The Philippe Auclair Interview: Part I – Arsenal’s Thierry Henry

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The Entente between England and France has not always been the most Cordiale. However, two people who have done their bit for Anglo-French relations over the past 20 years or so are Eric Cantona and Thierry Henry, footballers who lit up stadiums around the country while leading their clubs to multiple trophy wins.

Another French exile to these shores is Philippe Auclair, English football correspondent to France Football magazine and biographer of those two French greats. To mark the publication of the paperback version of Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top (Pan Macmillan), Jeremy Smith of French Football Weekly met up with Philippe, to discuss all things Henry- and French-football related, including Arsenal, Les Bleus, Cantona, Platini and Ligue 1.

In Part I, we focus on Henry and his legacy at Arsenal and in England…

JS: Why did you choose to write about Thierry Henry?

PA: Surprisingly there has been no book written about Thierry Henry. There was one quite a while ago written by Oliver Derbyshire, but which was not a biography really, and which was written I believe just after the Invincibles season, so it was a while back – and also it was more or less a game-by-game – and goals too – account of his career, rather than an attempt to understand how he got to where he got.

And also because I spent quite a lot of time in relatively close proximity with Thierry – not as a friend but as a journalist – at a time when journalists had far more access to the players than they have today. So I had a wealth of material that could be used.

Also, a bit like Eric Cantona, the image that Thierry has in France and the image that he has in England and elsewhere are two totally different things – it’s like Eric Cantona – you’re sometimes wondering if you’re talking about the same man.

Reading the book, he can appear manipulative, but sounded as much manipulated as the manipulator at times…

Certainly at Monaco, yes. No doubt about that. There is an awful lot that he did in the earlier part of his career, things for which he perhaps received unfair criticism, where he was a tool in the hands of his dad, who as I’ve made it quite plain in the book, was a very pushy man – the relationship between the two is very odd. There were also his agents, with whom he had a number of problems. He was such a hot property and people were trying to make money off his back. Being as clever, as sharp, as intelligent as he is, it’s something that he’s never forgotten. And Thierry has a very long memory – he never forgets anything: ‘these people have really fucked me over (if you’ll excuse the expression); I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen again’. Which is why he developed all these mechanisms of self-defence, self-protection, which obviously have helped him, but have also been to his detriment at times.

Do you think that his not celebrating a lot of his goals comes from the same place?

Yes, it’s odd. The way he explains it, as you’ve read in the book, is the Michael Jordan influence, the fact that he thinks about the things that he hasn’t done so well – which is what his dad was doing, having a go at him because he’d only scored 6 goals and not 9. All these things, being hyper-critical of himself, and finding it very difficult to get out of this bubble he has created for himself. It’s a style that grates with a few people – certainly there’s quite a few Arsenal fans who will tell you that we wish he had been a bit more direct – and he himself has said so – I remember talking to him about it and he said “sometimes I look at myself on a video and think ‘what a sulky bugger, why don’t I celebrate like others do’”. So it’s just something that was always there. Well, I say that, but if you look at the Thierry of 18, 19, 20 years old, the Thierry of the World Cup in 1998, he’s not the same man is he? He was still a kid, and there was a little bit more freedom in the way he expressed himself.

I wonder if some of it is that, when you score 30 goals a season for 7-8 seasons, maybe scoring becomes banal. For example, in the Liverpool match that you talk about [in April 2004 Henry scored a hattrick in a 4-2 win which was crucial in the Invincibles season], he celebrates all those goals, because he understood the importance of it.

Yes. But that was his greatest game.

You only mentioned two of his goals – you didn’t mention that he scored a hattrick. Was that conscious?

I honestly can’t remember. When I wrote that I was caught in my own memories of that game. I remember where I was – [seat] D42 – and watching it and being completely swamped over by emotion. [On the second goal] It was fantastic! Absolutely fantastic! But that was his greatest game. And also maybe his greatest goal. He was astonishing that day.

He described the Charlton goal as his most elegant goal…

Yes. Would you agree with that? I don’t think it was the most elegant. The cheekiest, the cleverest.

I think it’s the best example of what you said Wenger said about him, about having 1,000 options…

And picking the right one. Fortune is all over him – who else would have the idea? – and it all happens very quickly. Watch the slo-mo – there’s nothing he can do … bang! And the reaction – I was at that game as well. I laughed! And I think most of the people around me laughed – this is ridiculous – in the proper sense of the word – it is something which you laugh at! It was insane. And I can’t remember any goal like this from anybody. It was so cheeky. You see in France people were watching these games and I think some people were jealous as well. They could see that he was revered in England.

Did your opinion of him change? Your view seems to be that he was a bit aloof, controlling of his image, of media access to him. But did it change at all?

