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Old Knights in Rusty Armour Ride to the Rescue

This week, anybody could be forgiven for thinking that they have been transported back in time as both Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes hit the back pages after scoring important goals for Arsenal and Manchester United respectively. This is not however, 2002, it is indeed 2012. So just what are a 34 year old Henry and a 37 year old Scholes doing in coming out of the footballing wilderness (MLS and retirement) to help out the two most successful clubs of the Premiership era?

Underneath the stack of jokes about Sir Bobby Charlton being seen warming up at Old Trafford and Nigel Winterburn returning to ease Arsenal’s full-back crisis lies a serious question: why have two of Europe’s leading clubs felt a need to resort to such emergency transfers? Are they papering over cracks which belie fundamental problems at both clubs? Or are they in fact masterstrokes?

In the case of Henry, the answer is relatively straightforward. The Frenchman is an Arsenal legend in the truest sense of the word and one of the most popular players to ever pull on the famous red and white of the Gunners. Furthermore, Henry’s attitude towards the club proves the old adage that ‘love is a two-way street,’ with the player himself stating that ‘when it comes to Arsenal, it is kind of hard for me to say no,’ and describing it as the club he ‘loves and supports.’ In an eight year stint that spanned 1999-2007, Henry terrorised defences at home and abroad on his way to becoming the club’s all-time record goal scorer with 226 goals. These goals helped the club to two Premier League titles, three FA Cup wins and an appearance in the Champions League Final in 2006. As a result, he is afforded a God-like status by the Emirates faithful, as anyone who saw the reception he got when he made his comeback against Leeds United can testify. Add to this the fact that some of Arsenal’s young players (most notably Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere) grew up idolising Henry, and there is a clear ‘lift’ factor.

The deal makes sense for the London club as it is a six-and-a-half week loan deal with an option to extend it to eight weeks. There is however, no commitment on Arsenal’s part beyond covering the striker’s reputed £70,000 a week wages.[1] This not does not amount to a great deal of money by modern standards and averts the need to enter the notoriously difficult and inflated January transfer market. If Henry does provide the fans and the players with a lift and is even able to chip in with the odd goal and/or assist, the deal will represent excellent value for the club. In short, it is a low risk, potentially high reward transaction. It should also be said that it also makes sense for the player as it allows him to attain match fitness ahead of the start of the MLS season.

The loan signing of Henry also represents the solution to a problem; Arsenal’s lack of strikers. Robin van Persie has had to shoulder the goal scoring burden all season, but at least Arsene Wenger had other options in Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh. With both of these players on national duty in the African Cup of Nations, Henry’s loan deal gives Wenger another ‘impact player’ option from the bench and covers the period in which Arsenal will be two strikers down.


Thierry Henry celebrates his winning goal on his second Arsenal debut (This image is the property of The Daily Mirror)

Whilst it is clear that the Frenchman is not the player he was during his first spell in London, he is still capable of contributing as a bit part player. Henry’s own stated aim is to help the club, not to ‘try to be a hero’ and in one 20 minute cameo, he has already shown that he will add a touch of class to Arsene Wenger’s team. Having seen the likes of Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh thrash at chance after chance, the crowd was growing frustrated, fearing an unwanted replay at Elland Road. Cue the entry of the man dubbed ‘The Bearded Warrior’ thanks to his new facial hair. Henry got one chance in the game and finished it with aplomb. Alex Song’s delightful slide-rule pass was right in to the path of Henry and the returning striker took one perfect touch to get the ball out of his feet before calmly slotting the ball in to the far corner, thus firing the Gunners in to the FA Cup fourth round. In doing so, he showed a composure Arsenal had been lacking in front of goal. Yes, he looked overweight and at least a yard slower than the last time he graced the Emirates, but that simple control and finish proved that some things do not dull with age. If Henry is able to pop up with just two similar contributions in the league, Wenger and the Arsenal board will see the loan as a great bit of business.

Two hundred miles north at Old Trafford, another club legend has made an even more unexpected return to action, Paul Scholes. Whilst Thierry Henry is still an active football player and therefore a loan signing, Scholes has re-emerged from self-imposed retirement. Following United’s comprehensive defeat to Barcelona in last year’s Champions League final, the midfielder decided to call time on an illustrious career with his place as a Manchester United all-time great already cemented. He subsequently took up a coaching role with the club’s reserve team as he contemplated a career in football management.

