In his prime, Thierry Henry was the epitome of grace. Among all the players to have blessed the Premier League with their talents, Henry was arguably the most stylish. He had the va-va-voom, remember?
I’m too old to still possess such a thing as a ‘favourite player,’ but nobody can supplant Henry from top spot in my mind. He’ll forever remain my favourite. I spent my early years wanting to be a lethal finisher like Ian Wright. Then I wanted to possess the craft and vision of Dennis Bergkamp. As I moved into my teens though, Henry shot into first place and hasn’t budged since.
It seems the obvious choice, him being Arsenal’s record goalscorer and all. But for me, it’s not about what he achieved, it’s about how he did it. No one was so cool and calm, yet so lethal and aggressive at the same time. Henry had unmistakable qualities and tendencies as a player that marked him out above his peers. An untold number of players in football history have scored goals, some more than Henry did. It’s the way he scored his goals though, the movements only he could make, that truly elevate him above all others.
Henry even had a trademark finish. You know exactly what I mean, you’re picturing it now: The striker bears down on goal and opens up their body, gently guiding the ball around the beaten ‘keeper for the clean finish. That’s a vintage Thierry Henry goal. His bread and butter.
Every time I play, my sole aim on the pitch is to score a goal exactly like that. Actually, I was lucky to get the opportunity recently: I received a pass slightly inside the left channel, where Henry preferred to operate. As I brought the ball under control, just nicking it away from the defender, I scampered towards goal, instantly visualising my next move. I saw the goalkeeper rushing out to close the angle but my muscle memory had already been activated. My body opened up, then my right foot caressed the ball and sent it on its merry way into the far corner of the net. I was ecstatic, and embarrassed myself in shameless celebration. Not just because I had scored a goal. I’d scored the goal. Henry himself would have been proud of this one.
A gifted goalscorer the shores of this nation have not seen the likes of since, Henry was fortunate to wear some of the finest football boots ever created. He was always at the forefront of pioneering designs. Henry wore the kind of boots that were unattainable for mere mortals (and unaffordable too). Regardless, they were the kind of boots you’d beg your Mum for.
An ambassador for Nike throughout the majority of his career, the Frenchman would regularly turn out for both Arsenal and his national side donning a pair of sleek Mercurial Vapors. Historically the boot of choice for the fastest on the field, these miracles of design made you feel like you weren’t wearing boots at all. Picking themselves off the floor, the last thing beaten defenders would see was Henry and his Vapors vanishing into the distance, on his way to another goal.
Henry debuted a gorgeous crimson set of the Vapor II’s in the Gunners’ historic 5-1 demolition of Inter Milan in November 2003. In this epic Champions League tie at San Siro, the Arsenal striker memorably left Inter legend Javier Zanetti in his wake on his way to scoring an incredible individual effort.
Henry and his Mercurial Vapors undoubtedly enjoyed their best moments together at Arsenal. Nearly all of his highlights from his time in North London feature him in those pristine boots.
Which is why the 28th of December 2005 is an especially remarkable date in the career of Arsenal’s greatest player.
On this freezing post-Christmas night at magical old Highbury, against a struggling Portsmouth side, Henry decided to ditch his customary Vapors for a pair of trusty Tiempos instead.
To the best of my knowledge, I cannot recall him ever wearing the model before. As Henry led his teammates onto the pitch, I was watching at home and immediately knew something wasn’t right. The camera panned out and there they were: A classic black and white pair of Nike Tiempos.
Famously worn by the likes of Ronaldinho, Andrea Pirlo and centre backs worldwide, Tiempos are Nike’s premier boot in their signature “touch” range, focused on control above all else. So you can imagine the surprise on my face when Henry turned up in them. This was not what I was accustomed to seeing from my favourite striker. You just don’t see lighting-quick forwards wearing Tiempos.
Henry had previously selected his Mercurial Vapors for the first few months of the 2005/06 season (to devastating effect). They looked especially pleasing when paired with the Gunners’ kit that year, a single-season tribute to the club’s kit design from 1913, Arsenal’s first year at Highbury. To this day it’s still the best Arsenal shirt in all my years following the team, and fondly remembered by kit connoisseurs and fans alike.
It was also Henry’s first year as club captain, replacing the legendary Patrick Vieira. The midfielder had been sold to Juventus in the summer, handing Henry the armband on his way out the door. It had been a difficult start to the season under Henry’s leadership, as injuries had taken their toll and Arsene Wenger’s side was transitioning out of the Invincibles era, and towards their new home at the Emirates with a younger team. Results had been disappointing in comparison to the heights of previous years, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Henry’s part. He already had 11 goals in all competitions when Portsmouth arrived at Highbury, despite missing 8 league and European games through injury.
