CF Montreal lost a head coach and Major League Soccer said goodbye to a marquee name with news Thursday that Thierry Henry was stepping down.
Citing family reasons, the 43-year-old former star striker said he was quitting the club after one season at the helm to return to London. Kevin Gilmore, Montreal's president and CEO, called it a "difficult day" but said Henry was leaving on good terms.
"I'm surprised but given the circumstances it doesn't shock me that this has happened given what he went through last year," he told reporters.
Separation from his children plus the prospect of having to spend another season on the road due to pandemic-related travel restrictions contributed to Henry's decision.
"Last year was very difficult on this club across the board," said Gilmore. "But especially with those that had to spend the last four months of the season outside of Montreal. And the prospect of starting a season like that again is very difficult. And it's taken its toll on a lot of people. Obviously it's taken its toll on Thierry and his children.
"He made a difficult decision — although I keep saying when you make decisions based on family, they're always good decisions — to stay in London and give up his position as the head coach of the club in order to be close to his family."
The announcement comes on the eve of training camp. Players report Monday for a seven-day quarantine period, medicals and COVID-19 testing prior to the start of team training March 8. The MLS regular season kicks off April 17.
Montreal said it will take a committee approach to coaching led by assistant coach Wilfried Nancy until a successor is found. The new head coach will take charge of a roster that has been radically changed since last season with 11 players having left and eight new faces.
Henry spoke to the Montreal players and staff Thursday via video but not the media.
“It is with a heavy heart that I’ve decided to take this decision," the French native 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 we 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. Therefore, it is with much sadness that I must take the decision to return to London and leave CF Montreal."
Henry was hired in November 2019, succeeding interim coach Wilmer Cabrera on a two-year contract with an option for the 2022 season.
Henry has been linked to the managerial opening at England's Bournemouth in recent days. But Montreal officials said there had been no contact with the Championship side, which recently handed the manager's job to Jonathan Woodgate through the end of the season.
"Bournemouth was nothing more than a rumour," Gilmore said.
Still, Montreal says it will be entitled to compensation if Henry takes a position with another club in the near future.
Gilmore said Henry was not focused on a job hunt. "Right now his sole and only focus is his children and his family."
But Montreal sporting director Olivier Renard said he hopes Henry returns to coaching as soon as possible.
"He deserves it. I can say that I was very proud of him last year … You could see he was in difficulty about his family, about the players. He was the leader of the team."
Henry led Montreal (8-13-2) to the playoffs last season, for the first time since 2016. Montreal, which finished out the 2020 campaign based in Harrison, N.J., exited in the play-in round in November thanks to a 95th-minute goal by New England's Gustavo Bou.
Gilmore said Henry flew home for the holidays, returning to Montreal the last week of January. After finishing quarantine in early February, he told the club he had to fly home to deal with some personal issues.
"His children were struggling with him having just left," said Gilmore.
Last Thursday, Henry indicated he was leaning towards not coming back. Gilmore said while the club tried to find ways to ease his burden, Henry told them Monday he was stepping down.
"Is it perfect timing? Absolutely not. But like I said there is no deadline or prescription date on personal decisions and we fully understand where he's coming from," Gilmore said.
"Of course it's a loss when you lose a person like Thierry Henry, who's a football legend known worldwide and is associated with your club," he added. "The thing is he'll always be associated with this club."
Gilmore said the team is in the process of finalizing where in the U.S. it will play home matches this season while the border restrictions continue. A return to New Jersey or Florida are possibilities.
Toronto FC is also looking at Florida, with Orlando and Tampa possible venues. Vancouver is reportedly looking at Utah.
Henry's departure marked the second coaching move in two days in Montreal, following the firing of Canadiens head coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Kirk Muller. The NHL team appointed Dominique Ducharme interim head coach.
Henry was an elite forward whose playing resume includes Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona, the New York Red Bulls and France. He retired in December 2014 after a 20-year career that saw him score 411 goals in 917 matches.
Henry was an academy coach at Arsenal and an assistant coach with the Belgian national team before taking charge of AS Monaco and then Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press