Sheffield United won their 11th Premier League game of the season on Saturday, beating bottom-of-the-table Norwich City 1-0 to maintain an unlikely push for Europe. Prior to the season kicking off, many fans and punters were predicting the Blades would struggle as badly, if not worse, than their opponents. But the manner in which they swept aside a team they were promoted alongside showed just how comfortable they have been under Chris Wilder this season. Originally, their good form prompted headlines of fairy-tales and giant killings; now, every win is greeted as perfectly normal, which is the best compliment they can be given.
There were a few hairy moments; Norwich rarely give anyone an easy ride despite their position. In the second half, having scarcely been tested beforehand, Dean Henderson was called into action. A corner was swung in and forced goalwards twice, first by Ben Godfrey and then Mario Vrancic; an equaliser felt certain, but somehow Henderson reacted to deny both and the ball was cleared. The Kop – right at the other end of the stadium – erupted, and all four corners followed.
“England’s number one, England’s, England’s number one,” they chanted. At the end of the game, when given opportunity to vote for their man of the match, the supporters around the ground chose Henderson. Chris Wilder, his manager, was as blunt as ever in his response, questioning the logic of rewarding one of the least busy players on the pitch. He had a point, too; Norwich used space well and looked like a cohesive unit, but carved out very little. Nevertheless, that double save was the turning point in the match, and it may have been the turning point in a national discussion, too.
Gareth Southgate wasn’t there as witness, but he won’t have been able to ignore Henderson as pressure grows on him to drop current first-choice goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Sheffield United have been the story of the season, and a huge reason for that has been the man on loan from Manchester United. Pickford’s temperament, mindset and concentration have all been questioned widely while Henderson and Burnley’s Nick Pope are just getting on with their jobs in the background. Make no mistake, either are fully capable of taking their chance if and when it comes.
The England question is a more short-term problem to solve, especially with the European Championships (possibly) approaching. But his club future is up in the air and will be a big talking point over the summer; now in his second spell on loan in the Steel City, crunch time is approaching. From a player’s point of view, a temporary spell only works to gain experience and develop but after a while, they want clarity. Two years with little of that clarity is a long time; Henderson doesn’t need to prove himself anymore and the only party who benefit from an extension of the current agreement are Sheffield United, because they would get to keep a player with a high value while paying nowhere near that amount for the privilege.
Wilder has never hidden the fact that Henderson wants to make the goalkeeping spot at Old Trafford his own in the future. He is at a crossroads. Despite mistakes creeping in recently, David De Gea appears more or less immovable, and the 22-year-old is unlikely to want to spend a year or more on the bench. European qualification for his current club could make a permanent switch a little more enticing, but the likelihood is that if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not want to replace De Gea and instead chooses to cash in on the academy graduate, his price tag would dwarf anything Sheffield United have ever spent on a player. In that case, too, the queues of interested parties from both England and abroad would surely be long enough to drown them out. Chelsea might head the queue.
Were Southgate to reward Henderson’s form and pick him ahead of Pickford, that could also complicate matters. From Manchester United’s point of view, the price on his head would soar – making a sale more likely – but it could confirm Sheffield United as victims of their own success.
With every save and clean sheet, Henderson becomes a bigger problem to tackle at Bramall Lane. The loan system has allowed them to attract and help improve a talented player, but the caveat is they are powerless to stop him going elsewhere off the back of that growth.
Henderson isn’t planning on signing on in Yorkshire again; he has other ambitions and, if they don’t come off, he’ll need convincing that the place he has called home for two years should be his permanent residence. As good as things are for Wilder’s men right now, they will face different challenges in years to come – a continental campaign could complicate matters domestically, and their tactical approach could yet be found out in a difficult second season. History suggests all that is possible so Henderson may want to quit while he’s ahead.
In truth, though, the future is so difficult to predict. Henderson wants to return to his parent club, but faces competition from one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Sheffield United will find it difficult to buy him, and a loan – which worked well for everyone last summer – would simply just delay the issue now. Whatever happens, this is a player with a bright future at both club and international level.
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