'Money? I'd pay to play football'

"Sometimes I try things that even I think I shouldn't have done. I can't help it. I go with the flow, try crazy things," says Thierry Henry.-Pic. REUTERS

`How can you surprise the goalkeeper if you do not, sometimes, surprise yourself?' Arsenal striker Thierry Henry talks to PATRICK BARCLAY.

FEW footballers are as expressive in their first language as Thierry Henry can be in his second. Asked to explain his style, he stresses its improvisational quality. "Imagination," he says, "is stronger than knowledge."

He can see what I am thinking. It is a bit like the pen being mightier than the sword. Depends who is wielding the pen and, perhaps more acutely, how nasty the swordsman chooses to be. And so, mock-wearily, he adds: "Of course you have to have some knowledge before you can apply imagination. Anyway, I'm not talking about every player. I'm talking about me."

Henry is talking about someone who can swivel on a bouncing ball 20-odd yards out and leave Fabien Barthez clawing as the ball dips inside the junction of post and crossbar. It happened when Manchester United were beaten at Highbury last season and the Arsenal striker, when we spoke amid the continuing fuss over his having reached a century of goals for the club at Birmingham a few days earlier, agreed that it was a fine example of instinct.

"Sometimes I try things," he confessed, "that even I think I shouldn't have done. I can't help it. I go with the flow, try crazy things. Like that goal against Manchester United — if the ball had gone into the stand, people would have called me pretentious, or greedy, or arrogant. But that's me. I try never to do the same thing — a run, a turn — in two games. Some players do. But how can you surprise your opponent, how can you surprise the goalkeeper, if you do not, sometimes surprise yourself?'

To attempt to enact this philosophy would be unwise for footballing mortals. Henry is blessed with a combination of pace, strength and skill that enables him to do clever things at almost unplayable speed. Such is the steady improvement in his finishing that Ian Wright's club record of 185 goals already looks fragile; Henry is only 25 and views the notion of leaving an Arsenal shaped by Arsene Wenger, who gave him his debut at Monaco and has developed him since paying pounds 8 million to end a brief Italian exile in the summer of 1999, as hardly worth discussing.

So we should have the pleasure of watching this graceful beast for a few years yet. Let it be stated, however that many in the crowd will be as good at heading a ball as Henry and probably less reluctant to do it. The memory of a missed chance to equalise by this method during France's World Cup defeat by Senegal is of his body-language, which resembled that of a man striding from a warm room into the teeth of a blizzard. I labour the point only in the interests of balance, for Henry, like his fellow centurion Dennis Bergkamp, has become one of the game's true artists at a relatively tender age.

An inquiry as to whether, again like Bergkamp, he was turned on only by aesthetically pleasing goals encountered no resistance. Far from it. "Oh, I more than agree," said Henry. "Everyone knows all goals count the same. But I like the beautiful ones. For me, it's really important to enjoy the game. Sometimes I go home — even if we've won — and I'm restless, there's something missing. I'm not talking about goals. I'm just talking about enjoyment." Arsenal are giving more and more of it. After winning at Leeds, they were applauded by locals. "At Birmingham, too, a bit," added Henry. "When that happens, you know you've done something special."

He was, though, anxious to dispel any impression that Wenger's team fancy themselves inordinately or have any intention of resting on double laurels, as Tony Adams implied before they were beaten at Old Trafford; many accounts claimed the former Highbury captain had been vindicated. Henry said that was unfair. "I take the blame. If I'd scored in a one-on-one with Fabien when we were controlling the game, it would have been completely different. When you're playing a team like United, you have to make the most of your chances. So is it fair to say what was said about the team?" While in essence genial, Henry can be easily vexed. "Many times," he went on, "we've shown our desire. Last season we won a lot of games after being behind. This season we've recovered from two down against West Ham and one down against Chelsea. At West Bromwich we were one down and won — not, on that day, because we had more quality, but because we wanted it. People can say what they like, but I don't think it was fair. Not fair at all... "

The Premiership table would appear to support him. Arsenal are on course to keep the title, or titles, they hold. "So far this season, we've won nothing. We know something is happening, but the only way we can bring it to a conclusion is to carry on winning games." And then, presumably, bathe in glory. "I don't know what's going on. But people keep asking me at the end of games `Is this the best Arsenal have played?' It must be a good sign." Nicely put. After the sumptuous performance at Leeds, the consensus was that we were in the presence of one of the all-time great sides. And those observers who had second thoughts at Old Trafford may have revised them again.

Certainly anyone who claims to have seen a quicker team on the counter-attack should be prepared to furnish evidence. "It helps that we all like to get forward," said Henry, returning unbidden to the subject of enjoyment with a swipe at those who commented upon his candid reply, when asked early in the season if the World Cup had taken a toll, that he felt a little heavy-legged. "It's a shame they always talk about money. You have the striker who earns blah-blah-blah pounds and drives such-and-such a car. Why do they start the article with that line? They don't understand that I would pay to play football. There is money in the game, but is that my fault? I never asked to be paid for playing football. When I started at the age of seven, money never entered my head. Much later, football became my work. But when I miss a goal I don't think about money. I think "Shit! I've let my team down because we could be 1-0 up and everyone could be more relaxed'."

He always felt this sense of responsibility. "When I'm switched on for something, I want to do it well. My name's on the back of my shirt and I don't want people going on at my family. Or my team-mates, of course." At Birmingham there was a delicious moment when Bergkamp sent him through with a perfect pass and stopped, arms by his sides, awaiting what duly occurred. "When Dennis gave me that ball," said Henry, "he expected me to score and I didn't want to let him down."

Did this stem from his upbringing in Paris? "Yes, my mum and dad raised me in a very strict and strong way. They always said to me `You need to do more'." And would Henry, if he ever had children, be strict too? "Most important for me is to have respect — it seems to have disappeared from the world — and be polite. If someone is behind me, I'll hold the door. Little things. But don't get me wrong... "

No, indeed. No one who has seen Henry rant at a referee would mistake him for a kitten. "One thing I don't like about refs is that, when you go to talk to them, they won't respond. I'm not saying I'm entitled to a five-minute discussion of every decision but, if I swear I didn't touch the ball, all he needs to say is `Come on, Thierry, we both know you did' and I'll admit he's right and walk away. But sometimes you go to talk to a ref and he's like this... " Henry put his nose in the air and silently, with contemptuous sneer, waved the imaginary player away. "Well, if I'm talking to him and he won't talk to me, then I won't be respectful any more."

Arsenal, and Wenger in particular, have shown more than respect. As Henry pursued his career in France — on the left wing, Monaco having bought Sonny Anderson and others for the striking roles — the Highbury manager would take frequent opportunities to advise him. "He told me I was wasting my time out wide and would only make progress by going back to my original, natural position as a centre-forward. Even when I won the World Cup as a wider player in 1998, he told me!" A year later, Henry was given Nicolas Anelka's red shirt. "Arsenal helped me. I'm trying to pay them back." By doing what comes naturally. As we parted, I complimented Henry on his performance in a television commercial for a car and asked if he had acting ambitions. "No," he replied. And he was anxious to add: "In the advert, I'm not acting. It's just me." As ever.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003.