The latest edition of the official Arsenal Magazine features an exclusive interview with Thierry Henry.
Tom Watt headed Stateside to meet the Arsenal legend and discuss his life in New York, the MLS, his glory days at Highbury and, of course, his imminent return to London for the Emirates Cup.
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Mid-June for New York versus the New England Revolution at Red Bull Arena, and it’s all a little confusing.
First of all, that skyline across the river isn’t Manhattan. It’s Newark, New Jersey. The stadium, a pristine 25,000-seater, is in Harrison, a small, blue-collar town 20 minutes by PATH train from Wall Street. It’s a place where, historically, people have come to work rather than to live. Now they come to watch football.
On the street outside, barbecues, inflatable goals and a beer garden compete for the attention of the gathering Red Bulls fans. And also the clusters of supporters in red and white checkerboard shirts. It’s Croatian Heritage Night, it turns out, which explains why, of all people, Davor Suker is outside the main entrance, more than happy to reminisce about his goal against Sunderland, the missed penalty at the Parken and his substitute appearance the night we drew 1-1 at Camp Nou.
You see what I mean: there’s no shortage of distractions. And the same goes for inside the ground, where people watch the game with half an eye on the tifosi at the home end, whose battery of songs, banners and pyrotechnics is pretty impressive and altogether non-stop. You remember, perhaps, when you were a kid in the Schoolboys Section at Highbury: half-watching the football, but half-watching what was going on up the North Bank as well. The Croatians in the far corner, for their part, roll out a huge red and white shirt during the second-half.
In truth, the game isn’t the best. Red Bulls are missing at least four first teamers, including Rafa Marquez. New England – managed by Steve Nicol – are well-organised and pretty unforgiving. It’s exciting and competitive, though, even if it isn’t always easy on the eye; a reminder of why MLS is compared to the Championship on a regular basis. Red Bulls end up winning 2-1 and the bloke I’ve really come to see play doesn’t disappoint.
By half-time, Thierry Henry already has an assist to his name, his cross turned in by a retreating New England defender. Then, on 50 minutes, the goal arrives. Some things never change and anybody who watched Thierry in an Arsenal shirt will remember this one: he gets played in down the left, pace easing him past the full-back. Faced by a retreating centre-half, he slows as he gets to the box, then checks onto his right foot, committing the defender. Swaying onto his left foot again, he slides a shot across the ‘keeper and in at the far post. Afterwards, Henry emerges from the dressing room tired and a little sore. Satisfied, too, to have had another opportunity to prove he’s not just sent his reputation over to wind down in MLS.
“We’re not La Liga. We’re not the Premier League. But there are good players here. Look at our stadium. Listen to the atmosphere in the stands. They get it. They’re a real football crowd. And the league’s coming up. There are teams who really try to play here”, he insists, before smiling ruefully about the evening’s victory. “And then there are some games which are just a battle. That’s the same in every league in the world.”
A couple of days later, Henry’s back at work on the training ground: involved in everything, smashing in shots, playing 10 minutes at centre-half, offering criticism and advice to anyone who’ll listen. Red Bulls use a pitch at nearby Montclair University. The Dioguardi Field is actually an athletics track with enough room in the middle for football. Just about. The changing rooms are then a steep walk uphill away – Thierry hitches a lift on the kit man’s little electric trolley – and the club’s business on a training day is run from a couple of Portakabins.
It may all seem pretty unprepossessing but Henry, for one, doesn’t give the surroundings a second thought. He’s been here before, after all: “You have to remember, when I first arrived at Arsenal we were using the University College training ground. The dressing rooms had burnt down the year before – probably that was something to do with Wrighty! – and so we had to get changed at Sopwell House. It was strange. We used the changing rooms at the spa there, getting ready alongside the hotel customers. And then we had to go to and from training in a little minibus. It was a bit different once we built the training ground next door, though!”
The very best players can’t help themselves. The material rewards that come with a career at the top aren’t the motivation. It’s the game itself. And just in case you’re in any doubt, Thierry wants to make it clear he’s as hungry as ever: “You’ve seen me play often enough. I can’t pretend: when I’m upset, it’s obvious. When I’m happy, you can see that. I’m like I’ve always been. When I do something, I like to do it well. And when I lose that desire, that’s the day I stop.
"I came here to play. If I wanted to live in New York, I could do that without having to play football. I came here to compete. Last year I arrived mid-season. I struggled. It was the end of the European season for me. And I wasn’t fit. If you’re not properly prepared nowadays, you can’t do it, especially here where you have to fight every game. Now, though, I’m fitter. I feel fresh. I’m ready. And I hate losing as much as ever.”
There are things about MLS that he’s still trying to come to terms with, like the team that finishes the regular season top of the league not necessarily winning it. I suggest that the same play-off system works for Rugby Union at home, but Thierry’s having none of it:
“It’s harder in football. I love rugby but, if your pack is bigger than their pack, nine times out of ten you’re going to win the game. If you’re heavier, your strength and your power in the scrum will make the difference. Look, there are surprises in any sport. But in football? In a playoff? You can hit the woodwork four times. You can have 80 per cent of the possession. But one comic-book goal and you’re out. And then what? It’s over? I’m not sure it works, having a final at the end of the League. Being the best doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win the title. But that’s how every sport’s organised here.”
That end-of-season knockout phase isn’t the only thing that’s different, of course. There’s a wage cap designed to keep debts down and the playing field level, allowing teams to have only a couple of high-earning ‘Designated Players’ each. Thierry’s pretty sure that, if the wage cap was relaxed, there are plenty of players who’d choose MLS as a destination ahead of some of the better-established European leagues.
