Thierry Henry: The Day The King Returned

It’s been seven years since Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal following a loan move from New York Red Bulls. Ryan Hunn reflects on the events around the Frenchman’s incredible return.

There are moments in sport that, when they happen, feel like they are being directed by some kind of higher power. Something so perfect that it must have been written in the stars, destiny, fate; something that would cause even the staunchest atheist to question whether they might actually believe. One such moment came on January 9th 2012 where, just nine minutes after coming on as a substitute, Thierry Henry scored the only goal against Leeds United at Emirates Stadium. 

When Henry took to the field, just two days after returning to Arsenal on loan from New York Red Bulls, Arsenal were struggling to break down a Championship side at home in the third round of the FA Cup. Whilst the Emirates atmosphere was yet to reach the levels of toxicity that hung over the latter years of Arsène Wenger’s reign, there was an increasing air of impatience. It was eight seasons since Arsenal had last won the league, seven since their last trophy at all: the FA Cup.

Looking back, that Henry returned at all seems even more bizarre than it seemed at the time. Twenty-eight days earlier, Arsenal had unveiled a statue of the former captain and record goalscorer outside of Emirates Stadium. Henry had been at the ceremony, shedding tears throughout his speech. Henry had left as King five years earlier and was returning to retake his throne, left vacant by Cesc Fàbregas – Henry’s successor – returning to his homeland the previous summer. Henry was returning to play in a place where he was already cast in bronze.

The Arsenal that Henry was returning to was in a mess. Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-young were the only senior strikers to back up Robin Van Persie, with the former soon to depart for the African Cup of Nations. In addition to Fàbregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy had also left for Manchester City. The day of Henry’s signing came just 135 days after the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, Arsenal were fifth in the Premier League, having just lost their sixth league game of the season away to Fulham.

So, there Henry was, after a surreal turn of events, on the Arsenal bench with a crowd of almost 60,000 singing his name once more. Henry sat there for almost an hour, already leading the Man of the Match voting by ESPN viewers. He sat, he sat, he waited, and then. Henry got out of his seat and turned left to run towards the North Bank, warming up as Arsenal continued to struggle against a Leeds side that was managing the game well.

The board went up in the 68th minute, Chamakh’s number in red, Henry’s number 12 in green. He wasn’t quite as lean as than the Thierry of old, but there were flashes that were unmistakably vintage. He bossed, pointed, shouted, made a run, got caught offside. By now, people had stopped watching the ball and were just watching him. Then Andrey Arshavin played a square ball to Alex Song, who took a touch, then another touch. By his third touch, Henry had pulled off the shoulder of Zac Thompson and pointed to where he wanted it played. Song’s through ball was perfect, Henry took one touch, opened his body and side footed it into the bottom right hand corner.

This was a different Thierry Henry: a fan scoring a goal he thought he’d never get to score again.

If the goal was familiar, the reaction was not. Henry beamed, arms out wide, skipping like a child who had scored this same goal in a dream. None of the smooth, cool, casual goal celebrations now. This was a different Thierry Henry: a fan scoring a goal he thought he’d never get to score again. The reaction of Henry and the Emirates was as one: one of joy, one of ‘this had to happen by my god it’s actually happened’. Henry was visibly emotional as he continued to skip down the touchline before embracing Arsène Wenger. There were tears everywhere, from Henry, from supporters, from this writer.

“I never thought I’d play for Arsenal again, let alone score the winner,” Henry said after the game. “The feeling I had when I scored was amazing. I am enjoying the club as a fan.” This is what made his return so special. This Henry was more like a fan than he’d ever been, a mortal, a former invincible nearing the end of his story. But he was still The King had The King had returned to give his people one more moment of joy.