Nostalgia can be a thing of beauty, sometimes there is nothing better than reminiscing over great sporting moments - but in the case of Arsenal and Thierry Henry, the cons are likely to outweigh the pros.
Sports and sentiment go hand in hand unabashedly. The historic highpoints of sports are used to roadmap people’s lives, “do you remember the summer when…” memories that make you forget that was also the year you got dumped and had your car repossessed because you can remember being in that bar at that time. Men who didn’t cry at their own father’s funerals are seen to shed a tear when a true great retires. And in a time when we are constantly let down by authority figures of every stripe, the great footballers who have shaped the history of any club, no matter how insignificant that may be in the grand scheme, are placed on pedestals, both figuratively and literally as the statues outside The Emirates are a testament to.
Nostalgia’s prism has a way of bending logic and reason like nothing else and today we are likely to see the evidence of it in what will no doubt be feverish celebrations on the return of Thierry Henry to Arsenal, a deal all but done. There is a rational ideal behind it – club great makes his return to fill in for two months while strikers are called away to the African Cup of Nations. The attention it will generate will give the fans, who have been right to be disappointed for parts of this season, a lift and the squad – some of whom played with him in his prime – will all be buoyed by the sight of the great man. It seems win / win.
That’s the awesome power of nostalgia, that there isn’t one Arsenal fan or indeed football fan who doesn’t want to see Henry play again. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest players the Premier League has ever been graced with. It’s that same legacy though that makes it a bad idea for several reasons.
Men who didn’t cry at their own father’s funerals are seen to shed a tear when a true great retires.
The first will be expectation. In Henry’s last season as an Arsenal player he barely broke into double figures. That was in 2007. After leaving for a better team in the form of Barcelona he struggled to have any impact at all, even if his goals return wasn’t that bad for his limited appearances. Now enjoying what is a retirement in anything but name state side, it’s hard to imagine him re-adapting to the rigours of the Premier League.
“But this is the great Thierry Henry” Arsenal fans will exclaim “he might have lost a half his pace but his quality will remain.” Alas, the evidence that suggests that quality leaves all sportsmen over time and at 34 even someone as gifted as Henry will be running on its very last fumes.
It has been remarked many times that this Arsenal team are one that run on confidence. It’s probably a lazy cliché, yet it is an understandable conclusion to arrive at. When going forward and scoring the type of goals that only Arsenal can score, they still look like the best footballing side in the world bar Barcelona. The moment a mistake is made the panic creeps through the ranks like some sort of nerve gas, rendering players incapable of even the most simple of tasks, leaden legs twitching and a mile long stare in the eyes. Unfortunately Arsenal make those mistakes but the impact of seeing Henry make them, as he inevitably will as he tries to find his feet, could carry far more weight and mental impact.
Funnily enough the worst case scenario could even be the stuff of wildest dreams for Arsenal fans – in that Henry might actually do well. So well that it exposes Gervinho and Chamakh, while they are away with their respective countries, as being players that simply aren’t fit to wear the shirt. What does it say about them if they could be shown up by a player whose star had faded long ago? That added pressure wouldn’t bode well for a productive season.
Of course that is an insane dream, the sort of thing that doesn’t happen outside of Rocky films and so it won’t happen here. The whole move is little more than a cruel smokescreen, the kind of distraction a government would employ. While the fans and media rejoice about the returning hero it papers over the cracks and prevents asking real questions such as “why don’t Arsenal sign an actual striker in January” or “just what would happen if Robin Van Persie got injured again.” No doubt Henry means well in his return but it is quite the conceit to think he would have an impact and in doing so. Even if it is just for two months, it denies that spot within in the team for a hopeful youngster, or somebody such as Walcott who has been crying out for a prolonged spell up front.
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