Oh, Thierry. It wasn't meant to be this way. How did we get here? What happened? And is there a rewind button? Eight months into that giddily well-remunerated Sky Sports contract it is probably time, with all due fond expressions of respect and regret, to ask the obvious question. How has Thierry Henry, despite his obvious natural advantages of wit, charm, intelligence and supreme sporting pedigree, managed to transform himself into such a terribly unpopular – and indeed terrible – TV pundit?
A little early hostility was likely. The natural state of the football fan has always been a kind of bile-laden one-upmanship. In the digital era, this has been aggressively hot-housed. There are endless, ever-multiplying opportunities to be unhappy about football. Or – and this is the real growth area – to be unhappy about watching other people watch football, with punditry the high-spec modern day equivalent of being set in the village stocks.
The rules of football's interaction with social media are clear on this. There must be a chief whipping boy, a pundit for whom every appearance is a muster point for massed, mocking incredulity. Adrian Chiles got it for a while. The very decent Niall Quinn who, during his TV appearances, looks increasingly like a corrupt policeman falsifying evidence in front of a local authority subcommittee, gets more than his share of heckling. But otherwise – and against all expectations – the main target seems to be urbane, witty, charismatic, bafflingly dull Thierry.
This was clear again this week when a large part of the postmortem of Real Madrid’s 1-0 defeat of Atlético was bound up in wider outrage at some slightly weird comments Henry made on Sky Sports about Javier Hernández’s overly joyful celebrations after scoring the winning goal.
There are several interesting questions here. Firstly, is Henry really all that bad? And secondly, why does this seem to matter so much to so many people? Certainly it shouldn’t come as a shock. There is already plenty of bad punditry about, sometimes from jobbing newspaper journalists (written from shame-faced personal experience), and more often from retired footballers who in a previous life might simply have moved into being bad pub landlords or bad insurance salesmen, but who now have the opportunity to become bad journalists or bad broadcasters.
Not that you can blame them. Professional football is an extreme existence, all visceral highs and lows. No doubt by comparison most everyday activities seem a little hollow. As Harry Angstrom, John Updike's basketball star turned car salesman, says in Rabbit Run: "Once you've been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate."
On the other hand, an ex-professional sportsman with brains and a hunger for the job is usually an unbeatable combination. Stan Collymore may infuriate some but he is a genuinely passionate broadcaster, brilliantly well-researched and with a deep, soulful, almost claustrophobic sense of manly connection to his sport.
Whereas the best thing you can say about Henry on Sky Sports is that he looks like he smells nice. Often he has been banal or noncommittal. At his worst he has seemed to be present against his will, like a man shaken from his sleep, forced into a tight shiny outfit, taken to an underground studio and compelled, for reasons that remain unclear, to talk in a low, monotonous voice about taking chances or the importance of top players.
This is all unexpected. Henry was one of the punditry stars of the last World Cup, although the requirements are a little different on the BBC, its choppier style giving only a brief, cartoonish snapshot of each talking head. My own favourites in this format are Danny Murphy, whose wise words are given depth by a slightly unnerving air, the look of a man who might suddenly announce that he spent three days walking to the studio from Anglesey and would anyone like to buy a bag of meat. And Martin Keown, who looks sad and brave, like a man giving an urgent, heartfelt funeral oration for a much-loved family gerbil.
Sky's new headline act was meant to be so much more than this. In part because the level of expectation has been ramped up, with punditry increasingly a distinct form of entertainment its own right. This has been driven in part by those gripping late-night jam sessions, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher at their plinths talking bare-knuckle football, with Carragher's wincing, oddly pained silences, as though struggling always with some great unsayable truth, an excellent counterpoint to Neville's hamsterish zeal.
In the middle of this, Henry seems oddly remote. The most common explanation is that he is struggling with the need to commit, unable to speak freely about players he knows well. Alan Shearer said something similar happened to him at the start of his Match of the Day career. Unsure if he wanted to go back into football, he was afraid of alienating potential colleagues. Like Harry Redknapp being nice on the BBC, all awkward sickly piety, he couldn't speak freely, half in and half out, neither one of them nor one of us.
And in a way, perhaps this is why punditry seems so important these days. Football can feel distant, a glazed and airless private city state. Neville has been a vital presence for Sky. His lucidity, his obvious delight in detail is so raw and unforced it can feel like an antidote to the plasticity, offering a sense of patten and structure the product itself often scarcely deserves.
If Neville talks like one of us, Henry is still clearly one of them. So much so you half expect to tune in and find him speaking with one hand held firmly over his mouth, FBI stakeout-style, as the more princely players do these days when they stroll from the pitch. Although happily for Henry, the issue is surely one of attitude rather than ability. It isn’t hard to see what he needs to do. Loosen up. Engage. Tear down the velvet rope. Thrust a hand through the barricades. Come over to our side.