Love you, Highbury

N. U. ABILASH

A HUNDRED goals at Highbury, for Thierry Henry, is almost like the �100,000-plus a week he earns, a mere function of material success. There is another reason — a far bigger and philosophical one — for the man who recently scored his 100th goal in Arsenal's home ground to be head over heels in love with Highbury.

"There's just something about Highbury that is difficult to describe," said the Frenchman who broke Ian Wright's all-time Arsenal scoring record of 186 goals earlier in the season. "When you arrive, you hardly see the stadium and wonder where it is but then you see it between two blocks of flats, and the pitch is amazing. It gives me such thrill and excitement, much more than all other football grounds."

Encircled by a housing estate, the ground in north London is unique and straight out of a time when young boys slipped out of their houses and played for their clubs in the neighbourhood park. It belongs to an age where competitive football, with its structural and commercial implications, blended seamlessly with the actual lived experience, the joie de vivre, of playing. It is a far cry from the `Theatre of Dreams' that is Old Trafford and other `modern' grounds of top European clubs, the gigantic concrete structures of which are reminders that the game is nothing but an unashamed display of the grime of industrial capitalism.

Henry's manager and father figure, Arsene Wenger, left nobody in doubt when he said, "Highbury is Thierry's own garden." For long, it has been an arena where the French forward — whom many football pundits consider the fastest man ever while controlling a football — has planted the seeds of exciting moves with his teammates, watered them, seen them to its productive end when Arsenal fans deliriously admire the beauty of the flower, and enjoyed every second of the process.

Henry, like Andriy Shevchenko of AC Milan and young wonder Wayne Rooney, is quite unlike other successful contemporary forwards such as Ronaldo, Michael Owen, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Samuel Eto'o, who are more strikers than complete forwards in that they lurk in the centre of the rival box waiting for the kill even when play is in their own halves. Right from the day in the mid-1990s when Wenger, then manager of French club Monaco, handpicked 16-year-old Henry from Les Ullis, an underprivileged Parisian suburb, and drafted him into the Monaco side as a winger, the Frenchman has hated the idea of being an out and out striker, which he once poetically described as the `fox in the box syndrome'.

Henry's ideology of football is different. For him, tactical play is not in variance with participatory zest. "Football is a team game, and even when you are doing strict positional play you have to overlap and help the team," he said in an interview with football magazine Four Four Two. "Overlapping can never be a weakness, it can only be a strength. If you love the game, enjoy every minute of it, read its patterns constantly, wish to haul out your teammates, you're bound to overlap."

Henry's dynamic approach is easier said than done for less gifted professionals. Wenger devised Arsenal's style of play, built on quick passing and fast counterattacks, to suit Henry's strengths, namely lightning speed and playing amazing angles. Unlike in the French national squad, where successive managers have devised their strategy of slowing the ball in the midfield to suit the strengths of Zinedine Zidane, the Arsenal manager has had end-to-end speed, both in the centre and in the wings, as his mantra. Players such as Robert Pires, Freddie Ljunberg, Denis Bergkamp, and now Francesc Fabregas, Jose Reyes and Robin van Persie are Henry's able foils in mastering this style, which has also relied upon the quick retrieving, tackling and passing skills of Patrick Vieira till the beginning of this season when he moved to Juventus.

The best assessment of Henry came from Wenger, the man who made him the great goalscorer he is. "He has a mixture of physical talent and technical ability, as well as remarkable intelligence and amazing passion for the game," said Wenger in May 2002, when Arsenal won the Premiership and the FA Cup, and he added as after-thought. "I have not talked about that burning desire to learn, even now when he is scoring goals by the dozen."

When Wenger signed Henry for Arsenal in 1999 from Juventus — by then he was already a World Cup winner, netting three times in the 1998 tournament mainly as a winger and a wide midfielder — the manager saw a centre forward hidden in the wide player and Henry was given the brief of scoring goals along with the indefatigable Denis Bergkamp. Wenger has said that Henry has not ceased to amaze him over the last five years with a tally that is sure to cross 200 by the time the season ends in May 2006. However, the ace forward has hardly surprised himself. "It is true that when I joined Arsenal I had to rediscover the scoring instinct, that automatic reaction in front of goal," Henry told The Observer. "It is true that I've had to literally go back to school and learn everything about the art of striking. So many people say that they have been taken by surprise by how well I have managed to change my game since I arrived here. I say that it's only natural that it changed. If it had not, it would have shown a lack of intelligence, ambition and passion."

With Arsenal moving from Highbury to its "modern" 65,000-seater stadium in nearby Ashburton Grove, which was the result of redeveloping an industrial wasteland, next season, only the ambition of winning the European Champions League is likely to keep Henry — who has scored key goals in the victorious 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 campaigns of `Les Blues' — in north London. It is a well-publicised secret that Barcelona has been hot on his heals for the last one year — hold your breath if the transfer happens next season for you will have the visual treat of seeing Henry playing in the same team as the world's best footballer, Ronaldinho, and a deadly striker Samuel Eto'o — and Henry might well be tempted to move at the end of the season in a transfer deal which is sure to break the world record mark of Zidane's 2001 move from Juventus to Real Madrid.

After all, Thierry Henry is a man who once said he enjoyed doing the famous Renault ad — the memorable catchline of which, `Va va voom', was added to the Oxford English Dictionary — because he was in love with Nicole Merry, the English model working with him who later became his wife (they now have a six-month old daughter). He is a man who launched Nike's anti-racism campaign because he was rightly convinced that "racist chants in football grounds make the game a far less enjoyable experience". He is a man for whom the verb `enjoy' coexists with and prefigures the verb `work'.