I almost called it an era, although 15 months hardly qualifies...
Instead perhaps we had the Thierry Henry sojourn.
It doesn’t often happen; an undoubted legend of the world’s most popular sport walked into our space one bright November afternoon in 2019, and now, like a great many Montreal soccer fans, I feel cheated. Not because he didn’t fulfill his contract, nor failed to deliver a winning team, in fact nothing to do with him at all, really.
Moreover it’s reflective on the blight handicapping our lives over the past year. Covid reduced arguably the biggest, globally-recognized icon in this city’s sporting history, to a mere virtual presence.
We saw more of Henry on the silver screen and the Zoom conference call than we did in the flesh.
He took charge of the team on only five occasions in Montreal, and in three of those the attendance was capped at 250. Even then, apart from the two pre-pandemic matches, the media didn’t get to see him face-to-face post-match. Those exchanges were also conducted only by Zoom, with journalists viewing via laptops in the stadium’s corporate-hospitality boxes, two to a unit.
But nonetheless, what of his impact?
It was an impressive move by the football club and one that secured a headline on every sports news outlet from Tirana to Timbuktu. Certainly more international publicity and glare than any future re-brand could hope to bring...
The old tiresome yet often credible line was rolled out reminding us the coaches’ graveyard is strewn with former great players, who found the move upstairs beyond their capabilities. References aplenty to ‘Monaco’ were less about the billionaires’ playground, instead the inclination forming a reflection of Henry’s failure in propelling its troubled team away from relegation worries.
But there was stardust regardless. You only needed to see the auditorium at Centre Nutrilait when the new coach was introduced to the media. I’d never seen it so overflowing, or so many representative of various international media outlets. Make no mistake, this was big news...
He was elegant, articulate and smooth on the day, and had the audience eating from his hand in a manner that was seldom if ever, repeated.
Subsequently, players such as Luis Binks and Victor Wanyama were only too happy to declare that playing for Henry was a motivating factor in their decisions to head for Quebec.
After a four game unbeaten start in which the round of 16 in the CONCACAF Champions League was narrowly, but successfully negotiated, the world shut down.
The rest of the season proved hugely onerous and wearisome, with MLS’ Canadian clubs hampered much more than their American counterparts.
Long days spent away from families, domiciled in Floridian and New Jersey hotels saw morale sink to new lows. Some positive results would have helped, but victories were few and far between.
At times during video-conferences Henry bore the appearance of a beaten man, glad of the safety mask that half concealed his face. He sounded weary, looked tired, and so mightily frustrated, you wondered if he would stay the course.
Journalists tip-toed around some obvious and pointed questions trying to extract their copy without upsetting a disgruntled coach, still further.
But remain onboard he did.
Modest reward arrived through qualification for the inflated play-off series, followed quickly by the heartbreak of a last gasp exit at the hands of an old Eastern Conference foe, Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution winning 2-1.
The Impact players could finally think of a spell at home before one more Florida appearance to settle matters in the Champions League. Only after the business of international competition being concluded (mid-December) could Henry avail of an opportunity to jet back to London to see his children. They had been separated for nine months.
He described leading the Impact through the pandemic as, “a life-changing battle,” in an interview with Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette in which Henry said, “At times you’re faced with questioning yourself, knowing who you are,”
The highlight reels from the ex-Arsenal man’s year in charge included a victory at eventual MLS Cup winners Columbus Crew, and the election weekend, comeback victory at DC United which secured the play-off spot.
The biggest disappointment was probably surrendering the Canadian Championship won in 2019, with the team well-placed to defend its title by reaching a second successive final. Unacceptable individual errors sealed the Impact’s fate.
It took several early season matches before Henry appeared to understand the squad at his disposal. He surprised many by playing both Samuel Piette and Shamit Shome on the right side of defence (at the expense of Zachary Brault-Guillard) in successive matches during the MLS-is-Back tournament in Orlando.
But as the horribly stuttered season wore on, a positive pattern begun to emerge, even if results were often less than pleasing.
Henry’s team played more courageous football and were prepared not only to possess the ball in safe, deep areas, but further upfield in enemy territory. Samuel Piette was challenged and displayed a more attacking dimension few envisaged possible. Romell Quioto went from Houston bad-boy to Impact Player of the Year, and in Luis Binks, Henry and his coaching staff managed to develop a young, talented centre-back desired by Bologna.
It wasn’t yet winning football, but improvement was evident and a new philosophy and style was gradually emerging.
2021 would be the acid test. In the off-season numerous new players were added to a squad which had let another 9 of the 2020 roster drift away. Finally we were about to see the team Renard and Henry built. Or so we thought.
The pressures of pandemic life and Henry facing a second potential estrangement from his family back in London, got in the way.
He did return to Montreal, late January and was working with Olivier Renard on preparations for pre-season, when the call came from home to say his children were struggling without their absent dad.
He went home in an emergency early February and was rumoured to be talking with AFC Bournemouth about the vacant manager position there, a job eventually temporarily filled by former England international, Jonathan Woodgate, until the end of the season.
While in London, Henry continued pre-season preparations working in liaison with his Sporting Director, until the picture became clear to him his children’s need was greater.
At this point Thierry Henry took the difficult decision to step down from his role as CF Montreal head coach and remain in the UK.
After discussions jointly with Kevin Gilmore and Olivier Renard, he advised his players and coaching staff via Zoom video-conference last Thursday morning, of his decision not return to Montreal.
Thierry Henry’s next port of call is expected to be a club probably in England or France, two countries from where there will be interest.
For the re-branded CF Montreal, exceedingly rare early signs of management stability yet again evaporated, it now seeks its 8th head coach in only 10 MLS seasons.
Check out the latest The Ball Is Round Podcasts. One, a Special, recorded on Thursday evening (25 Feb) on the ramifications of Thierry Henry’s departure (Ep 17) and....
... the other our regular Wednesday edition (Ep 16) recorded 24 Feb (before news of the Henry departure), in which we cover #CFMTL squad strength and depth heading into the new season and other Montreal soccer news... as well as the Canadian WNT at the She Believes Cup.
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