This night though, as the game kicked off, he was slumming it in Tiempos. I mean no disrespect to fans of this immensely popular boot. If they’re good enough for Ronaldinho and Pirlo, they’re good enough for everyone. It was just completely bewildering to see Thierry Henry in such ordinary footwear. Everything else was perfectly in place and correct: his long sleeve Arsenal shirt tucked in at the waist to keep out the winter chill, his socks pulled up high over his knees, his black Nike gloves snug on over his hands (which thousands of kids like me emulated).
His boots though. They didn’t look right.
Not that it impacted Henry’s abilities on the field. Within minutes Arsenal’s talisman was establishing his authority on his opponents, leading his teammates in attack. Harry Redknapp’s poor Pompey never stood a chance.
With the Gunners already 1-0 ahead thanks to a classic Dennis Bergkamp goal, Henry chased a long forward pass from Kolo Toure. As the ball bounced high off the immaculate grass, Henry flashed out his right foot like a scorpion striking its prey, bringing the ball under his spell instantly. In one fluid motion, a neat flick with his heel brought the ball to a controlled stop, and his defender to his knees. A simple pass into the path of the oncoming Jose Antonio Reyes created an assist and a two goal lead, as the Spaniard made no mistake crashing the ball high into the roof of the Portsmouth net. Henry fist pumped in celebration before Reyes and the rest joined their skipper in front of the adoring crowd.
Roughly twenty minutes later, Mathieu Flamini collected a ball in midfield and Henry saw his opportunity. Somehow, he’d been starved of a goal for a month, but he was hungry tonight. Parallel with Flamini on the halfway line, the captain burst forward with frightening acceleration. The Pompey defenders point and shout at one another, they pray one of them can keep up with Henry but they can’t possibly, no one can. Flamini’s perfectly measured through ball found Henry and he didn’t even break stride, easily taking the ball round the beaten ‘keeper Jamie Ashdown. It’s routine from there on, but Henry’s cheeky finish ensures the bouncing ball makes it over Andy O’Brien, whose desperate lunge at the line is in vain. It’s 3-0 Arsenal and the game is over. It’s still only the first half.
Henry wasn’t finished yet. With half time minutes away, he span away from an Aliou Cisse challenge whilst receiving a pass in his half from Gilberto. Cisse launched himself at the ball to beat Henry but he was far too late, and Henry’s turn put Cisse on his arse. With Pompey’s high line in retreat and at Henry’s mercy, he saw the bursting run of Robert Pires on his right and split the defence to pick out his compatriot. Pires squared the ball to Reyes in the centre of the goal but the Spanish forward was fouled by a clumsy push from defender Andy Griffin. No hesitation from the referee: Penalty to Arsenal.
As the designated spot-kick taker, Henry places the ball on the spot. His run-up was calm but quick and Ashdown had no time to decipher anything from Henry’s approach. Ashdown takes a chance and opts to dive right, hoping Henry would shoot low towards that corner. Instead, the audacious Frenchman lifted the softest Panenka over the helpless goalkeeper to make it 4-0. Henry wheeled away towards the crowd, his hand cupped over his ear, and basked in the adulation. Victory was secured and Portsmouth’s winless run at Highbury stretched to over fifty years.
By all accounts the Tiempo experiment had been a resounding success. Henry opted to wear them again three days later away to Aston Villa on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, he blanked in a 0-0 stalemate. Three days after that, against rivals Manchester United at home, Henry couldn’t find the net once again, in another 0-0 draw. Apparently the Tiempo magic had run dry.
Two weeks later the Premier League returned with the visit of Middlesbrough to Highbury. Henry and his Tiempos amicably parted ways. The joy experienced against Portsmouth was ultimately short-lived.
Making their debut in the Tiempo’s stead were a pair of brand new Mercurial Vapor III’s, fresh off the Nike factory line. A stunning pair of white boots with a flash of gold on the heel, they caught the eye immediately. Henry utilised them to tremendous effect, ripping Boro apart on his way to a memorable hat trick, including a sumptuous volley to open the Gunner’s scoring in a 7-0 romp.
The Vapor III’s are my all-time favourite pair of boots Henry ever wore. Famously combined with Arsenal’s yellow away strip that season, I remember them vividly when Henry dominated Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, single-handedly stunning Madrid’s Galacticos, with Henry bagging the only goal in a historic victory.
He wore the Vapor III’s for the rest of the season and for France at the 2006 World Cup. The following season, Arsenal’s maiden year in their new home of Emirates Stadium, Henry made the decision to sign with Reebok, instantly becoming their frontman and primary football ambassador.
He was never the same again. Injuries plagued his final season at Arsenal, sapping the strength and speed from his legs. In those awkward Reeboks, Henry looked in severe pain the majority of the time he was on the pitch. That distinctive grace in his stride was gone. It looked like the man was running on glass.
Looking back, Henry’s career with Nike blossomed into a relationship that benefitted all involved, the player and the company, fans and consumers. His most iconic moments on the pitch invariably involved the Swoosh on his feet.
Plus, we’ll always have that frozen December night at Highbury, when Henry and his magic Tiempos tore Portsmouth apart.