As Thierry Henry lifted what was to become the iconic number 14 shirt for the first time at Highbury Stadium on August 3rd 1999, few in attendance knew the moment of history they were witnessing. Eight years, 228 goals and six trophies were to follow, but the legendary striker’s Arsenal story had begun many years before.
Arsene Wenger had first come across his compatriot as a teenager at Monaco who had come through a course at the prestigious Clairefontaine academy and was viewed by most to be a promising young winger on account of his spectacular dribbling ability. Wenger though, saw something different.
He handed a 17-year-old Henry his debut in August 1994 as a centre forward due to a hunch he had that the youngster’s “pace, physical power and spirit” would give him the potential to play the role. The pair’s initial relationship was to be brief however, as Wenger was sacked by Monaco weeks later, and Henry was restored once more to the wing.
He would go on to play there for the next few years of his career establishing himself as a regular starter for Monaco’s 1996/97 Ligue 1 winning side and scoring three goals for France en route to their World Cup triumph in 1998.
Not long after, by his own admission, Henry came very close to joining Arsenal for a reunion with Wenger, but Monaco president Jean-Louis Campora’s refusal to sell to the Gunners meant that it would have to wait. What followed instead was an underwhelming period with Juventus where the 22-year-old Henry was occasionally used as a wing back and managed just three goals in 19 appearances.
After falling out with Juve technical director Luciano Moggi, Henry found himself desperate to leave Italy, when on a flight back to Paris he bumped into a familiar face. Sat there was Wenger and Henry made a point of telling his former boss that he was keen to play for him again.
Later that summer the stars finally aligned. Arsenal found themselves in need of a new striker having just sold Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid and moved to sign Henry for what was, at the time, a club record £11 million. Although few would have expressed them too loudly given Wenger’s successful track record with the likes of Anelka, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, of mining the French market for rough diamonds that could shine in the Premier League, there were some questions upon his arrival. Was he a busted flush after his poor spell in Italy, could he replace the goals of Anelka and where exactly was he going to play?
Wenger wasted no time in putting his central striker theory to the test, during a period where Henry claimed he had to be “re-taught everything about the art of striking.” The doubters began to increase in volume after a slow start saw him score just once in his opening 12 games, but what followed was the stuff of fairytales.
He would end his first season with 26 goals in 48 appearances and just kept getting better. Individual moments of brilliance became a regularity. The turn and volley against Manchester United in 2000, the solo goal now cast in bronze outside the Emirates Stadium in 2002, the messianic display against Liverpool that arguably saved the Invinicbles season in 2004. We could go on…
But what made Henry a cut above his contemporaries was that he was truly a team player. In a squad full of world class talents like Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, the Frenchman also allowed his teammates to shine. In a season where he managed 24 goals in 02/03, his 20 assists remains a record that has not been beaten to this day.
Sadly it was to come to an end. After the departure of David Dein in 2007, uncertainty over the future of Wenger led Henry to claim that it was the right to move on, and he joined Barcelona that summer.
What followed though was a rare occasion of a sequel holding up to the original as he returned for a brief loan spell in 2012. In one of the greatest nights the Emirates Stadium has seen he returned with a goal scoring flourish against Leeds, giving those who had only heard of the legend of Thierry Henry an unprecedented chance to see his magic in the flesh.
His departure was typical in its film script nature as he said farewell with a late winner against Sunderland that would prove to be his final kick in an Arsenal shirt. Henry’s reign as a player in north London may have come to an end that day, but as they trekked back from the Stadium of Light that cold February day, few would have been thinking anything other than ‘long live The King’.