From the graininess of the start came the sharp focus of today. The Premier League exists in a bubble like no other. Blown in the early 1990s, it soars ten times as high today and shows no signs of returning to Earth.
If you’re creating a ‘whole new ball game’ using demonstrably the same ball game as before, you better have two things: one is a damn good marketing team (check) and the other is a collection of the very best players to play that ball game.
So to see Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Thierry Henry sitting in the Sky Sports studio is to see three of the best sitting in a house they helped to build.
The time passes quickly. This year, it will be eleven years since Henry’s final season at Arsenal, to give it the Sky treatment. That is, it’s been over a decade since he left Arsenal for Barcelona. He returned, of course, but that doesn’t fit the hype.
17 years ago – in 2000 – things were a little different. Arsenal still played at Highbury, English football wasn’t yet pulling in the obscene money we see today, and Arsenal were fighting tooth and nail with Manchester United for domestic honours.
United were the undisputed champions, but Arsenal were strengthening their own squad. Thierry Henry had already been at the club for a season, but soon-to-be invincibles Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord, Lauren and Edu all arrived at Highbury that summer.
Although United would go on to win the title in May 2001, Arsenal were building something very special; but something that would take a little while to settle. It was easy for United that season: they won the league by ten points, but with the pressure off, Ferguson’s team lost their last three games. They could have won the league by almost double the margin that will be written down in the annals.
Yet there were glimpses of what Arsenal could achieve. They finished second in the league, they were beaten in the final of the FA Cup, and were knocked out of the Champions League on away goals by eventual runners-up Valencia.
Manchester United took top spot in the league on September 5th with a 6-0 victory over Bradford City, and they would only lose that position in the table for one game over the rest of the season. That was on October 1st after defeat to Henry’s Arsenal put Leicester City into first place.
Despite their eventual dominance in the league, the game was a tight one – exactly what you’d expect from an early-season meeting of title rivals. A stalemate broken only by what BBC Sport’s match report called ‘sheer brilliance’ from Thierry Henry.
‘Sheer brilliance’ a phrase you hear all the time in football. It’s a stock phrase, presented limply by commentators stretching into the ether for a phrase to do justice to the gravitas of a moment of footballing excellence. But Henry’s goal was brilliance. ‘Majestic’ as Andy Gray says in the commentary.
It happened in a flash and it happened so gloriously out of the blue. Gilles Grimandi played a pass to Henry’s feet, but ordinarily there would be no immediate danger. Fully 30 yards out, with Denis Irwin close enough for Henry to smell his fear and three more Manchester United defenders in close proximity, Henry made it look as if he were in a deserted field miles from humanity with only grass and stone walls in sight. Evidence of man, but with no actual men to speak of.
He flicked the ball into the air with no regard for Irwin’s presence, pivoted, and returned to the ball again with perfect timing, like a dancer rejoining his partner after an under arm turn.
But if the turn was beauty, the volley was art. Flying through the air like a three wood off a tee; it was cleanly caressed, but the ball did the work, and it sailed into the top corner over Fabien Barthez.
The Manchester United goalkeeper – Henry’s international teammate – had the best view in the ground. Watching it back, you almost expect him to raise a card with the number ten written on it. A perfect score for a perfect goal.
Going into the United game, Henry hadn’t scored in almost a month. His drought came after a blistering start of four goals in four games, but as Arsene Wenger commented after the game, “When you haven’t been scoring goals, sometimes you need to try something a little bit crazy.”
It was crazy, but it was also unnervingly natural. It just looks right. Natural. Like a lion preying on a gazelle or a hawk swooping on a mouse. Natural, but there’s a fascinating brutality in it, too.
But if there was ever a goal that perfectly summed up what the Premier League was about, that was it. Instinctive, predatory and unsettlingly quick.
Watching Henry open his body and bend the ball around the goalkeeper is as predatory a sight as you can hope to see in football. Like watching a snake unhinging its jaw, you know what’s about to come, but it is impressive every time.
Arsenal have never managed to replace Henry. The Premier League has never really been able to replace him either, and perhaps it never will. But football inhabits a different world from the one Henry started off in, and Henry was one of the people who changed the landscape.