Thursday, 1 November 2012

Lonely at the Top

Highly respected French football journalist, Philippe Auclair who wrote the regarded autobiography of Eric Cantona, The Rebel Who Would Be King - returns with another tome on another French footballer who split opinion with his genius and gifts. Auclair this time focuses on Thierry Henry, the most prolific goalscorer in Arsenal football history.

From the front cover you get a close-up portrait of Mr.Henry which like the photo of Andre Agassi on his award-winning biography Open is very non-commital like the Mona Lisa - is Henry smiling or is he a little bit put out by doing this photo shoot?

Auclair takes as his thrust a way to dissect the inner psyche of a wounded genius; liking Henry to an artist who thought too much for his art and was never really understood.  This goes in contrast to the public image of Henry, especially during his glory years of Arsenal, when he bestrode many Premier League pitches as a master of his craft.  Henry shared with Cantona, that outward French arrogance of knowing he was really really good - Auclair has a great memory, this reviewer had forgotten the free-kick Henry had scored at Wigan when he scored looked at the referee - who had asked for a retake of the previous goal-bound effort - and asked, 'Is that good enough?' - a mixture of superiority and theatricality.  For fans of Arsenal, reading this book will be like recalling all your favourite Christmases.

Tellingly, too often in this day and age the stars of today are just that.  Fans of football only care about the here and now, fans are unaware of a player's route to glory, the hard road travelled.  Too often it is a matter of what are you doing for me now.  Just look at Chelsea, Didier Drogba has left and the fans have replaced him in their hearts with Eden Hazard and/or Oscar; the revolving door of football celebrity endorses this.

Henry is rightfully acclaimed as one of Arsenal's great players; he was the great goalscorer that came after Ian Wright.  He replaced Nicolas Anelka who left Arsenal fans heartbroken having won the double, yet he straddled two great sides.  Henry led the line of the side defended by the famous back five of Seaman, Dixon, Bould/Keown, Adams and Winterburn; and then was the fulcrum of the Invincibles in the 2003/04 season who won the league without losing a game, a first for the Premier League.

Auclair shows you all of Henry's stories, his father's journey from the West Indies (this reviewer presumed Henry's genetics laid in Northern Africa), the gift that was apparent in youth football, winning the World Cup in 1998 as a teenager and then the dismal World Cup showings in 2002 in Korea/Japan and ending on a sour note in South Africa 2010.

The only gripe of this book is the general tone of a genius misunderstood, Thierry Henry is one of those rare players who was highly respected from all corners of the globe, beloved by fans of the game so to set him out as woe is me individual who is misrepresented by his on pitch persona, marks him out as something akin to a Hollywood star or Broadway thespian, is it any surprise that Henry's career is ending in the bright lights of New York City where he is undoubtedly the star of the MLS show.

Henry's need to be the best does not make him a misunderstood soul, it makes him much like any naturally gifted athlete a man whose ego needs massaging.  Thierry Henry won every domestic and international competition during his playing career along with personal awards, yet to paint him as an unfulfilled participant in the world's most popular sport is somewhat bittersweet.

Lonely at the Top is published by Macmillan in hardback on 8th November for £17.99RRP
Philippe Auclair has been France Football's and RMC Radio's UK football correspondent for over a decade and is a prolific freelance journalist.  He is also a regular contributor to The Blizzard and Champions magazine.

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