Thierry Henry likely to be as distinctive a pundit as he was a player

Sky Sports is proud of its new, multimillion pound signing, but the former star striker must prove himself all over again

Just over a decade since he carved a dreamlike swathe through defences as the focal point of Arsenal's "invincibles", Thierry Henry will this weekend be thrust back on to centre stage for football fans.

Already staring down insouciantly from billboards across the UK as the focal point of a Sky Sports campaign to mark his debut for the broadcaster, one of the best players of the modern era must prove himself all over again.

Whereas television was once considered a low-key alternative to the golf course or a country pub for retired players, they are now outriders in a multi-billion-pound marketing battle between media and broadband giants using Premier League football as a weapon.

Even as Henry, on a rumoured £4 million-a-year contract, makes his onscreen debut, his new bosses are calibrating their strategies for an ongoing £4 billion auction of Premier League broadcasting rights that will pitch BSkyB in a head-to-head battle with BT.


When Henry announced his retirement as a player last month, Sky Sports News ran a simultaneous day-long advertorial for its latest signing. He is not just a pundit, but meant to embody the brand Sky is trying to sell.

Touch of glamour

He also brings a touch of glamour to the lineup: when he attended an NBA game at the O2 in London on Thursday, the camera spent as much time focusing on Henry and Didier Drogba as it did on the court.

For Gary Hughes, the Sky Sports head of football who met Henry in New York last year to explore a possible move into broadcasting, the signing is a coup. "Punditry has changed, we've taken people who are fresh out of the game. They brought a different approach. Talent is a big differentiator for us. It gives us an identity.

“Thierry has been there, done it and won it. He has won it all. He is determined to prove he can bring what he did on the football pitch to the studio.”

But whether he is as distinctive on screen as he was on the pitch – where his balletic grace, smooth acceleration and dead-eyed finishing saw him mint an entirely new style of forward play – remains to be seen. The suave, guarded 37-year-old will always be most closely associated with Arsenal, where he is the all-time leading goalscorer with 228 goals in 377 games. The highlights reel is long, from his arrival in 1999 as an eager-to-please converted winger to the all-conquering club legend honoured by the statue that now stands outside the Emirates.

Here was a fashionable, metrosexual Frenchman who embraced London and English football, whose marriage of speed and style represented a hi-octane, fluid blend that could be bottled and sold around the world for huge sums.

With teammates like Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, he epitomised the globalised, gentrified, glamorous appeal of the Premier League era.

He lived in Hampstead and married an English model, Claire Merry, who co-starred with him in those Renault "va-va voom" ads that also seemed so much of their time. The pair, who have a daughter, divorced after five years of marriage in 2008.

Now, after eventually leaving Arsenal in 2007 for Barcelona and then moving on to New York Red Bulls in 2010, he is back permanently in the city he called home to try to establish a new career.

"He is a really sensitive guy. Thierry needed love. He got the love at Arsenal and I think that is why he was that good," said his former captain Patrick Vieira in Invincible, Amy Lawrence's gripping account of Arsenal's undefeated title winning season in 2003/4. "He knew how important he was for us, and that's why he performed."

Security blanket

That sensitivity could manifest itself in a security blanket often interpreted as arrogance. He was given to telephoning journalists whose opinions on his game he disliked and taking issue. Yet he remained unfailingly polite while doing so.

"He can be very distant," says Philippe Auclair, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Henry. "A lot of it comes from the drive instilled in him by his dad when he was five or six years old. It's always been more than a game for him. Football was also the means to be the best and to succeed."

According to Hughes, he will be the same as a broadcaster. “He’s quite an intense guy. He takes himself very seriously. He’ll want to be the best. We want someone who will study the game and see things we don’t.”

Henry is a lifelong student of the game and, rather like his mentor Wenger, spends his spare time watching and analysing football, endlessly pausing and restarting the action. “No footballer loves football more deeply than he does,” says Auclair.

David Dein, the former Arsenal chairman who signed him and with whom he forged a close bond, adds: "Of all the squad he was probably the most analytical. He would literally dissect the match in the dressing room after the game. It is that insight that will make him a huge success on television."

Gary Neville is widely seen as having redefined the art of punditry (as much as three men in shiny shirts discussing football can be called an art), bringing cogent insight to an audience increasingly craving in-depth tactical analysis.

The former Manchester United full-back famously had a huge Sky touchscreen installed at home ahead of his debut. Henry displays similar dedication but it remains to be seen whether he can develop the same knack for translating the action.

The intense love affair between Wenger’s Arsenal, Henry and his adoring fans had frayed a little at the edges by the time he left for Barcelona in 2007 in the wake of Dein’s departure following a boardroom battle.

But it was gloriously reaffirmed in an emotional, nostalgic two-month stint back on loan in 2012 that yielded his 227th and 228th goals for the club. The first of those, a classic Henry finish at home to Leeds United in the FA Cup, provoked an outpouring of almost religious devotion.

Rounded figure

He returned a perhaps more rounded figure, the sharp edges knocked off by a chastening spell in a Barcelona dressing-room packed with huge names and big egos, and an enjoyable stint in New York. His retirement brought his achievements into sharper focus.

Dein says: "He was undoubtedly one of the greatest players of the modern era. I was at the Ballon d'Or on Monday and Thierry received the largest cheer of the evening prior to presenting the award to Cristiano Ronaldo. That shows the respect and esteem in which he is held.

“He was a consummate professional and an extraordinary talent. Whenever he had the ball there was an air of expectancy around the ground. He’s an highly intelligent man – within months of arriving at Arsenal he was speaking perfect English.”

If Henry’s relationship with English fans was largely one of mutual admiration, his accord with the French footballing public was marked by a curious antipathy, despite a record 51 goals in 123 games for Les Bleus.

He won winners and runners-up medals on the biggest World Cup stage of all, as well as Euro 2000, yet never inspired the devotion of Zinedine Zidane or Michel Platini.

"In England they've built a statue of Thierry," said the former Arsenal and France midfielder Emmanuel Petit, shortly after its unveiling. "He is revered there. In France Thierry is not hated but he's certainly not loved."

The end of his international career was also sullied by the “hand of Gaul” incident that denied the Republic of Ireland qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Large swathes of Ireland will never forgive him.

He felt badly let down by the French Football Federation in the global furore that followed, believing that he had been hung out to dry despite immediately apologising for handling the ball on the byline before he crossed for William Gallas to score.

The meltdown that followed at the World Cup in South Africa, where senior players fomented a rebellion against their manager Raymond Domenech as the team crashed out in the group stages, also left a sour taste.

Wenger recently said Henry deserved a more fitting send-off from the French public when the national side play their next friendly: “We cannot just end it like this. He deserves a proper tribute. It is very important.”

But Henry already has his eyes on his next challenge. It is one he will relish, but which might come rather less naturally than scoring and making goals.

Guardian Service