with you: you only want that when you’re young. I needed a break from it.”
Thierry talks about his time in the States fondly. He says that he appreciated being able to go out to parks, play with his kids, and not get bothered by hordes of admirers. It’s tempting to imagine what would happen if he tried the same thing on the green outside the north London photo studio in which we’re currently sat. Rabid Arsenal fans, lovingly tearing him limb from limb, desperate for a literal piece of their idol.
“Actually no,” he counters. “I can go to Selfridges now and – sure, some people will ask for a picture – but I can walk around. I always liked that about the British mentality. In France, Italy and Spain, guys are in your face. It’s not aggression but… they need to touch you. You guys have an understanding and a respect of it.”
When Thierry first came to Britain in 1999, the move was accompanied by comparatively little fanfare. Arsène Wenger, who had bought him from Juventus for an estimated fee of £11m, had to come out and justify his actions to the fans and to the media. Over the course of the next few years however, the Arsenal manager’s decision to put his faith in the winger-turned-striker began looking less like a gamble and more like a career-defining masterstroke. Not only did Henry become the club’s all-time top scorer, he also achieved the arguably more impressive feat of making his inherent Frenchness endearing to the notoriously Franco-phobic British public. When did he first cotton on to the fact that people here liked him?
“Weirdly, things did change with the Va-Va Voom advert,” he says, referring to the 2004 Renault Clio TV ad. “Suddenly I had 60-year-old women coming up to me and asking, ‘Can you say Va-Va Voom for me?’ That’s when I knew that I was accepted. I felt like I belonged here.” Does he feel that he embodies certain qualities that British people wished they had? “Qualities?” he sits up in his chair and spins around, animated. “What qualities? I’d like to know.”
We tell him that British people, despite what we might admit out loud, have a deep-rooted admiration for the French. Secretly we all wish we could waft a Gauloises cigarette around, shrug and approach life with the same air of detached sophistication. “Ah, I think it’s probably just the accent,” he says, waving a hand. “Sometime I hear myself and I’m like, ‘Whoa, there’s too much of a French accent there’. All I can hear is the accent. I don’t know why you guys seem to like it.
And anyway, is it not the case, that we always want what other people have? It’s a human thing. You always look at the guy in front of you and say, ‘I don’t have that’. Even if that thing is just an attitude.” And what is that attitude, in his mind?
“Well, we have more of a ‘Latin’ way,” he says. “In France, I can start lunch at 1pm and finish at 4pm. Because we’ll have one coffee. Then two. Three. Four. We’ll sit outside and talk, I don’t even know about what. But that’s very French.” And what about us? “Well. You guys eat. Then leave.”
Fair enough. We do like to keep to a schedule. So what does he like about being here? “Honestly, the only thing that’s bad is the weather. In London, I always love the way you guys have so many different types of music scenes, the underground. And the fashion, of course. They’re not necessarily big brand names, but there’s a lot of good vibes. People dress well. It’s brilliant too, that you can respect and practice your religion here, at work. I can tell, most of the time, what religion you are. In some countries, you cannot wear a long beard or a turban. That’s the beauty of it – it is multicultural.”
By the time you read this, Thierry will be winning plaudits up and down the land for his performances as a Sky Sports football expert. He’s full of praise for his new colleagues, particularly commentator Martin Tyler whose clipped Cheshire tones he describes as “iconic”. But when we ask him if, as a player, there were any pundits whose analysis and criticism of him he took seriously, he demurs.
“No disrespect to anybody, but I always knew exactly what I had done wrong in any game. If you’re a player and you’re looking at a pundit to see how he can help you, you’re in trouble. Like you,” he points to our tape recorder, “once you’ve written this article, you will know already if you did it well or not. You don’t need a man on TV to tell you.”
The idea that, in an alternate dimension, we could turn on the telly and listen to Gary Neville eloquently tear our work to shreds is oddly appealing. But we don’t say that.
Suddenly it’s time for Thierry to go. He shakes everyone’s hand (even the bloke who washes the dishes), has a word with his people and is whizzed off in a cab to – presumably – charm another room of complete strangers.
If you still need proof that Thierry Henry irreparably impacted the culture of this island you need look no further than the Oxford English Dictionary. He’s made his mark, right there, on page 1602, under “vavasour” and above “VC”. “Va-Va-Voom (noun). The quality of being exciting, vigorous or attractive.” Sounds about right.
_ Photography: Jude Edginton _
_ Styling: Daisy Deane _
_ Grooming: Laura Dexter _