Of the 22 players in France’s 1998 World Cup winning squad, an incredible 16 went on to, or already did, play in England. They ranged from the ridiculous – Stephane Guivarc’h and Bernard Diomede played a combined six Premier League games for Newcastle and Liverpool respectively – to the sublime – Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit were already patrolling the Arsenal midfield, while Marcel Desailly went on to be a rock at the heart of the Chelsea defence. None, however, would have as big an impact on England’s top division as the skinny 20-year-old winger who scored three goals at the tournament for the victorious hosts.
Thierry Henry got his big move in 1999, and he joined Juventus from Monaco for £10.5m. But the Italian game did not suit the young Henry’s style and the Frenchman was in danger of stagnating in his new environment. Juventus were happy to cut their losses after just eight months, and Arsene Wenger, flush from the £23m sale of Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid, showed no hesitation in paying £10m for the services of another of his compatriots, – a player he believed he could convert into a forward. No-one, probably not even Wenger himself, knew just what lay ahead in the next eight years.
Henry made his Gunners debut as a substitute in a 2-1 home win over Leicester City on the opening day of the 1999/2000 season. He would fail to score in his first eight Premier League games, but in the ninth he hinted at the quality to come.
Taking a pass from Tony Adams late into a goalless game at The Dell, Henry shrugged off Southampton’s Marco Almeida before almost effortlessly smashing a shot past goalkeeper Paul Jones for the winner, and his first goal in English football. On-loan defender Almeida was making his debut for the Saints – he never played for the club again. Had manager Dave Jones known then what we know now he might not have been so harsh on the Portuguese.
Both goals in a 2-1 home win over Derby County in November – both assisted by Marc Overmars – kicked off a spell of eight strikes in 11 games. The spell ended the afternoon he terrorised Arsenal legend Steve Bould – then captaining Sunderland – with two goals in a 4-1 win at Highbury.
Twenty-six strikes in his first season in English football was a fantastic start for the young Henry, a haul that included a stunning individual goal – the kind of goal which would become his trademark – at Vicarage Road which left Watford’s defenders flailing, but the campaign would end in disappointment for Arsenal, finishing as runners-up to Manchester United in the league and losing the UEFA Cup Final to Galatasaray on penalties in Copenhagen.
The Frenchman was in the Euro 2000 winning squad that summer, and the following season he exploded into life for Arsenal with one of the great Premier League goals in October. There appeared to be little danger to Manchester United when Henry took the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the penalty area, but the Frenchman had other ideas. Flicking the ball up, Henry spun and produced a stunning, dipping volley that Fabien Barthez could only watch sail over his head and into the net for the winner. The goals kept flowing as Arsenal chased the championship, and Henry scored his first Premier League hat-trick as Leicester City were hammered 6-1 on Boxing Day. But despite 22 Henry goals he again ended the season without a trophy – a late double from Liverpool’s Michael Owen snatched the FA Cup from Arsenal’s grasp in Cardiff.
Henry’s 50th Arsenal goal was his second of the 2001/02 campaign, arriving in a 4-0 win over Leicester; before two strikes in a 3-1 win over Manchester United – both with more than a little help from Barthez – seemed to galvanise Arsenal’s championship hopes.
Henry picked up his first medal in English football in Wales, as the Gunners beat Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup Final in Cardiff, before the double was secured with a 1-0 league win at Old Trafford four days later. Arsenal had been in stunning form over the second half of the campaign, winning 18 out of 22 games to clinch the league title by seven points from runners-up Liverpool. Henry picked up the Premier League Golden Boot thanks to his 24 league goals – managing 32 in all competitions.
The next campaign began in typical Henry fashion with another classic goal at Upton Park. Receiving a pass from Patrick Vieira, Henry spun away from Christian Dailly before smashing an unstoppable shot into the top corner of David James’ net.
Henry would finish the campaign just one goal short of Golden Boot winner, Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy, but it was goals like his November 2002 strike against Tottenham Hotspur that were marking Henry out as the pick of the forwards in the early 21st Century. Henry picked the ball up midway inside his own half before charging at a petrified Spurs back line, almost running rings around Stephen Carr and Ledley King, before dispatching a left-footed effort into the corner of the net.
Hat-tricks at Roma’s Stadio Olimpico and at home to West Ham added to the Henry legend, coming either side of his 100th Arsenal goal – the second of a brace – in a 4-0 win at Birmingham City. Arsenal ended the season with an FA Cup Final victory at the expense of Southampton, but it was the heights they would reach in 2003/04 that would go down in history.
Henry scored in the first three games of the season, and 35 league matches later they were still unbeaten, becoming just the second side since 1888 to go an entire league campaign without losing a match. Again Henry was in outstanding form, winning the Golden Boot with 30 goals – eight more than nearest challenger Alan Shearer. As well as his excellent solo goal in an astonishing 5-1 win over Inter Milan at the San Siro, there were special league moments too, such as a blockbusting effort at home to Manchester City, his 100th Premier League goal against Southampton, another stunning effort against Manchester United and four goals at home to Leeds. None, though, matched the grandeur of a remarkable run and finish against Liverpool at Highbury. At 2-1 down, and with the unbeaten record seriously under threat, Henry charged at the Reds defence, causing Jamie Carragher and Igor Biscan to crash into each other, before a cool finish –