It’s one of the debates that is thrown up every year: who is the greatest player ever to play in the Premier League?
Such discussions require hours of deliberation, lauding, stat bombing and reminiscing, but on almost all occasions, Thierry Henry comes out on top.
But before his days in the red and white of Arsenal, where he would join the pantheon of great modern players, the path he followed had set off early indications of stardom. Here was a teenager ready to take the football world by storm.
Educated in the elite French football academy of Clairefontaine – one that has produced talent we still have today with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Blaise Matuidi – this immense talent pool arguably had began teaching the best graduate in their history.
It was the keen eye of Arsene Wenger who saw the inner workings of a superstar, duly taking him on board at Monaco at the tender age of 16. These days, we see players even younger being thrust into the limelight with astronomically high, and potentially career-damaging, billing, yet Henry arrived on the south coast with a humble attitude matched by a desire to grow.
Not immediately promoted into the senior side, it wouldn’t take long for the jump up to professional to arrive – a prolific season of 42 goals in the 1993/1994 campaign tends to do that.
Fluttering between a winger and a striker in the reserves, Wenger opted to hand Henry his first deal as a professional the following season, however, utilised specifically in a wide role. This is something Wenger would do throughout his managerial career.
Seeing the potential in players, but easing them into their preferred roles by widening their skillset and understanding of other positions, he was able to nurture their talents in such a way that the parameters for development were stretched further.
“As I started my professional career on the wing, I also worked on my crossing – which helped me understand the role of the guy who passes the ball,” Henry said of his early career. “We give praise to the guy who scores and, as a result, we’re too quick to forget the guy who bust a gut to cross the ball behind the defence.”
Using Henry in a wide berth was hardly a surprise, though. As even stated by the Frenchman, his pace was his greatest asset. Thus, by fielding him on the wing, he was capable of pushing defences deep into their own halves with his blinding speed, while his technical ability and close control could make him an effective weapon when placed in the right hands.
It took just two weeks after joining the professional group at Monaco for Henry to make his debut, playing alongside the likes of Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff in August 1994 – a 2-0 defeat to Nice.
Over the course of the season he would drift in and out of the reserve set up under new boss Jean-Luc Ettori, but still took to the field with the first team on eight occasions. The indicators were flashing periodically during the 1994/95 season that Monaco, just maybe, were seeing the signs of stardom, but any doubts the unconvinced onlookers still harboured were put to bed on 29 April, 1995.
With Monaco dominating proceedings against Lens, Henry was brought on and presented with the opportunity to lay down a marker. A few minutes later, and he’d cemented it to the floor.
In a rapid breakaway with his fellow forwards, Henry held his run to avoid an unnecessary offside. Being forced to do so prevented him from latching onto a through ball while in his stride, but even from a standstill position, he raced towards the forward pass, pinching the ball just in front of Guillaume Warmuz’s despairing dive. The pace was devastating.
With the ball near enough on the byline, he cut back inside and bent a curling effort into the far top corner, despite the best efforts of both Lens defenders on the line. A glorious finish to cap off an exquisite moment of individual magic, and the first of many to come. He would score again that match, but his first grabbed the headlines.
It was a turning point in Henry’s career, and one that alerted the rest of the unaware ensemble that he was a player not be messed with. That would ultimately draw the curtain on Henry’s first professional season – he would score again before the end of the season – with those eight matches all that made up his debut professional season.
But what was clear in his ability was that all the necessary ingredients needed to concoct footballing magnificence existed in this French teenager. The pace, skill, attitude and desire were all prevalent, and it was just a case of sculpting them in a way that balanced with Henry’s mentality and the raw talent he possessed.
He would make 18 league appearances the following season before doubling that tally the year after, claiming the French Young Player of the Year Award for the 1996/97 season.
As Henry said, he wasn’t ‘born with a gift for goals’.
Instead, one must say, he was simply born with a gift to play football. His burgeoning brilliance knew no bounds, and we were all just lucky to bear witness to his genius.