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Thierry Henry interview
Former Arsenal, Barcelona and France striker Thierry Henry is loving life in the United States and wants to see New York Red Bulls develop identity as an attractive passing football team but he also hankers after an eventual return to Arsenal in some role in the future.
The following is the full transcript of interview by Simon Evans with Henry after pre-season training with the Red Bulls in Fort Lauderdale this weekend. Shortly before the interview began at the team’s hotel Henry was approached by an American guest who recognised him from a documentary film about racism in sport but who then asked the Frenchman for his name.
Q: It must be quite nice to be asked for your name like that. I can’t imagine too many people wouldn’t recognise you back home.
It’s nice…I really don’t mind, I mkind of like not being recognized. The other day I had a day off and had breakfast in the hotel and went later to see a movie just like any normal person and it was just great. It’s refreshing.
Q: The was a view when you decided to leave Barcelona for the Red Bulls that you had headed to the MLS ‘retirement home’ Do you get a bit of that from people?
Whenever I go back, people kind of like, as you say, put MLS down. But you see when the European teams come in for pre-season and I know it is only pre-season but maybe back in time they would have won easily and now you look at the results, quite often the European teams lose or struggle to win. I know they are in pre-season and they aren’t going to go (full out) but it speaks volumes.
Being in the league, well people were telling me not to expect too much from the league but I remember playing against Real Salt Lake, we didn’t touch the ball much, they were passing the ball around, playing good football, Dallas, the Galaxy it is the same. They want to pass the ball and play good football – you have some good players in the league.
Q: Which American players or players in MLS have caught your eye so far?
“Omar Cummings is Jamaican but when we played Colorado at home he scored an amazing goal….some of the guys in Salt Lake, (Kyle) Beckerman, the Argentinian playmaker (Javier) Morales , Landon Donovan of course. I was actually, not surprised, but happy to see teams playing football and that there are great players around.
People thought that I wanted to come here because I wasn’t getting many minutes on the field at Barca but I wanted to come here after we won the Champions League (in 2009). But I didn’t want to still be involved with the national team and playing here – it would have been too much in terms of travel and I didn’t want to put the club in the situation of me going back and missing games and so on. That kept me there.
But people were talking about me coming for about four years, obviously it wasn’t something that just happened – - I had it in the back of my mind for a very long time. Especially playing in New York, people say maybe ‘oh you just wanted to go and live there’ but I had all the time in my life to come and live here if it was only about living. I was impressed with the plans, a new stadium, wanting to win – you want to be we with a competitive team, that attracted me here.
Q: Was the fact that America is still, in some ways, a new frontier for the sport and you have a role in spreading the game’s popularity, an attraction?
No, I know that people are always going to talk about me, Rafa (Marquez), Becks, Donovan, they will talk about us but it is up to everyone in the league, all of us, to perform well and attract more fans and let everyone see that MLS is serious. When you have things like the All Star game, I know its only a friendly, but again, it is a chance to show that you can compete. It is down to everyone, to Real Salt Lake, to Dallas to all the organizations in the league to make the league better, not only what you could call the ‘usual suspects’.
Q: Just going back in time. I often wondered what went wrong for you really at Juventus. I know you played on the wing there most of the time.
It was one of Juve’s worst seasons. When I arrived the team was ninth in the league and we finished sixth, there were a lot of problems in the club. Lippi wanted to play me as a centre-forward, I remember the first two games when I arrived he put me on the bench but everytime I came on it was as a centre-forward. Then Ancelotti arrived and I played the remainder of the season on the left and at the very beginning I kind of struggled, I had to get used to the pace of the league, I had just arrived and a new position – we were playing 3-5-2 and so I had to cover the whole left side.
Then I started to play well, scoring and creating goals, then something happened with me and one of the bosses there and I decided to leave. I was actually happy, it was a great team, a great family but something happened that I didn’t like and it was time to go and to meet again with Arsene.
Q: Wenger switched you to that central-role…
When I arrived Arsene said ‘you are wasting your time staying on the wing’ but for me, I was an international, I had just won the World Cup playing wide, but I grew up playing centre-forward and Arsene had seen that, he gave me my debut for Monaco at 17 year old as a centre-forward, he said “I saw you scoring goals when you were young and there is no way that changes. You have goals in you for sure’ and I said ‘whatever’, I was trying to make my way into the game as a winger. It wasn’t bad – I was part of the squad who won the World Cup and winning the league with Monaco and having a couple of great games in the Champions League as a winger, but I said ‘let’s see’ and it worked out.
Q: It would be fair to say that switch changed your career.
