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    Thierry Henry, CF Montréal and a pandemic’s long shadow | Charles Boehm

    This game of ours is teeming with “what ifs” – enough unanswered questions to submerge us all in contemplation and conjecture for a lifetime or two, wondering what might have been and what might yet still be.

    And so it is with Thierry Henry’s brief tenure at CF Montreal.

    Last winter one of soccer’s all-time luminaries returned to these shores, aiming to kick-start his coaching career a decade after he arrived here to grace MLS with his superlative skills as a player. His hands-on work with a team in transition gave us plenty to chew on, but in the end the biggest challenge of 2020 proved an insurmountable obstacle for the human being behind the manager.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has stolen so many lives – more than half a million in the United States, upwards of 21,000 and counting in Canada – and it has inflicted further damage with its long tail, still haunting us even after the worst appears to be behind us as vaccines are administered around the world.

    The scale and speed of our long-hoped-for return to some kind of normalcy remains an open question, though we do know it will be months before MLS stadiums can be filled again. The same can be said for the full reopening of the US-Canadian border that’s been largely closed for nearly a year, a costly but unavoidable consequence of the health crisis and one that has wreaked enormous adversity on MLS’s three Canadian clubs.

    The players and staff of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver spent long months away from their families and communities as they took up temporary US residency last season, and, according to Thursday’s announcement of Henry’s departure, anticipate having to do much the same again for at least part of 2021. That painful separation was multiplied for Henry, whose children Téa and Tristan are based in London, and despite his best efforts to steel himself for another extended stretch apart from them, it seems that pull on the heartstrings has grown too much to bear.

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    “Very few people can appreciate how difficult last year was for this club and Canadian clubs in general,” CFM president and CEO Kevin Gilmore told reporters on Thursday. 

    “When we hired Thierry, no one anticipated we would be going through a pandemic of this magnitude, and that it would disrupt our lives and our operations and this club to the extent it did.”

    Waving off rumors and reports of other clubs’ interest in their man as mere conjecture, Gilmore and sporting director Olivier Renard emphasized the human element of this development, even though it puts them in a tough spot on the eve of preseason.

    “There is no deadline or timeframe for personal decisions,” said Gilmore. “They can come at any time.”

    Henry’s stint with the club will have to go down as an incomplete story, short on transcendent moments but marked with quiet growth and the painstaking pace of methodical individual and collective improvement. The same can be said of his own journey in his second soccer career.

    The French legend faces the same conundrum as Michael Jordan and other all-time greats who discover that doing and teaching are two vastly different approaches to the game they bossed. Last year his barely-contained emotions on the sidelines became destination viewing in and of itself, and a viral video clip from one match in which he donned a microphone that captured his passionate exhortations to his players spoke volumes about that challenge.

    While Montreal’s record and statistics under his leadership were modest compared to the league’s best, simply reaching the postseason under the circumstances they dealt with was an achievement of note. His silent, powerful tribute to George Floyd will not soon be forgotten. Whether the great TH14 is primed for the same level of greatness as a coach that he reached as a striker, we can’t yet answer.

    His colleagues see reason to believe that he’s put the squad on a positive trajectory for the future, though, and for now, that will have to be enough.

    “The vision that I had with Thierry was very positive, and the results that we made, OK, we can make it better and better, we know that, and we make also many transfers the last few months,” said Renard. “Thierry liked to work with young guys, young players; he made a great job about the football side, but also about the personality and the vision that they had.”

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