From Tottenham’s all-time record goalscorer to Arsenal’s all-time record goalscorer: Congratulations and well done, you lucky, lucky b*****d! And that is a message of genuine goodwill from me. Even with Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes both making sensational comebacks during the past couple of weeks, I think it’d be a bit far-fetched for me to get my old shooting boots out of the attic, at the age of 71. But I was full of envy when I watched Henry score the only goal of the match on his fairytale comeback against Leeds.
I quit professional football at the age of 31, a year after Spurs let me go to West Ham. Yet, in truth, all I really needed was a sabbatical – a year out of the game or perhaps even just six months. They always say that the timing of your own retirement is the most difficult decision any professional sportsman will ever make, and I’ll admit that I got my timing completely wrong. I don’t really even remember deciding I wanted to be a professional footballer. I just sort of became one. Then at 31, I suddenly decided I didn’t want to be one any longer.
I wouldn’t be surprised if more managers didn’t look at the impact of an Henry or a Scholes and try to tempt a few more retired players back into the big time. Henry hadn’t retired, of course, but by quitting Barcelona to go and play in Major League Soccer 18 months ago, the Frenchman certainly went into semi-retirement, moving away from the intense pressure of international and European club football for a far gentler life. And yet, after a while out of the spotlight, Henry clearly could not resist the opportunity to come back on to centre stage.
Within a year of my own retirement, I was desperate to go back again – but it would not have been straightforward then, in the days before freedom of contract. How I’d have loved the opportunity to do what Henry has done and return to one of my old stomping grounds at Spurs or Chelsea. I now know that I wasted three or four years of prime playing time and I regret it. I started drinking too much when I retired and although I wouldn’t solely blame the end of my playing career for that, the adjustments needed to cope with retirement can be a tough time mentally for any sportsman or sportswoman.
Making a top-flight comeback might only have delayed my problems by a few years, I couldn’t honestly say, but I sure as hell would have benefited from the sort of opportunity Henry and Scholes have been handed. As it happened, it was not for another four years that I started playing football again – in the non-league with Brentwood, then at Chelmsford City and Barnet. Crazy at it seems, I played some of my best football as a midfielder at Barnet in my late 30s.
I never did get the chance to add to my 266 Tottenham goals, though. 34-year-old Henry has moved on 227 for Arsenal, I see. He’s still got a long way to go before he catches my Spurs goal tally but you wouldn’t bet against him returning to the Emirates again after this brief loan spell. And I’m sure Henry realises, now more than ever, that you really are a long time retired.