More Than A Nostalgia Act?

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Less than a month after his statue (along with Tony Adams’ and Herbert Chapman’s) was unveiled at The Emirates, Arsenal’s home grounds, Thierry Henry has officially signed a short-term loan deal to return to Arsenal from the New York Red Bulls until late-February 2012.

This move was widely reported to have been agreed to just before the end of 2011, and Arsenal even mistakenly posted pictures of Henry wearing the Arsenal kit again on their website at that point. Paperwork between NY and London took longer than expected to finish however. But now all the bureaucracy is done, and the man who is arguably Arsenal’s best player ever is returning, albeit just for a short time.

Make no mistake about it though: this Thierry Henry is not the same player who left the club for Barcelona in 2007 as its leading goal scorer of all time with 226 in 370 appearances.  And not just because he’ll now be wearing an Arsenal shirt with  #12 on it instead of  #14, a shirt which numerous defenders saw the back of countless times as Henry blazed past them.

The back of Henry's shirt - A familiar sight for the likes of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

Henry is now 34 years old, does not have the fear-inducing speed of his youth anymore, and realizes that he is a role player on this Arsenal team and not the talismanic captain of old. But he still has his brilliant football mind and experience, and it showed judging by his 16 goals for the Red Bull last season. But with 2 of Arsenal’s forwards going away for most of January for the African Nations Cup,  Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger needed some depth.  And he turned to the player whom he developed from an underachieving winger while at Juventus into arguably the best and most feared striker in the world at his peak.

After a rough start, Arsenal is back battling for one of the top 4 spots in the English Premier League. Finishing in the top 4 would guarantee the team a spot in next year’s Champions League, as well as the millions of dollars that come with it. As long as everyone keeps their expectations in check and realizes that Henry might not even come off the bench a lot of times, this should be a good deal. Henry’s role now is to provide support and cover for Robin Van Persie, and I think he’ll do well in that.

Henry’s return got me thinking about the occasions when the greatest player (arguably) of 2 of my favorite sports teams “came back home” in similar fashion.

The first one was Tom Seaver – and there’s no “arguably” here;  he is the greatest Met ever, period. Tom Terrific returned to the Mets in 1983 at age 38, and had a very good season. He won only 9 games, but he threw 231 innings,  and his E.R.A. of 3.55 and WHIP of 1.24 were better than the league averages. Those aren’t world-beater type of numbers and nowhere near his ridiculous peak statistics, but they were not bad considering his age. And hell, if he put up those numbers today, not only would he be the Mets’ ace but teams would be falling over themselves to pay hm $15-20 million a year.

Then there was Magic Johnson. He returned to play again for the Lakers during the 1995-96 NBA season at the age of 36, after retiring before the 1992 season at age 32 due to H.I.V. Magic’s comeback is more similar to Henry’s upcoming one in that he played on a limited basis, and in a role and position (Power Forward) that was markedly different than his original one with the team. Magic started 9 out of the 32 games he played in, played 30 minutes per game and averaged about 15 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists per game.  Again, those statistics are not the Magic-at-his-prime type of numbers, but pretty good numbers for a role player.

If Henry ends up providing similar output for Arsenal – by being the cagey old veteran who could still inspire at the right moment the way Dennis Bergkamp did – then it should be a very good next two months for the Gunners indeed.

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