Who knows? For sure I wouldn’t have scored as many goals as I have in my career. But one thing you need to do in the game, is to adapt and adjust your game to what you have been asked to do and also to what your body is telling you to do . I started as a winger because that was the only place for me, you just play, you have to adapt to all the situations.
Q: There are a fair few ‘Thierry Henry Greatest Hits’ goal collections on the internet. Which would you pick out as your best. I’ll give you two contenders – the one you scored against Spurs where you ran from your own penalty area all the way through and then the one, against Manchester United, where you beat Fabian Barthez with a shot on the turn. Do you have a favourite?
Whenever I meet an Arsenal fan they all have one that they like, that’s what is funny. You will always remember the one against United, the one against Tottenham, some would mention the one in Madrid, the back-heel against Charlton, one against Liverpool, when we were 2-2 and had to win to make sure we wouldn’t lose the league. Now, being out of it, Arsenal I mean, they are all great, its difficult to choose one. They are all different. Some we really needed, some were a beautiful goal, it is weird to pick one.
Q: I’ve heard stories about your father and his approach when you were young, his attitude when you came off the field after scoring two and he immediately raised ‘well, what about that one you missed in the 50th minute?’ How much did that attitude rub off on you?
He was a massive influence for me. My Dad always taught me to never be satisfied, to want more and know that what is done is done. That was his way of seeing the game. You’ve done it, now move on. People might say well, when can you enjoy it? But it worked for me because in the game, you need to be on your toes. And to be on your toes you need to see what is coming next, not what has been done.
To stay at the top of your game more than 12 or 13 years at a high level you need to have that mentality. Later you can think about it and bore your kids and grandchildren and tell all your stories, but in the time that you are playing you have to see what is coming next, you only get judged from your next game. So many times, trust me even at my peak at Arsenal, I was scoring game after game but when I didn’t score in one game, the critics were coming and that is how it is. To try and avoid that you have to try to do more – you have to have that mentality.
Q: Do you still follow Arsenal’s fortunes closely?
Oh yes, I became an Arsenal fan. When I came to the club, I knew about it and had the desire to play for the club and I wanted to join Arsene again but I didn’t know too much about the club. When I arrived I played with the likes of Tony Adams, David Seaman, Martin Keown, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Ray Parlour, they all taught me what was Arsenal Football Club and what you need to do to wear that shirt and love that shirt and it got into me. I love the club.
Unfortunately we know I had to leave the club, for reasons I have explained many times, but I left Arsenal but you never really leave Arsenal. Whenever I go back I feel like I have gone home, it’s a big family and I became a fan. I knew what it was like to beat Manchester United, I knew what it meant to the fans when we were playing against Tottenham, I knew all that, you don’t get that from one or two years, you need to live and breath Arsenal to understand that.
Q: That’s not always the case for players at clubs though is it?
That is something that I always want to do when I arrive somewhere is to know about the culture of the country, about the club and make sure I know what it takes to wear the jersey. I’m not having a go but obviously in MLS you don’t have those big rivalries like you have in Europe, but when I arrived at Barcelona, I soon knew what it meant to play against Real Madrid – when we played against them it was crazy. You can’t perform well in those kind of games if you don’t get it – you need to understand that.
Q: But going back to Arsenal, the club has become so entwined with Arsene Wenger, the whole set-up, the youth system and everything. Arsenal before he was there and it was a very different club of course….
People used to sing about Arsenal that they were boring, that they won but it was 1-0 and with a goal from a corner kick or free-kick. If you were 1-0 down against Arsenal that was it, you knew you were never going to score, the back four was tremendous, they didn’t concede, they won the league conceded 16 goals, winning a lot of games 1-0. But they were winning.
Arsene changed it, if you talk to any Arsenal fan, or even non-Arsenal fan, they will tell you they will watch Arsenal because they know they are going to see a football game. No disrespect to other clubs but they will enjoy watching the game. That is what Johan Cruyff did for Barcelona too – he brought that attacking mentality, that Dutch way, playing with wingers, playing the ball on the ground and Arsene did the same. To do that you have also to give credit to the club because you need your manager to be there for a long time, you can’t have a manager for five years and expect him to put his identity on the club. Arsene did that, he won but the club was intelligent enough to see what he was doing and give him time to build something and now everybody talks about the ‘Arsenal way’ of playing the game and that is really because of him.
Q: The flip-side of that though is that there are Arsenal fans wonder what will come after when Wenger finally leaves. Is that something that you, having been part of that system and having worked so closely with him, would you down the line be interested in going into management or coaching there?
