F365 Talks Thierry With Philippe Auclair

Philippe Auclair has written a book about Thierry Henry. We talked to him about the man himself, Arsene Wenger, the 'very, very tedious' narrative of football and...

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You've written a biography of Thierry Henry - tell us about the book and why you chose to write it.
Simply speaking, because there were none. There was one account of his career published when he was still at Arsenal but that was three seasons before he left. That absence of any other books is surprising in a player of his magnitude - there is no biography or autobiography. It seemed an obvious choice for me because I saw him arrive at Arsenal in 1999 and saw almost every single one of his games. He is a player I followed very, very closely.

One thing that struck me is that his standing and image was different in England than in France, and that's also the case with Eric Cantona - the subject of my other book. Those two players are truly greats of the Premier League era but they are seen in a very different way in their country of origin. It gave me a chance to ask myself many questions beyond Thierry Henry about the French national team. This gave me a way to address those questions. Thierry has experienced the highs of 1998 and 2000 to the rabble of 2010. To talk and write about him is to talk and write about French football. It seemed logical to write about Thierry, I was drawn to him as a subject. I am an Arsenal follower and have been for a very long time.

Does that make it a labour of love?
Not a labour of love, no...though there was a great deal of labour involved. Many people who have read the book have said that I'm quite ambivalent towards Thierry. I found it emotionally draining and physically tiring. You have to be a burglar to be a biographer. Even though you strive to make a fair and honest assessment rather than a judgement, you are still a burglar leaving without taking the cutlery.

There were some advantages - I could watch all of his games again and re-live some of his greatest moments. But a labour of love would have been something completely different and would have little value. This is not a pure celebration. If you want that, put on a DVD of the Invincibles and bask in the memories of someone who can do magnificent things with a football.

Does it surprise you that he hasn't written an autobiography?
I think he sees his career as still ongoing. People think of him as being retired from football but he is still playing in New York. It might have been a life choice to go there but it was also a sports choice. Thierry could have played at the top level for longer than he did but he saw his future in the MLS. Perhaps he will write his story when he finally hangs up his boots.

You've written about Cantona and now Thierry Henry - who was/is the more interesting character? Henry comes across as more likeable, but Cantona more complex. Having written about them, is that accurate?
It's difficult to make an assessment in a couple of sentences. Cantona is not necessarily more complex - he's just surrounded by anecdotes and incidents that can be seductive for a writer. His life is just so colourful and extraordinary that you find yourself courting a collection of stories. Everywhere he's been there are stories - some funny and some less so.

Henry's trajectory is different as it's very smooth. There has been some controversy - the Ireland handball and the 2002 sending-off - but it has mostly been smooth. They are not all the same kind of character and the anecdotes which nourish Cantona cannot be found in a biography of Thierry Henry. He is not as extrovert or violent (and I mean that in a verbal way) as Cantona. One has achieved a lot and the other an awful lot more but Cantona is a figure that haunts fotball in a more powerful fashion. With him you get all the drama that you won't find in Henry's character. It doesn't mean that he's not as interesting, just that it's not as obvious. He wants to protect his privacy and is far more cautious than Cantona.

What was the primary reason for Henry's poor spell at Juventus?
What went wrong? Well, so much went wrong. You have to see his move to Juventus in the light of his controversial and damaging flirtation with Real Madrid. It could have thrown his career off course. It had come to a point when he'd become far too big for Monaco. He was a type of player I'm not sure we had ever seen in France before, where goalscorers are a rarity. He had a lot of qualities not associated with French football, including a drive and passion for the game. He was also by now a world champion so he had shown he had nerves as well. Everyone was circling around and it was difficult for Monaco to keep him.

So why did he choose Juventus? Partly because it indicated in a way to everyone around him that he was his own man, of course, but then you have to remember that this was Juventus. They had Zinedine Zidane and they are the biggest Italian club, whatever Milan say. He was still a very, very young man - just 21 - and he was educated and ambitious. Italy seemed from the outside like a natural destination as it was always seen as the obvious move for French players - most of that 1998 side would play or had played in Italy.

But what happened in Turin was very different from what he had in mind - it was a very, very difficult six months. It was not an abject failure because he wasn't given the opportunity to fail. He was deployed on the wing and sometimes even as a wing-back, that involved an awful lot of defensive work that did not come naturally. It wasn't that he lost his football, it's just that nobody tried to find him. Carlo Ancelotti did not understand or try to understand how to make things work.

Jumping forward...if he had the choice again, do you think he would have stayed at Arsenal?
That is a very good question to which I can't provide the answer. What is sure is that he set himself objectives - to play for Arsenal, Barcelona and to go to America. This was decided very, very early on. The Arsenal connection pre-dates his move by a couple of seasons. He had been drawn there since speaking to Patrick Vieira and becoming intrigued. It was always going to be Arsenal and then Cruyff's club Barcelona - he had a thing about Dutch football. He wanted to write his career in a particular wall and there would always be a chapter with the heading 'Barcelona'.

