Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top
It is hard to explain what effect Thierry Henry has had on my life. As an Arsenal fan from the age of about six, it took time for the idea to permeate my young mind that a non-British national could impact Highbury so strongly. But what an impact it was as he went on to net a record 174 goals in 254 appearances in North London over an eight-year association.
Therefore, when I was handed Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top: A Biography by world-renowned French journalist Philippe Auclair this Christmas, it served as a reminder of how Arsenal had changed, but it also suggested everything they no longer are. I was both delighted and sad. To me, Henry is indicative of the Gunners' flair in the early part of the Millennium, a time when less than 20 seconds could pass before the side had swept from one side of the pitch to the other to score. Now, it is obvious that a player of Henry's grace is missing.
The striker's confidence, his swagger, his seemingly effortless brilliance turned the Arsenal side of 1999 onwards from a tough, combative side under the thumb of Manchester United into one that could challenge the best clubs in the world - the zenith being the glorious 2003-04 unbeaten season. His transformation from misfiring wideman at Juventus to one of the greatest strikers in the world occurred quickly, but it was not without graft, and Auclair's prose offers an insight into an unusual and prodigal talent, while maintaining an almost mistrustful overtone.
If there is a better man to have taken on the responsibility of writing Henry's biography then I can't name them. Auclair, who wrote the critically acclaimed and prize-winning Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King in 2009, has been UK correspondent for France Football and RMC Radio for over a decade and is perfectly placed to draw out a complete profile of the prolific French striker. What this book does well is look beyond his outstanding flair and talent, going behind the mask to discover the raw, revealing truth of Arsenal's greatest goalscorer.
From the high points - the two league titles and three FA Cups with Arsenal - to the even higher points - France's World Cup and European Championship glories in 1998 and 2000 - and back down again post-2007, the title of the book is conceived from the lows in which Henry was not universally loved and admired anymore.
Upon leaving Arsenal in 2007, he won the treble at Barcelona in his second season, but Henry was no longer the top dog and had to share the stage with the likes of Lionel Messi, often forced out of the spotlight to play just a supporting role. How he deals with this, and some of the incidents that coloured the public perception of his legend - most notably the infamous 'Hand of Gaul' incident which robbed Ireland of a place at the 2010 World Cup and the 'karma' that resulted in a dismal performance at the final competition - may turn your mind, all the while paying tribute to his greatness on the pitch.
But drawing material from interviews with well-connected individuals around Henry's camp, there is no sycophantic praise of the player's role in any of the matters for which he is criticised. Indeed, there is unsparing disapproval in most, which is refreshing for this style of book.
"You have to make the distinction between the person and the persona," Auclair said in an interview with the Football Writers' Association. "I do not know the person well enough to have the right to place any judgement 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."
My overriding feelings about Henry have not changed. I know more about the struggles, the arrogance and the passionate desire to be top of his field that I could only have inferred before, but he still maintains the aura of brilliance. That will never change.
As Auclair reveals: "There are elements in it that might not please him [Henry], 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. 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."