Before he headed for the States, he got advice on what he’d find here from the likes of David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg and Youri Djorkaeff. Not that he needed his arm twisted: “Even when I was at Arsenal, I had in the back of my mind that one day I’d leave Europe and come to play here. I’ve been visiting New York since 1996. I know the city very well. I have friends here. Coming here to live was something I thought about when I was very, very young. Before I had a career in football.
"You can be low-key here, do what you want to do. You’re just another face in the city. And I love concrete! Even though my family’s from the West Indies – beach, sun, sand and all that – I grew up in a forest of buildings and played my first football on concrete in the streets. It’s why I loved London so much. London will always be ‘home’ for me now – my life changed there in so many ways – but to be living in the city is part of why I love playing in New York, too.”
Thierry could probably get a job working for the tourist board. He’s passionate and eloquent about life in New York. That said, though, his ‘new best friend’ – out on the pitch, at least – is resolutely and typically English.
Luke Rodgers’ route to New York has been rather less glamorous than Henry’s. After making his mark at Shrewsbury, he joined the Red Bulls from Notts County, head-hunted by manager Hans Bakke who’d worked with him at Meadow Lane under Sven-Goran Eriksson. They make an unlikely pair, perhaps, but it works. Thierry’s scoring regularly. And Rodgers is, too: “It’s easy with Luke,” he laughs. “England changed me a lot and I’ll always be grateful for that.
"I got close to Luke because he’s got that English thing: for a start, he swears all the time. Not because he doesn’t like you, but if you don’t give him the ball properly? He swears. If the ref blows his whistle? He swears. If he’s angry, he swears. If he’s happy, he swears. But not in a bad way. I was eight years in an English dressing room, remember, with Tony, Lee, Nigel, Ray Parlour. I’m used to it. I like it. Luke reminds me of home. And, like with anyone, I try to adapt my game to the guy I’m playing with. You have to be clever enough to adapt, to think: How can I help him? Not just: How can he help me?”
As well as playing, of course, there’s a job to be done in the US in terms of communicating the game. Although he may not be burdened in quite the same way as David Beckham was when he signed for the LA Galaxy – back in 2007, the former England captain was supposed to be the single-handed future of MLS – Thierry feels there’s a responsibility to be shouldered nonetheless: “Because of who I am and where I’ve come from, I have to do a lot with the press here. I need to get the message out there and help people understand the game.
"Football hasn’t got the history in America that baseball does, for example. It hasn’t been handed down, father to son. People haven’t grown up with the stories, the rivalries, the star players. Here in New York, those stories are about the Yankees and the Giants. We don’t have Red Bulls history yet. The supporters don’t have a 1989 story to tell to pass the passion on. Here, those stories are about the Yankees, about a World Series. So we have to make the history. And I don’t mean just me. All of us in MLS. We’ve got a left-back, Roy Miller, from Costa Rica. We’ve got Teemu Tainio from Finland. Those guys help it happen. It means we’re being talked about in Costa Rica and Finland. People know football’s happening here now.”
Thierry’s optimistic about his and the game’s future in the US. In the short term, that future includes revisiting the past when he comes to London to play for the Red Bulls in the Emirates Cup. He’s been back before, of course, but expects this to be an altogether more enjoyable experience:
“When I came with Barcelona in the Champions League, I was on the bench and came on. It was a weird experience. That was the worst possible draw for me. Obviously I had to play hard and try to help my team. But it was if I was playing against my brother. I had a job to do but, you know, you love your brother and you don’t ever want to hurt your brother. This time, I think, will be completely different. It’s a friendly game, for a start. We’ll be trying not to take a beating, though. Of course, I’m still in touch with the guys. I speak to Bacary Sagna and Johan Djourou regularly. And to the Boss, obviously. Robin and Cesc came over this summer to watch a game. I can watch all the Arsenal games on TV.”
Most Arsenal supporters know that Thierry has remained a fan of the Club he served with such distinction as a player. Talking about the Emirates Cup, though, it’s interesting that the connection with Arsenal isn’t simply about team-mates and supporters: “You know, coming back to Arsenal would have been even more difficult if it hadn’t been coming back to the new stadium. What would really have been hard for me would have been to walk out on the pitch, wearing the shirt of another team, at Highbury. I was there for seven years and, apart from Dennis’ testimonial and the last-minute winner against Man United, my Arsenal memories aren’t really from the Emirates.
"I was injured a lot my last season at Arsenal, our first season at the new ground. When I come back now, I recognise all the people, of course: the chef, the groundsman, the guy on the door. But once I’m out on the pitch? Not really. All my memories are of Highbury. I know the move to the Emirates had to happen but Highbury will always be the place for me. I only played there for seven years. What must leaving have been like for a guy who’d been watching Arsenal there for 40 or 50 years? I always felt I was untouchable, playing there. That perfect pitch, the fans close enough you could hear them and they could hear you.”
It’s obvious, isn’t it? He’ll be in North London for a weekend in July, a New York Red Bulls player. Thierry Henry, though, remains very much an Arsenal man. Plenty of us in the crowd at the Emirates will be looking forward to the chance to watch him and remember.
The man himself, it turns out, is looking forward to the same: “I had an amazing relationship with Arsenal supporters. A weird one, too, though. I know I can be a pain in the neck. And they knew that. But I think they understood me, even when I was a pain. They knew how I was. And I knew how they were feeling about me. Without those fans, I’d never have done what I did. The people who worked around the Club, too. They helped me understand what it meant to play for the Club. You know: what it meant to beat Tottenham!
"You need big shoulders to play for Arsenal. The cannon is heavy. But the supporters see everything. They see what you’re doing, what you’re trying to do. It’s a great thing about English fans. Winning helps but, if you play hard and respect the shirt, they remember that. And that’s something priceless for me.”Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source