Jordan Henderson: A career spent proving people wrong

Date published: Wednesday 25th September 2019 7:58

Jordan Henderson Liverpool

As the final whistle blows in Madrid, most Liverpool players run in circles with an anarchic glee that only triumph, freedom and childhood allows. The coaching staff dash onto the pitch to find a player to hug, like a furious version of musical chairs. Wherever they entwine, pairs begin to jump in raucous celebration.

For Liverpool’s captain, the reaction is different. Jordan Henderson hits the turf, bent double by relief. The result had been beyond doubt as injury time ticked down, but professional sports people play in a bubble. Only at the end of the contest can emotion be released in one rush. Succumbing to it early only tempts fate.

Three seconds later, Henderson attempts to stand up but his legs give way again. It takes Adam Lallana’s support for him to stand and walk a few paces forward. As soon as Lallana leaves their embrace, Henderson dips his head again. The magnitude of the achievement, and the struggle of the journey towards it, have hit home.

Henderson never thought he would get here. That sentence works in both the macro and the micro. Four weeks earlier, he had received a blow to the knee during the first half of Liverpool’s semi-final second leg against Barcelona. Desperate to stay on the pitch, Henderson accepted a pain-killing injection and took tablets at half-time and vowed to play on through the pain. He had feared that his season was over. In many ways, it was just getting started.

After Henderson’s initial outpouring of emotion, he celebrates with his teammates and accepts the affection of Jurgen Klopp as if it was more important to him even than the trophy lift. But Liverpool’s captain had one more mission. Walking to the corner of the Wanda Metropolitano where he knew his father had been watching the match.

Brian Henderson suffered from throat cancer in 2013 and asked his son not to see him for fear of distracting him from his career. Now they wanted to see each other more than any two people on Earth. It had all been worth it, and it had all been for this. In the cacophony of sporting reaction, they held each other and sobbed and never wanted to let go.

Therein lies the magic of sport. One overarching narrative sweeps up and shapes an almost infinite number of human stories, each of them intertwined and so amplified. Strangers embrace strangers, friends embrace friends, competitors embrace those who sacrificed everything for one shot at something.

Henderson is Liverpool’s captain and their longest-serving player. At this club more than most, those labels usually bring with them an implied gravitas and respect. The four previous players who have captained Liverpool to the European Cup (Emlyn Hughes, Graeme Souness, Phil Thompson and Steven Gerrard) averaged over 550 games in red, but it goes far beyond length of service. Lift this trophy at this club, and you become etched into its folklore.

For Henderson, the journey has been a little different. He came close to joining Manchester United instead, only for Alex Ferguson to determine that his running style was bizarre and would cause him injury problems. In 2012, a year after joining Liverpool, Henderson cried when he was told by Brendan Rodgers that he had been offered to Fulham in a swap deal for Clint Dempsey.

Even under Klopp, no plain sailing. Henderson has never started more than 25 league games in a Klopp season. When Liverpool signed Fabinho, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum over a two-year period, most expected the captain to lose his status and his place in the team. Henderson became a target for criticism. I’ll happily include myself in a list of those who doubted his ability to flourish amongst such competition for places, and happy too to admit that I was wrong.

Even last season, Henderson worried enough about his place following Fabinho’s success as the deepest-lying midfielder that he approached Klopp about taking on a different role. Rather than accepting his fate, Henderson pleaded that he had the attributes to play as a box-to-box No. 8. Klopp was impressed, gave Henderson a chance to prove his worth and then apologised publicly having been bowled over by his performances in the new position.

Every time we expect him to drop out, Henderson disproves the theory. He is one of only four players to have appeared in more than 100 of Klopp’s 150 Premier League games. He has never been more important.

Henderson lives for football. It is all he has ever wanted. That is hardly unusual amongst professional players, who must make enormous sacrifice and commit to their craft to have any hope of breaking through the academy system. But Henderson’s desperation to succeed sits closer to the surface than for most players.

