There were some on-field highlights, including an impressive start despite some obvious challenges. There were some lowlights, with losses piling up midseason. There were some great moments, including a viral locker room pep talk and the joy of being mic'd up on the sideline. Almost all of it came during a pandemic, forcing Canadian clubs in MLS to live as nomads for months.
It was never boring.
But after just one fleeting, pandemic-shortened season, Thierry Henry's time as head coach of CF Montréal has come to an end. And it was the impact of the ongoing pandemic, which forced Montréal to spend much of last season away from home and facing an uncertain schedule in 2021, that the soccer legend cited Thursday as he stepped down from his role at the club to head back to London to be with his family.
“Surprised?" CF Montréal CEO and president CEO Kevin Gilmore asked himself on a virtual press conference with a huge number of media spanning multiple continents, a sign of Henry's global impact.
"Yes. Obviously our plan was to bring Thierry here for the long-term, in partnership with [sporting director] Olivier [Renard] to build the identity of a successful franchise. But I'm not surprised by the circumstances. Very few people can appreciate how difficult last year was for people at this club, having to live ‘home’ away from home, out of hotels and suitcases with the expectation to continue to do your job at the best of your ability without factoring in the mental toll this takes on people.”
Henry departs with the well-wishes of Gilmore, Renard and everyone else at the club. The Frenchman had an 8-13-2 record in MLS play, guiding his club to the Audi MLS Cup playoffs as well as the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League.
The pandemic presented the largest strain, but there were some sporting obstacles to clear. Montréal were in the midst of a culture and identity change, with Henry at the forefront. Club legend Ignacio Piatti departed prior to the season starting, while fellow Designated Player Saphir Taider left mid-season. A number of further changes were made this winter, highlighting a roster in flux. While the final product wasn't as expected aesthetically from one of his generation's greatest goal scorers, Henry did ultimately guide the club to the playoffs.
“We were on our way to creating something very special," Gilmore said. "It was the type of relationship that was very strong and very promising. Obviously it hurts from that standpoint.”
Coaching search starts "as soon as this Zoom ends"
With the Henry era over, Montréal will now have to move quickly on a search to find his successor. Players are due back for preseason in a week, while opening day is little more than six weeks away.
“Is it perfect timing? Absolutely not," Gilmore said. "But there is no deadline or prescription date on personal decisions. We totally understand where he’s coming from. We’re going to move forward and do what we need to do to ensure this club is ready for the start of the season.”
The timeframe to identify, negotiate with and appoint a new manager is not ideal, exacerbated by having to do so during a global pandemic with mandatory quarantine periods and travel difficulties. A handful of MLS clubs have already begun reporting for preseason, with Montréal right around the corner.
Montréal have not spoken with any candidates yet, but that will soon change.
“I have a few names that I’ll contact as soon as possible, as soon as this Zoom is finished," Renard said. "I wanted to wait until this moment. I know if I called an agent of a coach, it’s not for me. There were already so many rumors around Thierry and the club, I didn’t want that.”
The rumors Renard alluded to were a couple weeks of Henry being linked with the managerial vacancy at Championship club Bournemouth, though it ultimately amounted to nothing as the club announced over the weekend that interim manager Jonathan Woodgate would continue through the end of the season.
"Bournemouth was nothing but a rumor," Gilmore said directly. "No one contacted us asking for permission to talk to him. There was no discussions between Thierry and the club. He was not out there talking to clubs. I mean, the timing is odd. It came out of nowhere. There were no discussions at all with that club.”
The news, though, did lead to speculation following Thursday's news that Henry would soon be eyeing another job in England — perhaps even Bournemouth's in the summer. There have also been reports that there was a buyout clause in Henry's contract should he depart Montréal for another job, which would be void now that he has stepped down. Both parties, though, agreed to some sort of compensation if Henry takes a new job before long.
“We’re parting on very good terms," Gilmore said. "Maybe the Bournemouth rumors required we spoke with his agent that if there’s a move to another club in the near future, we’d have some sort of compensation. That’s something we have in writing. But I’ll tell you right now: There’s nothing on his mind in respect to what he’s going to do next. His sole focus is on his children and family.”
Gilmore didn't specify how long that period is.
“I hope for him he finds something as soon as possible," Renard said. "He deserves it. I was really proud of him last year.”