Some call it sentimentality, but the return of an Arsenal hero reminds us of the joy of football
The most refreshing aspect of Thierry Henry's fairytale return to Arsenal's colours at the Emirates on Monday night came in the sentiments he expressed in an emotional post-match interview. "Now I know how people feel when they score for the club they support," he said, emphasising that his 227th goal for the Gunners had a particular resonance the previous myriad had lacked. To be there, even as an away fan, was to witness the Emirates in an unfamiliar carnival mood, the lethargy of the 68 minutes before his arrival swept away on a tide of revelry as home supporters abandoned their habitual concerns to enjoy a moment of unadulterated jubilation. Even the Irish Arsenal fan in front of me was not immune and wore the grin of an undetected bigamist.
The interview Henry gave to the matchday programme was designed to temper expectations. "I'm not coming here to be a hero," he said. "I'm coming here to help. I am not 25 any more, I am not going to take the ball from the middle of the park and dribble past five or six players." But from the minute his cameo began there were enough twitches on the thread to evoke memories of him at his Highbury peak even with the disconcerting Isaac Hayes bald-with-beard look that made him appear, as one critic put it, as if his head was upside down.
No one runs backwards into space with quite so much speed and agility, peeling off defenders while rarely surrendering his ability to view the play.
The position he took to score his goal, eluding his marker, Zac Thompson, in Leeds's bin-man chic away kit, was a case in point. And when found by Alex Song's cute, threaded pass, Henry's touch allowed him to open his body and squeeze a subtle shot into the precise place the Leeds goalkeeper, Andy Lonergan, could not protect. His celebration, pounding his chest maniacally while seemingly carried away in a trance, was reminiscent of Diego Maradona's berserk reverie when he scored for Argentina against Greece in the 1994 World Cup, arguably the greatest false-dawn comeback of them all.
Just as some Englishmen will never forgive Maradona for 1986, some Irishmen will harbour a lifelong grudge against Henry for a similar handball offence and amid all the post-match exhilaration of the home fans, one sought to lecture us in the queue for the train home about the stain he felt Henry could never eradicate. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," he said, rather misjudging his constituency. "He's a cheat and always will be." After attempts to silence him proved fruitless, just about everyone else chose to ignore the Holloway Road refusenik.
Before Henry came on the home crowd had been distracted, a mordant sarcasm about the overelaboration of their play enlivening the bouts of exasperation. No one expects to see the reincarnation of Bobby Charlton, pinging in 30-yard shots with abandon, but you could sense they would welcome someone in the Ray Parlour mould – of not being afraid to shoot when defenders began to backpedal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did opt for the direct route on occasion and was sardonically admonished by one Arsenal fan for not passing instead. Andrey Arshavin and the hopelessly hesitant Marouane Chamakh attracted particular opprobrium, the Russian, who seemed to me to be having one of his better games, still liable too often to dribble into positions where only a goal-of-the-season finish would get him off the hook.
I didn't go to the game between the two last year and this was my first time watching Arsenal since Henry scored four against Leeds in 2004 so there was a sense of familiarity about the occasion, especially in the Arsenal fans' use of quaint Cockney insults directed at us northern "slags", "mugs" and "muppets" as I sheepishly sat on my hands in their midst.
There are many who dismiss the acclaim for Henry's return on Monday night and Paul Scholes's a day earlier as sentimental tripe but I unashamedly see it as something more significant. These moments, as Gordon Strachan said afterwards, are what football should be about, a chance to escape from the daily tickertape of breaking news about the trivial and an opportunity to cherish players who appeal more to the heart than the head.
I doubt many Liverpool fans greeted Robbie Fowler's return to the fold as a backward step. They relished the chance to see him in a red shirt once more even though they accepted his incisiveness had diminished. To those of a romantic bent, when they look at their heroes, all their geese are swans. But, however short Henry's second honeymoon with Arsenal proves to be their supporters will welcome the reassurance that time and absence have not eroded his ability to deepen their affection.