By Kristian Dyer
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It was as improbable a love story as has ever been written in New York City sports, an enigmatic Frenchman and a city that wants passion from its stars. But what started as a rocky relationship between Thierry Henry and New York Red Bulls fans is now the stuff of John Mayer songs.
Now that Henry has announced after four-and-a-half years in MLS that he won’t be coming back, he might never be the same, and certainly this franchise may never see someone like him again.
Rewind back to April 16, 2011, in a soaking wet Red Bull Arena. Attendance was announced generously at 14,308 for that match against the San Jose Earthquakes, a number likely double what was actually in the seats that night. Henry was in his first full season in MLS after signing the previous summer. He already had a storied career that saw him star for Arsenal and Barcelona as well as lift the World Cup. His resume was as impressive as any player’s in the history of MLS, his presence and skill on display from the get-go.
But Henry had scored just twice in that first half-season in MLS, and fans were beginning to grow impatient. After all, he was the most expensive player on the Red Bulls’ roster and the second-highest paid player in the league. He had tallied goals everywhere he went, but he wasn’t scoring with the Red Bulls.
He hadn’t scored since Sept. 11 of the previous year, a span of six starts. He was considered to be aloof, a diva and yet another player collecting a fat check in MLS as his playing days dwindled down.
“Was I good when I first arrived, my first half? No, I wasn’t. So they were having a go. Rightly so, I wasn’t good,” Henry said on Tuesday. “And I knew that. So you come back, you shut up and you try and play a bit better. And that’s what I tried to do. It wasn’t good enough to win it all, but maybe they recognized that and appreciated that. And I appreciate them too, to let me know when I wasn’t good.”
That April evening, in what amounted to a deluge, Henry was beginning to hear it from the fans. He had chance after chance to put one away and was just narrowly missing. In fact, little-known English forward Luke Rodgers would score twice to build a 2-0 lead over the Earthquakes. But Henry seemed unable to find the back of the net.
Then, in the 87th minute, Rodgers served a swerving cross to the edge of the six-yard box, a perfectly placed ball that was met by Henry’s head. He sent it to the back post, past a helpless Jon Busch in San Jose’s goal. It was his first goal of the season and just the third goal of his MLS career. But with fans booing him all night, with the few thousand at Red Bull Arena starting chants about his demise, Henry silenced them. What was toxic moments before, Henry had turned to sheer joy.
And then he had the final word.
He ran up to the hardcore faithful behind the goal and pointed to one fan in particular. He walked in their direction, pounding his chest. He screamed. He pounded his chest some more. His teammates mobbed him. The fans erupted, including the handful that had been giving him the hardest time. He kept jawing at them the whole time.
Henry pointed to the back of his jersey as he walked away, to his name on the back, as if to remind the fans that his name — simply “Henry” — was revered around the world. The fans erupted. They had screamed at him and he had screamed back. It was the way it was always supposed to be, in a city that demands the best from its athletes.
New Yorkers, by their very nature, are not afraid to be in your face, and they weren’t with Henry. He, in turn, responded to them in kind; a moment of release, a moment of passion.
The relationship would evolve over the next year or so. Henry wore a red and black captain’s armband last season in a tip of the hat to the MetroStars moniker, a name that was erased when the Red Bulls bought the club in 2005. There was a sizable minority that still called the team “Metro,” a protest of sorts against the energy-drink conglomerate that had re-branded the team.
Henry got it. He got the history of the fans, their passion for this franchise’s roots. He asked the team’s equipment staff — the father and son combination of Fernando and Sean Ruiz — to make an armband to embrace the past. And he wore it every time he took the field, until his final game at Gillette Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“Because at the end of the day you need to not forget how this team started,” Henry said. “And so I said to Fernando and Sean that if they could put – I mean, you saw the armband – and make sure that you give a shout-out to the MetroStars, because that’s the way it is.”
That’s the way of a legend who now leaves a franchise and a city forever changed by his grace on the field and his passion for the game off of it. Red Bull Arena will likely never be the same.
Nor, likely, will Henry.
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