“I don’t know about that but it goes without saying, I hope one day I would love to go back there. I love that club and I just want to give as much as possible to this club, after what that club gave me. I know that the day Arsene leaves is going to be a difficult one, I don’t know who can replace him. That is going to be hard. Not only the winning part of it but what he was and what he is for the club and the way he transformed the club. Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams were all part of it and I am sure if you ask them if they would like to come back and do something with the club they would all tell you yes. But if one day, they want me, I have joked if I go back to be the kitman or the water boy, I don’t mind, I just want to be back one day, when I don’t know. I just want to be back.
Q: When you are on the training ground now with the lads at Red Bull, do you bring in some of that experience from Arsenal and talk to people about their game?
The thing is, don’t get me wrong, I still love scoring and I hate to lose but now I see myself more as making players play better. Sometime you do what you have to do and you have to perform, that is still there, but in my mind I am thinking about making the guys around me play better and that is never an easy thing to do. But that is a challenge and we will see how far we can go with it.
Q: Have you seen any results from that from last season?
That was too short and I wasn’t in the best shape to do it, I am trying to do it now, we are trying to pass the ball on the ground, play football with a lot of passing and we will see what we can do. It is quite important, whatever identity you want to have for your club, it is important to have one. To say the Red Bulls play this way. When you see Barca or Arsenal home or away they play the same way. That’s what we want to do – we want to have a Red Bull way.
Q: Which would be what exactly?
“I am a believer in passing the ball on the ground, I was lucky to be part of teams like that at Arsenal, with the French national team and with Monaco and at Barcelona. I know you can win in other ways but I believe that is the way football should be played. Hopefully we can do the same thing, maybe not at the same level of Arsenal or Barca, but that is what we want to do.
Q: Did you watch the first leg between Arsenal and Barcelona?
No we were on the plane coming back from Mexico. That killed me. We will see, I didn’t see the game and I don’t want to talk too much about it.
Q: Ok, just one thing on that game though. Wilshere’s performance excited a lot of people in England. What has been your impression of him
I didn’t see that game so I can’t comment. But I spoke to the boss when I was back to train at Arsenal and I wouldn’t say I was surprised because I knew the guy was very talented but I will say that he looks more mature than I thought he would look at this stage. He is good on the ball and you have to also say that he isn’t scared to put his foot in. He doesn’t look like a big lad but when he is out there, he puts his foot in, he has great vision on the ball, he is an Arsenal player. It means, he wants to play with short passes, great vision. What a great thing for some of the guys in England that he is English – that is a great boost for them.
Q: On the international front. Obviously you had a great international career winning the World Cup and then the European Championship. But how much did that messy end to it in South Africa did that take away from that time?
“Look back at it – I had 123 caps and 51 goals and I won everything. That is all I can look back on. You are always going to have some ups and downs, everyone is focusing on what happened in South Africa. But I will maintain people forget what happened in South Korea. We were world champions, European champions and we didn’t even score a goal? With the team that we had? Try to compare the team in South Africa with the one we had in South Korea – for me that was more shocking.
But everyone focuses on the last one. I had two bad experiences, but I won one World Cup and lost a final and I can’t complain much. Unfortunately sometimes the end of the story isn’t always a great one apart from in Hollywood. I was fortunate enough to represent my country and every single time I heard the national anthem I was more the proud. But four World Cups and being part of that great generation I think my kids will get upset with me showing them all the tapes.
Q Now you are here, how do you find everyday life in America. It is very different from Europe isn’t it?
“It is. I’m enjoying it. I am more than proud to be European. I love Europe, I love France but I have an American mentality and I don’t know why. The way I see things, the way I talk, I’m the kind of person who if I want to say something I will say it – sometimes in Europe, it’s not always what you need to do.
Q: Have you always had that kind of mentality or was it something that you picked up over time?
“I’m a big friend of (French NBA player) Tony Parker and we talk about this a lot. Sometimes he has the same kind of problem, he will speak his mind and not in a bad way but in Europe it’s not the same. I’ve always loved New York, I’ve been visiting New York since 1996. People don’t look at you like what are you doing? What are you wearing? There is also that thing that when people know that you have worked hard to get something, people have that respect for that here. You worked hard, good for you. Sometimes in Europe, there is a kind of jealousy you know.
Q: Do you think there was there some of that with the game against Ireland, the handball and the way you were treated after that?
No, you are getting confused there. I am talking in general. Since I was young, I’ve seen stuff and heard stuff about sportsmen and I think in Europe it will always be like that. So many times your career speaks for itself — when you look at the numbers, the numbers don’t lie.
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