Arseinho’s Note: For sometime in the early to mid noughties a Thierry Henry goal for Arsenal was as much a certainty as death, taxes and never ending sequels of Final Destination films: they were relentless and just kept on coming. But the Frenchman’s burning desire to add to his trophy haul saw him trade life in London for life in Barcelona, a move that was vindicated with successes in La Liga as well as the Champions League.
Philippe Auclair, a journalist who covers English football for various media houses around Europe, has known Thierry Henry from Henry’s time at Monaco and Arsene Wenger from his time at Monaco and Japan – making him one of the few who knew Wenger when the ‘Arsene Who?’ headline was being typed. Given this unique position, it was only a matter of time before he took up the challenge of writing about one of the two. One of his earlier works, ‘Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King’ received widespread acclaim and he set out to write about another French footballer who took English football by storm. Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top is not only about the inherent footballing genius of Henry, but also about the other side of Thierry- a not so flattering image.
BigFourZa, in a telephonic interview (a malfunctioning software put paid to any of us hearing Ducky’s mellifluous voice), caught up with Auclair to talk about the book: his book, what made Thierry into Henry, the influence that Japan had on Wenger and Henry’s handball against the Republic of Ireland. We enjoyed the freewheeling chat so much (don’t know about Philippe though!) that we decided it was worth spreading over two posts. So here we go with Part I…
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BFZ: Let’s begin, as they say, at the beginning. Can you give us a brief history of how you decided to end up as a writer when you had actually started your professional career as a musician?
PA: I initially moved to London because I had received a recording deal with a studio. Once here, I fell in love with London and decided to stay. I was working on my music quite a bit, but I realised I also couldn’t be too far from my other love: sport. So I started writing a little bit with BBC, and the music started to reduce. While I still used to follow a lot of music – mostly Classical – as the (writing) assignments started coming in, it became a vocation really. With satellite television coming in, I covered the Copa America for TV Sport from London. Finally I started covering the Premier League as a correspondent for France Football from 1999.
BFZ: But music is the first love?
PA: Absolutely. No doubt about it. If you gave me the choice to sit in a music studio or in my publishing office, I would gladly choose the music studio any day. The writing is really only a profession, you know.
BFZ: It also seems like your music has been a massive hit in Japan – a place which also captivated a certain other Frenchman Arsene Wenger…
PA: Ah yes, good catch. Japan was a great experience… for me and Arsene as well. Japan had a great influence on Arsene’s work, which is something a lot of people do not realise. Arsene constantly speaks about how much people respect ‘work’ there, about their professionalism. His time in Japan influenced him hugely, as it influenced me as well. It had a huge role to play in defining Arsene as the man he became, and that’s not widely known. If I ever wrote a biography on Wenger, then Japan would be a pivotal part of it. It would almost be the central section of the whole book – that is how much he changed as a man and a manager during his time in Japan.
BFZ: So are you planning a biography on Wenger?
PA:Oh no, not for the moment. Just the sheer workload of it would be almost overwhelming. I wouldn’t know where to start and how much detail to cover. It will be a really monumental effort, so not right now! (<groan of disappointment from BFZ>
BFZ: Japan is something a lot of people don’t consider when thinking about Arsene. Which leads us to our next topic, and that (in)famous headline when Arsene moved to England, ‘Arsene Who?’- was it ‘Arsene Who?’ for you as well?
PA: Well, no one knew him in England, but everyone knew him in France. What he did at Monaco was absolutely phenomenal. It was quite clear he could’ve won a lot more at Monaco, if it wasn’t for all the problems in French football at the time. He got into a few disagreements at Monaco with Bernard Tapie and so his stint there ended up being much shorter than it could have. But otherwise, many people knew that he could’ve definitely won a couple more domestic league titles with Monaco. And that would have been amazing, because Monaco really took a punt with him, no one really knew him at that point. And that punt could’ve paid off for a lot longer too, if he had stayed. So yes, Arsene was quite well known in France, but he definitely was not with the English-speaking community.
BFZ: And so moving on from Arsene Wenger, what made you write about Thierry Henry – one of Wenger’s best ever transfers?
PA: The primary motivation was that for a player who has been such a huge influence on the game, across England and France, there has not really been a complete biography ever written. I mean, for whole seasons in the early 2000s, he represented almost everything Arsenal, and yet there’s never been a complete account of his life as a footballer except for statistical collections and such things. Of course, it’s not easy to make that decision and just start writing. I have known him since he was really young, almost 15-16, and have grown very close to him since. In such a situation, there is so much information and stories around him that you can write about, but you also have to select only a few so that it does not become too much information. I mean, what exactly do you write about this shy, introverted person who is also such a popular and sometimes controversial personality? That was the challenge that I wanted to take up, and that’s how this came about.
BFZ: Early on, you accepted that Henry had this other side to his personality – not necessarily a flattering image. Did you find it tough to then compose a piece that would fit into one proper style (your voice freely interchanged between a eulogy, a euphemistic eulogy and an elegy )?
PA: Ah yes, Elegy is a great word. So many sportspeoples’ lives can be described as elegiacal. I think everyone would agree, especially Arsenal fans, that the book is not a full-blown, glowing tribute that mentions only the high points of his life, and his career. There are quite a few places where I have painted him in a less flattering light, and that’s just how it should be. If it was difficult for the readers to read, trust me it was a lot more difficult for me to write, especially since I’ve known him from such a young age. But I tried to be balanced, and when you’re doing that as a writer, sometimes you have to be ready to write the difficult parts as well.
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Watch out for Part II tomorrow, where we discuss the three personas of Henry, why French Football never completely embraced him, and THAT handball.