Tuesday 24 October 2017

Nostalgia shot a welcome antidote to all the poison

Tommy Conlon

It was the moment of the season so far, if only because moments like it were never more badly needed.

Thierry Henry's goal against Leeds United last Monday night was pure sporting romance; the kind that had newspapers talking of fairytales and the man himself talking of dreams.

It's the kind of moment that professional sport, with its cold heart, rarely permits. An ageing legend, and his legion of fans, seldom get to turn back the clock to the good old days. It doesn't work like that, and they all knew it. But it happened anyway and when it did it was beautiful.

Henry left Arsenal FC in the summer of 2007. In his eight seasons there he clocked up 226 goals in 370 appearances to become top scorer in the club's history. At the age of 34, he was seeing out the final phase of his career in America with an outfit called the New York Red Bulls. Their season ended in October. In November, he came to London and fetched up at his old club to do some maintenance work on his fitness. Or maybe he knew that Arsene Wenger, his old manager and mentor, isn't exactly spoiled with attacking riches these days. Nine days ago, Wenger registered Henry as an Arsenal player again and the player will remain on loan until the end of February at the latest.

When Wenger sprung him from the bench in the 68th minute on Monday night, he hadn't played a competitive match in nine weeks. Ten minutes later, he made a run and the rest was vintage: one touch to stun the through ball from Alex Song and a second to bend it low around the 'keeper. It was the only goal of this FA Cup third-round tie. A tidal wave of emotion broke around the Emirates Stadium. Henry hardly knew how to react. He used to do cool in his goal celebrations. This time he looked overwhelmed. So he just took off running and ended up cantering down the touchline and into an embrace with Wenger.

Some 60,000 supporters were in the arena. Of all the memories he has given them, this one might top the lot. Because the moment was past and present rolled into one; it was all their yesterdays but it was happening in front of them; it was an act of living, breathing nostalgia. It was newly-minted but everything about it was familiar: the stealth run into his favoured left channel; the adroit touch that took the pace off the ball and set up the shot; the precisely-measured finish. It was Henry at his minimalist, elegant best.

An hour after the final whistle, he was still in his kit, still a bit dazed by it all. "Scoring a winner for the club I love, I am actually dreaming right now," he said. His friend and former team-mate Martin Keown met him after the game.

"Former favourites," wrote Keown in his newspaper column, "often have dreams in which they are back playing for their beloved club again and it takes a while when you wake up to realise that it was just a dream. Thierry told me he had those dreams, but against Leeds it was actually happening -- he just couldn't quite believe it."

The thing was, we the onlookers could believe it. There was nothing contrived about the emotions on show that night. This was a genuine moment of communal affection between player and supporters, built on a shared history. Which is what following a team is supposed to be about. Supporters cherish a bond like that. But they are hard to find. Players' careers are short and transient. But Henry put down roots at Arsenal; they built him a statue in the end.

So on Monday night there was, of all things, love in the air. And in this season of anger, that's what made that moment in the 78th minute so heartwarming. It was an antidote to all the poison. The day before, a massive security operation had been mounted for the Manchester derby. The Etihad Stadium and its environs had become a police state for the afternoon. The same will happen when Liverpool host Manchester United in the fourth round of the Cup a fortnight from now, and again when the teams clash at Old Trafford in February.

The recent race controversy between the clubs has inflamed supporters on both sides. If Queens Park Rangers win their third-round replay, they will face Chelsea. Tensions have simmered among supporters of these clubs too since John Terry's alleged racist remarks to Anton Ferdinand last October. And it's not as if football supporters, some of them anyway, need much of an excuse these days. By all accounts, the verbal abuse of players and managers has become even more vicious this season. Nothing is too vile to be said. The atmosphere at matches is flecked with hate speech. The traditional tribal rivalries are apparently mutating into a form of football sectarianism.

It seems that all season there has been anger and recrimination hanging in the air. Every controversy, every grievance is being amplified by the vast media industry that is feeding off the game. It has made for an unpleasant and at times ugly climate.

In contrast to all that, Thierry Henry's goal was a wholesome thing, a ray of sunshine, a rare moment of perfect innocence.


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