During the book, not really. One of the reasons for that – and that was a huge difference from when I did the Cantona book – was that my opinion of Cantona changed a lot, as I got closer and closer and closer and closer, and I liked the guy more and more and more and more, despite the fact that he is by no means a perfect man – and I have no time at all for Cantona the actor and celebrity – none! The reason is because I was an outside spectator. I was in England and I saw him arrive here, I saw him play for Leeds, I saw him play for Manchester United, but I didn’t have weekly contact. Thierry I saw every week, sometimes 3, 4 times a week. But it was such a different time. I could go to the training ground, we were in the same building as the players – and sometimes you would just end up on the sofa talking with someone, even if the press officer didn’t like that. But you could also pop in and say hello to Pat [Vieira], and so you would meet Thierry, or meet him getting into his car. And after a game, there was no restriction, no mixed zone. You would just go down the tunnel, at Highbury, and be standing in the tunnel or outside on the touchline and everyone would come past and you could talk to whom you wanted, so you spoke to Thierry every week. It is unthinkable today. And this is only 10 years ago that we’re talking.

So I came from a very different perspective because I had already formed an opinion of who he [Henry] was and what he was. And of course I’d been really privileged in as much as I’ve seen I think every single home game that he played for Arsenal, and quite a few that he played elsewhere in England and abroad. So it’s completely different and it was more a question of trying to dig a bit deeper. Very few people have talked about his stay in Turin [Henry had a short stint at Juventus in autumn-winter 1999] and I really enjoyed doing that and talking to people who were there. And also very few people in England knew about what happened at Monaco.

I didn’t know about the Real Madrid controversy [a transfer saga involving Henry, his dad and dodgy agents whilst he was at Monaco] at all.

It’s an extraordinary story. And I’m pleased and surprised that it went past the lawyers! [Laughs] Well there is nothing defamatory about it whatsoever. On the contrary, it shows that he was completely – as you said – le manipulé plutôt que le manipulateur in this whole story. His head was turned. 20 years old. I mean come on – that’s forgivable isn’t it?

You speak in the book about how he reacts to criticism and gave two direct examples that you experienced – the first where he gave you a glare, saw that you were hurt and then gave you a really good footballing explanation; the second where he phoned you and it was most interesting that he spoke to you in English!

I still don’t know if that was a joke or not! I really don’t know! It’s really odd.

In the acknowledgements you say that he knew that you were writing the book, even though it was unauthorised. Have you had any sort of comeback from him since the book was published?

No, none whatsoever. There were some reactions from people close to him – I don’t think they were best pleased. But there was no message. I haven’t seen him – at one point there was talk of him coming back to Arsenal and I thought “Please don’t!”

Because of the book or because it would have ruined the Leeds goal [Henry’s winner against Leeds in his 2012 Arsenal comeback]?

Yeah, I thought it would have been the most dreadful decision he could ever take – to ruin one of the most emotional moments of his career. What a thrill! I know that in the book there are parts that might seem negative to many readers – I was expecting quite a reaction from Arsenal fans in particular, and in fact I didn’t get that at all. That surprised me. Because I thought some of them would say ‘come on, don’t be tough on Thierry, he’s a legend’. But I think that how the book finishes, with that Leeds goal, it puts everything else into perspective: OK, there’s this, there’s that, but more importantly than anything, we had this relationship with this player. I tried to stay true to that. Because I’m an Arsenal fan as well, and I’ve never hidden that fact.

I think that a number of Arsenal fans actually share that view – because I remember what they were saying about Thierry in 2005, 2006, 2007. Loads of people were not that thrilled to see Thierry sign a new contract as he did after the final. I can remember people saying ‘yeah it’s great, but is he really the Thierry of old, his body language has changed, is he the right person for these kids?’. And people were divided in their opinions at the time. But fortunately, the Leeds goal … it didn’t change everything but it put everything in the right perspective.

You talk about the hard work – that what people say is magical or effortless is not.

‘Effortless’ is one of the stupidest words in the English language. That and ‘relevant’. Or ‘important’. Three words that I would gladly see out of the dictionary. Effortless! As if it was effortless. He worked so bloody hard. Even though he was a lazy bugger! He would agree. He was not the greatest trainer. But the hard work and the consistency was astonishing.

Maybe that’s part of the problem as well. Because he never scored in a major final, as everybody knows – he came bloody close to it but never scored in a major final…

Do you think that was just bad luck?

I think it became a problem, because people were not slow in reminding him of that. But it’s the 2006 Champions League final … when you look at that game again he has two really good chances. And OK the first of them he really creates by himself and you can say ‘all right, it’s come at the end of the run, he’s been dribbling’… But the second one he really should have stuck that one away. And I feel that is the moment… I mean you can’t blame him for not scoring in the 2001 FA Cup final because he would have scored if Henchoz hadn’t blocked it with his arm, so you can’t really blame him for that. The 2003 FA Cup final he didn’t score but he was the best player on the pitch.

