Citing the time he’s spent away from his family and the fallout from the pandemic’s persistence into 2021, Thierry Henry on Thursday announced his resignation as coach of CF Montreal. The famous Frenchman spent a year in Quebec, providing the meandering club a spark and a bit of long-sought cachet. He also took them to the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in four seasons. But life intervened.
“It is with a heavy heart that I’ve decided to take this decision,” Henry said in a statement. “The last year has been an extremely difficult one for me personally. Due to the worldwide pandemic, I was unable to see my children. Unfortunately due to the ongoing restrictions and the fact that [CFM] will have to relocate to the U.S. again for several months, [this year] will be no different. The separation is too much of a strain for me and my kids.”
Henry, 43, lives in London, where he starred for Arsenal for eight seasons before moving on to Barcelona and then the New York Red Bulls. His dedication and performance during his four-plus years in MLS—he took the league seriously and knew it well—lent considerable credibility to his November 2019 appointment as Montreal manager. Despite struggling in his first head-coaching job at AS Monaco, Henry made a move that felt like a win for him, the club and the league.
Henry brought interest and intrigue to a team that’s been mostly mediocre over the past few years and that's had more than its fare share of difficulty on the managerial front. Montreal has had seven head coaches since joining MLS in 2012 and four since the start of 2017. It developed a reputation as an organization that lacked patience and a long-term plan. While it was tough to see Henry, considering his European ties, going on an Arsène Wenger–like run at Stade Saputo, it also seemed like the club would give him time to grow as a coach.
Henry arrived soon after the departure of Ignacio Piatti, Montreal’s best-ever player. The team formerly known as the Impact got younger and had holes to fill, and Henry managed to rally his group against considerable odds—Montreal spent two months based at Red Bull Arena—to clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
“I always believe you win championships because you have a team, and you have guys who are willing to come along and make the team win and when the starters are not playing, those guys can come along,” Henry told Sports Illustrated last month.
“Last year, we lost Piatti. We lost Saphir Taïder midseason. You lost goals and assists there,” he continued. “We were going to be in trouble to make the playoffs, and we managed to do it. Sometimes a team, when they are supposed to perform and they have their back against the wall, they do. When you lose a legend like Piatti, it’s not easy. When you lose Taïder, it’s not easy. But the team came to together to save what we could save at the end.”
Henry added that he was excited to see what Montreal’s youth and academy products might accomplish in 2021. He offered high praise for the deliberate, long-term vision in Philadelphia, where the Union won the 2020 Supporters’ Shield after years of reliance on its player development and faith in coach Jim Curtin.
“This is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Henry, who implied he wanted to be a part of that process. Now a month later, he’s gone.
What happened in between? Perhaps the club received word that spending a significant chunk of the 2021 season in the U.S. was increasingly likely. Perhaps this month’s rumors connecting Henry to Bournemouth, the Championship club that wound up hiring Jonathan Woodgate for the remainder of the season, led Henry to believe he might have options back in England.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, CF Montreal president Kevin Gilmore said the former played a more significant role than the latter.
“[Are we] surprised? Yes, because obviously our plan was one, to bring Thierry here for a long term, and in partnership with [sporting director] Olivier [Renard], to build the identity and the successful franchise we’re looking to build," he said. "We’re not surprised, though, by the circumstances. Very few people can appreciate how difficult last year was for this club, and the Canadian clubs in general.”
After spending a few days in Montreal then returning to England, Henry informed the club on Monday that he’d be stepping down. Family was the only issue, Gilmore said, and was one CFM respected.
“Bournemouth was nothing but a rumor,” he said. “No one contacted us asking for permission [to speak to Henry]. There was no discussion between the club and Thierry. He was not out there talking to clubs. The timing was odd and came out of nowhere. There were no discussions at all, either on our end or on his end with the club."
Gilmore added that CFM will be compensated if Henry takes another job in "the near future."
What remains, then, is one memorable year with a legendary figure, and yet another coaching search in Montreal. Renard said that he’d be making calls Thursday afternoon.