Fast forward to Christmas 2011 and there were one or two murmurs that Sir Alex Ferguson may try to persuade Scholes to lace up his boots as United struggled with something of an injury crisis. Not many took the rumours seriously so it was a huge shock when it was announced before the FA Cup third round tie with local rivals Manchester City that Scholes was in fact on the bench. In fact, Wayne Rooney said in his post match interview that the players did not even know until they were in the dressing room at the Etihad Stadium. In a similar manner to the Henry announcement, this gave the fans and players a huge lift with Ferguson stating that it had been kept top secret so as to create that effect. It certainly worked.

Scholes entered the fold as a 59th minute substitute and immediately looked like somebody who had not played for eight months. The man famously dubbed ‘Sat-Nav’ for his pinpoint passing ability gave the ball away on several occasions and was at fault for City’s second goal. He did however, show signs of bringing an assuredness to the midfield once United settled on playing out for a 3-2 win.

Even more surprising however, was Scholes’ inclusion in the starting eleven for the league match versus Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford. Given his relative lack of match practice and fitness, the midfielder had been seen as a man to come off the bench when required. Ferguson evidently feels otherwise and his decision was vindicated. Just as 75,000 fans were growing frustrated at seeing United waste chance after chance (including a penalty), Scholes rolled back the years, appearing in the box to turn in Wayne Rooney’s cross from eight yards out. The goal calmed United nerves and they eventually went on to secure a comfortable 3-0 victory. This all-important first goal, coupled with Scholes’ control of midfield proceedings, already has many naysayers eating their words.


Paul Scholes is overjoyed to score the opener against Bolton Wanderers (This image is the property of The Daily Mirror)

Much like Arsenal’s acquisition of Henry, the move represents potentially excellent value for United. No fee is involved in bringing a player out of retirement and he is, in all likelihood, on a pay-as-you-play deal. If Scholes can help United to lift the Premier League trophy in May, it may just go down as one of the greatest ‘transfer’ masterstrokes in living memory. That is however, a big if.

Whereas Henry’s deal at Arsenal has a pre-determined timescale, Scholes’ reintroduction to first team life at Old Trafford does not and this is perhaps the most worrying aspect for the club’s fans. United have, in all honesty, been in need of a so-called ‘A-list midfielder’ for the last three years and the fans have seen nothing come of rumours linking Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Özil, Eden Hazard, Mario Götze, Luka Modric and many more with a move to Old Trafford. Ferguson’s line continues to be that there is no value in the transfer market but that flies in the face of the £18.9 million and £16.5 million purchases of David De Gea and Phil Jones last summer. Many fans and members of the press continue to express doubts about the financial situation at Old Trafford as the club continues to feel the strain of high levels of term debt and The Sun recently fanned these flames of doubt by claiming that the Scholes move was borne out of financial necessity. According to the newspaper, United’s early exit from this year’s Champions League will have a huge financial impact. Furthermore, it also claims that the transfers of Javier Hernandez, Bebe, Anders Lindegaard, Ashley Young and Phil Jones are all accounted for in this financial year (July 1 2011-June 30 2012) which means that the club will have to shell out £55,127,000 in transfer and related fees during that period, almost £44 million more than in the previous year.[2] Whether or not this is the reality behind the Scholes decision only the Manchester United money men really know, but it will do little to alleviate the fears long held by certain sections of the Old Trafford faithful. Sir Alex Ferguson cannot however, worry about this and if Scholes is able to help United control games and perhaps even contribute with the odd assist or goal, nobody will be laughing or speaking of desperation come May.

Both deals do, on the face of it, smack of desperation and many will continue to view them as little more than that. They could however, prove to be two highly cost-effective moves that add experience and a touch of class to two teams with designs on English football’s biggest prizes. If they help the clubs achieve their aims, it will be hats off to the two grandfathers of Premier League management. Even if they do not, neither club will have lost anything. As such, both are calculated risks, which is more than can be said of forays in to the January transfer market. Just ask Chelsea and Liverpool.

[1] Returning legend Henry to accept Arsenal offer… and he will wear No 12 shirt: Daily Mail 30th December 2011: www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2080044/Thierry-Henry-wear-No-12-shirt-Arsenal.html#ixzz1jX9Ygb17

[2] Romance helps United pay Bills: The Sun 13th January 2012: Dan King’s Sport Uncovered | The Sun |Sport|Football

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