In 2000 [against Italy] he hit the post. OK, it was a speculative shot and would have been Toldo’s fault if it had gone in.

Yes. And again I think he was very tired, but he’d been terrific until then. Galatasaray in Copenhagen [2000 UEFA Cup final] he was certainly one of the better players on the pitch, perhaps could have scored, but the whole team was awful that night.

Really the man who’s got a problem with finals is Wenger, isn’t it! How many managers do you know who have managed to lose all three European finals? He’s done that! Well it’s not going to happen again – that’s for sure! [Laughs] Cup Winners Cup with Monaco, UEFA Cup with Arsenal, Champions League with Arsenal. Lost them all!

As a player, where do you put Henry in the pantheon, for Arsenal, for the Premier League?

The best player in the history of the Premier League. Better than Cantona? Oh yes. Not as influential – Cantona changes everything, he changes the competition, he changes Manchester United. But Henry’s the best player. The most consistent as well. That’s the astounding thing, when you look at the stats. Apart from the last season, when he’s injured.

But strangely enough, I would say the best player in the Premier League era – but not the best Arsenal player during that era. It sounds strange to say that. But the best player was Dennis Bergkamp. Dennis is above everybody else. I think Henry would say that too – he absolutely loves Dennis. I mean what a joy it must have been to play alongside the great Bergkamp! But Dennis didn’t quite have the same consistency.

So you would say yes, in terms of 1999-2006 – because 2006-07 is truncated – you look at that and you think Thierry is probably the best Premier League player every single season. The way he finishes his first season is astounding, and then that’s it – le monstre est lâché! And then year after year after year after year he delivers, delivers, delivers. No one else has done that to that extent. So he’s the best Premier League player ever. Not just foreign but the best Premier League player. But not the best Arsenal player, which in absolute value, if you judge away from the direct impact in terms of goals scored, then it’s Dennis. And I think Arsenal fans would say the same thing. Dennis gave a deeper pleasure as a football fan.

There’s one perfect quote where you talk about Thierry as an insufferable charmer, a generous egotist and a walking oxymoron in shorts.

Yes [laughs]. Well, obviously I believed that before and that’s what I believe now. It would be interesting to see how he ages and develops, what sort of man he becomes. It could go both ways. He’s apparently very, very happy where he is now. A friend of mine saw him in New York and said that he was really having a grand time, enjoying it.

He left too early, didn’t he! He should have stayed in proper football for a bit longer. He was only born in August 1977. Toto di Natale is still playing. If it’s good enough for di Natale, if it’s good enough for Ryan Giggs, who is older…

Maybe if, as you said, his main weapon was his explosiveness… But he’s still got the intelligence.

And the technique. He’s got the technique, he’s got the intelligence, that never goes. He can play a different role, he can play as a more static centre forward, where he won’t have that explosivity. But he’s still capable, he’s still got decent pace, he knows how to manage his body. He didn’t look ridiculous when he was at Arsenal [in his comeback] at all. Do you remember the game against Milan? The horrible 4-0? He was probably the best player. Everyone was awful except him. He was the only one who went for it. And he was geeing everybody up.

That shows that he cares.

Oh, he cares a lot! He’s his worst possible enemy. That’s the thing. You’re dying to tell him ‘Thierry, trust people a bit more, open yourself up to strangers a bit more. You might be disappointed once, you might be disappointed twice, but actually you will be rewarded 10 times out of 11, and then we can love you fully and completely, as we would love to – we’d love to love you!’

If he hadn’t tried so hard, we would all love him. We all love him already!

By “we”, do you mean Arsenal fans?

Yes, Arsenal fans. French fans don’t get him at all, I think. They really think of him as an arrogant so-and-so – many people do – who never delivered for France as he delivered for Arsenal. Stupid things! There’s this real antipathy. The media are not entirely blameless, because many journalists you talk to in France who have been in touch with him throughout his career will tell you how he changed during the years. He really did. He changed whilst he was with Arsenal, but the people who remember him from Monaco, who followed him, said that there was always this streak in his character and it just became more pronounced as time went by.

And the way Thierry worked with the media – at the same time, it was fantastic in an English environment because he was always there for everybody, rain or shine, he was generous with his time and was always fascinating to talk to, so these journalists absolutely loved him. The French journalists knew that there was a lot of [off-field] play-acting involved, and they knew the other side of Thierry, and I think they took their revenge on him, a lot of people did. And I think there were a lot of people, as well, who were in the Zidane camp, and who just loved the idea of having a good go at Thierry.

Because the whole story of the clan des Gunners [rumour of a clan within the French squad, made of Arsenal players and led by Henry, opposed to Zidane and his supporters] is absolute rubbish. OK, yes they knew each other and had dinner together. But so bloody what? Can you imagine Bobby Pires being a conspirator against Zinedine Zidane? No way! No way!

PART II – PART III

 

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