“I struggle to sleep after night matches,” he told The Times in May in the build-up to the European Cup final. “With the adrenaline, the emotion, also physically my legs are restless. I can’t really get comfortable. I don’t get back in the house until midnight or 1am, and then I take a good few hours to settle down. When I try to sleep, it’s all restless.” Henderson’s wife has tried to calm him down, but to no avail.

In that same interview, there is a quote that paints Henderson’s obsession in a comedic light: “With the second [birth of his second child], we were playing Blackburn away, and I went to the hotel, had the call, went back for the birth, and then went back and played the game the next day. We won, so that was good.” A harmless and accidental admission, of course, but it is fitting that the last line went to the result of the match. The birth was fine, too.

Making such an emotional investment in your profession has its downsides. When Sunderland lost 5-1 to Newcastle United in 2010, Henderson struggled to leave the house for two weeks, so embarrassed was he by the result. There are diehard Sunderland supporters who might have dealt with that defeat better. The assumption that players don’t care enough carries no weight here.

Dwelling for so long on defeat – and Henderson will have learned to cope better as he has grown older – goes against most advice from psychologists. Players are told to move on quickly from setback and failure, and failing to do so risks exposing emotional weakness.

But with Henderson, it might mean something different. If defeats affect him, so too do victories. Winning on a Saturday can make him feel untouchable, and as club captain that can have a positive impact on those around him. In that sense he is Klopp’s general on the pitch. Watch Liverpool often enough and you will see him regularly raising both hands to demand more from his teammates like a conductor calling for a crescendo from his orchestra. That happens whatever the scoreline.

Relying upon passion could easily be a back-handed compliment, and excelling through dedication rather than skill seems slightly anachronistic. But when ex-player pundits demand more passion from high-profile players, they are not merely old men shouting at clouds; this is what they mean. A willingness to run through walls is a metaphorical expectation, not literal. Since the start of last season, there are Liverpool players who have made tackles and interceptions, completed passes and touched the ball more than Henderson. He is the glue.

What can’t be argued against is that Henderson makes teams better. He has started in one Premier League defeat since October 2017, and in two England defeats since June 2014 (and in one of those, against Croatia at the World Cup, he came off with the game level at 1-1). Swansea, Manchester United, Chelsea – all without Henderson. Netherlands and Iceland in 2016, Belgium twice in 2018 – all without Henderson.

Liverpool’s ‘it means more to us’ marketing strategy is easy to deride. There’s no doubt that Klopp’s own personality fits perfectly into it. In his speech at FIFA’s The Best awards this week, Klopp insisted that “Whoever doesn’t love Liverpool, has no heart.” He knows what he’s doing in pandering to the adoring crowd.

But view it as a motivational tool, and all makes logical sense. Create an image that glory means more to Liverpool than anywhere else, and you create with it a sense of duty amongst anyone connected to the club to go above and beyond in pursuit of that glory. According to Klopp, running harder, faster and longer can make the difference and Henderson is the embodiment of that image. Every time he gets knocked down, he vows to come back stronger. Every time he succeeds he uses that success as fuel to go again.

“The most difficult job in the last 500 years of football was to replace Steven Gerrard,” said Klopp in April. “In the mind of the people it was like if it’s not Stevie, then it’s not good enough. But Hendo, from my point of view, is a brilliant player. If I had to write a book about Hendo, it would be 500 pages.”

David Peace’s Red Or Dead, in which he explores Bill Shankly’s obsession with managing Liverpool, runs to 714 pages. Within it is a recipe for creating a team greater than the sum of its parts. ‘We have no room for individuals,’ Peace writes. ‘No room for stars. For fancy footballers or for celebrities. We are workers. A team of workers. A team of workers on the pitch and a team of workers off the pitch.’

There are stars in Liverpool’s team that make a difference. Without them, this rise to European and domestic prominence would not have been possible. But there are workers too, and without them it would not be possible for the stars to make a difference. There are few more divisive English players of his generation, but judge Henderson by his reputation amongst those who matter to him and you quickly become convinced by his value.

Daniel Storey is on Twitter.

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