His time at Barcelona was full of contrasts. In the first year adaptation was difficult, in his second year he won everything and in his third year, he was frozen out. If you look at it objecively, it looks like a great success as he won two La Ligas and a Champions League. For somebody like Thierry, that was very important as the Champions League was missing from his list of trophies. That's something you can measure. You can look at his list of honours and you cannot believe he has won all that.

Do you think Arsene Wenger should move on/move 'upstairs'? Has he taken Arsenal as far as he can now? Or are you in the patient gang?
I am very much of the very patient kind. You would have to be a fool to deny that there are problems at the club, but I stress the word 'club' rather than the 'team'. If you focus on a poor result or a poor performance, you lose sight of what is happening at the club. There are problems that can he traced back to the exit of David Dein and then the strange stand-off between Kroenke and Usmanov. This makes me worry about the club, rather than the team.

Why worry about Olivier Giroud when you should be worrying about the board? The fuss about Giroud is just insane. He has just arrived! He's not been disastrous - he has created chances, his running off the ball has improved, he is just finding his feet in English football. He missed a chance on the opening day against Sunderland and you would think nobody had every missed the target before. I remember Thierry doing it on several occasions. It's ridiculous to pass judgement on a player who's just arrived. You can't help but think his biggest crime is not being Robin van Persie.

Arsenal have had a couple of bad results that would indicate that something is not quite right on the pitch, but what happened at the AGM two weeks ago is serious. They have an absent owner whose long-term plans are not clear. Will he try and sell the club? Probably, but who knows? This leaves the club in stasis, but is there anybody more qualified to manage a club in stasis? I can understand why people would be frustrated with this and that when Arsenal have a bad patch, but it has to be judged against the decision to go down the road of self-sufficiency. In those circumstances, you have to judge success in terms of consistency of results in England and Europe. Arsenal are considered one of the top European clubs and there are clubs across the continent looking across and saying 'what's all the fuss about?'

Are Man City the antithesis of that model?
Antithesis is much too strong a word. There is a misunderstanding about what Man City are trying to do - they are not just throwing money at their team. Well, they are spending money but it's not random. This is a very long-term project centred around training facilities to make this club self-sufficient in the future. whether you like it or not, or you think it's unfair or not, this is not whimsical. Whether that's a good thing for football is a completely different matter.

The French league has been pretty competitive in recent seasons, with five different winners in five seasons. Presumably this will end soon, but is there any sense that anyone can keep up with PSG?
No. It's a very simple question and a very simple answer. People compare PSG with Man City but I wouldn't put them in the same basket. City play in a league that's financially thriving so their attractiveness to investors is obvious. The French league is different - attendances are down, TV rights are down. Their investors are literally buying a league in which there is no competition. It's very sad. You only have to look at the football Rich List to see the number of English clubs in there, while the only way French clubs can compete is through outside investment. It'd difficult to see who could stop PSG now. The biggest in terms of fanbase is Marseille, but that's a complete basket case of a club. They are unmanageable and unsellable. Somebody would have to wipe the slate completely clean.

Is there anything the Premier League can learn from Ligue 1?
Nothing that springs to mind. There are a few things they could learn from Bundesliga but not Ligue 1. French people have always taken pride in Ligue 1 because it's self-regulated, financially speaking. But then we see PSG come in and you realise those rules do not stop a club being run at a massive loss as long as the investors are providing the money. There's also a cosy relationship between political power and football clubs in France with most stadia subsidised by public money.

As an 'outsider', do English attitudes and obsessions with certain things baffle you?
The obsession itself is boring me to bits. The focus on single issues and points has always been there but it's becoming more and more acute this season. It's all very, very tedious indeed. In a way, it makes people more aware of football when it's on the front page and the back page but it's becoming very, very tedious. Every single day there is something new. Of course if you're a journalist and a bomb explodes in your pace, you can't ignore it, but football is becoming an echo chamber with everybody screaming. If that sounds like hell, it's because it is.

Everthing is about narratives and if there's no controversy, it means that there's nothing happening. You can talk about issues like racism inteligently without getting embroiled in some of the nonsense we've seen lately. I would rather write about Thierry Henry.

Where do you see the press in five or ten years? Newspapers are losing money but the web is notoriously tricky to monetise - what models would you like to see adopted?
I'm going to blow our own trumpet, here. I'm part of a team of journalists who thought about that. Under the aegis of Jonathan Wilson, we have started The Blizzard. I'm not saying it's a raging success but it seems that the audience is on board with what we're trying to do. We've proved that it's possible for a publication to be printed on paper but downloadable. We've done it without losing money.

In England more people read papers than anywhere else but circulation figures are still dropping. To prop them up, they resort to sensationalism. Nobody has found the secret to getting the right balance, despite the extraordinary success of some online ventures. The job I started 20 years ago bares no relation to what I'm doing now or will be doing in five/six years' time. I won't predict anything as I have no idea where it's going.

Al I know is that The Blizzard is a co-operative model that others can follow. It's a trailblazer. People are willing to pay for premium content and that won't change. I wouldn't be so involved if I wasn't convinced. We're doing this because we genuinely want to write about football and it seems people genuinely want to read about football.

'Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top' is by Philippe Auclair and is published in hardback by Macmillan at £17.99.

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