It was bound to end in tears somewhere along the line. Football rarely allows a heroes homecoming and certainly not twice.
Thierry Henry stayed when he could have left, left when he could have stayed and then came back to score the winner on his return. That night, when the Leeds United net bulged, was one of the Emirates most joyous moments.
And taking his coaching badges, becoming integrated into the coaching set-up at the club, it seemed another return was on the cards. The first hint that things were awry came when Tony Adams was recently approached to coach the Under-18s. Why call on another former player when one was in situ?
It seems that Arsène knew then that there was trouble brewing. Henry has a comfortable seat on the pundits sofa and isn’t prepared to give up his Sky duties. Wenger wanted more commitment from his compatriot but wasn’t going to get it: his salary from Sky is £4.5m per year. That makes for a very comfortable seat.
At this point, it’s worth noting that Wenger isn’t immune from criticism here. You don’t have to look hard to find criticism of the manager over his summer punditry roles, especially after last summer.
The specious argument that Sanchez wouldn’t have been signed had Wenger not been in Brazil should be ignored. The Arsenal manager should be at World Cups, European Championships and Copa Americas, scouting for himself and holding talks. He can’t do that at African Cup of Nations, before you ask, as it clashes with the Premier League season.
Henry, whose offer to coach the youngsters for free has reportedly been rejected by Wenger, isn’t prepared to give that up and for the moment, has seemingly opted to put his coaching career on hold. It ends, for now, the Dream Team that never was, of Henry taking the reigns under Wenger’s tutelage, a recipe for disaster for both in my view.
There’s more to it than simply money. Henry was particularly critical of Olivier Giroud last season, proclaiming that Arsenal would never win the league with him leading the line. He’s been proven right so far but it is unfair to lay all the blame for that failure at Giroud’s door. Henry wasn’t without fault in big matches himself, with the Champions League final in Paris a particularly painful example of that.
However, as much as Giroud’s inconsistency hurts, the fault for not having a Plan B rests with Arsène. He’s tried with Danny Welbeck but been foiled by injury. We won’t see for some time yet whether Welbeck has it in him to be a central striker and need another centre forward desperately. With a dearth of strikers and a financially conservative manager, that’s a recipe for not much happening at all.
Crucially, not many supporters disagree with Henry’s point. Wenger may claim otherwise but in this instance, the club’s leading goalscorer is spot on.
And therein is the problem. Wenger is extremely loyal to his staff and squad but they have to toe the line. Only the indispensable players can get away with voicing an honest opinion; everyone else keeps schtum. The pundit’s sofa doesn’t hold with club loyalty, it craves controversy; bland is not acceptable.
The BBC job this summer saw Henry mix his criticism with praise but Sky for all their technology and broadcasting improvements, is tabloid television. Their subscription model demands headlines. Not the buffoonery of Robbie Savage but a considered and cutting criticism which will find its way to the back pages and be remembered in the stands and electronic fandom.
There’s criticism of Wenger over a number of things surrounding coaching and some of it appears to hold sway. Others such as Mikel Arteta going to Manchester City misses the target. The Spaniard recently admitted that he had long made his mind up to work with Pep Guardiola and nothing was going to change it. That’s his admiration for the man as a player shining through and Guardiola’s reputation for success.
In all honesty, I’d jump at the chance to work with him in Arteta’s position; he knows Wenger’s thinking already – Guardiola will broaden his footballing horizons.
However, the perception that Wenger won’t accept any challenge to his ideas is hard to shake off. Frank discussions must take place, exchange views but ultimately, the manager will surround himself with a majority of his staff who share or at the very least, buy in, to his philosophy. A dissenting voice is needed, if only to raise questions in the manager’s mind, but Henry isn’t doing that from the pundit’s sofa: it’s criticism of performances.
The problem with that is two-fold. Firstly, as we saw last spring, it can have a detrimental impact on the player because it is easily portrayed as an ‘official’ view of him, unsettling as much as inspiring the downcast and out-of-sorts. And it gives the media an easy target for images of dissent, a split camp. It can quite easily be a distraction.
And whilst we are looking at this, it’s easy to blame Wenger. However, questions should be asked of Henry and his commitment to coaching. There aren’t, as far as I can immediately recall, any other full-time coaches sitting in television studios, commenting on their own clubs. Not many comment on other clubs beyond occasionally.
Henry was fast-tracked into his UEFA licences by the FA of Wales, and attracted criticism for taking that route. He does have to make a choice: is he going to coach or does he want a broadcasting career? Both are precarious with longevity in either rare.
However, football is a forgiving environment for coaches and managers once they have been punished for failure but cross to the sofa and getting back into the game is difficult. Football has a long memory when it comes to slights and criticism, something Henry would do well to remember.
In the end, the question remains whether it is that big a deal for the club to lose the player. I’d love him to coach the forwards at the very least, similar to the way Martin Keown helped the defence in 2005/06. But Wenger doesn’t want that, which is his choice.
The story though captures the club perfectly: serene on top, fractious beneath the surface. The summer has well and truly begun.