When the time comes, Jordan Henderson will be voted Player of the Year. Whether that’s right or wrong is really irrelevant. We’ve reached critical mass in the appreciation for what Henderson does and what he provides to Liverpool; the mood this season is for him to be rewarded.
Henderson’s career is one of those compelling stories that sport does so well. It’s been a typical, traditional Hollywood arc, full of rejection and redemption and ridicule, but now ending in ultimate triumph.
But Henderson’s that character, isn’t he? He probably still runs up stadium steps to keep fit. Old ladies probably drop freshly baked bread on his doorstep in the morning. He’s not an everyman, but he’s someone who belongs in one of those idealised comic strips in which the game is all sweetness and light and the heroes all possess that same fundamental decency.
A dispassionate analysis of what Liverpool are would probably pitch Henderson as their fourth or fifth most important player – sometimes higher, sometimes lower – but we’ve all seen this film so many times before that we know how it ends. When the credits roll, he’s the one who walks off into the sunset with the accolade that nobody ever thought he could win. That’s how this works; the inclination to vote him Player of the Year is part romance, part muscle memory.
But maybe this is less about Jordan Henderson and more about everyone else. The conversation around him has also shown how reluctant we often are to remain open-minded – as if, rather than soft clay, a footballer is kiln-fired and glazed from the moment he steps on a Premier League pitch.
That’s what perpetuates this routine: ridicule, ridicule, overcompensation.
For the record, overcompensation isn’t the same as ‘overpraise’. Henderson’s achievements are real and he deserves his applause, but this benevolent energy flowing towards him still feels like an attempt to make up for what came before. Like a tax payable on the community’s collective myopia.
For Liverpool supporters, Henderson’s crowning would be emblematic of something else entirely. He was a stick with which their recruitment was beaten for a long time, with many – myself very much included – using him as proxy for their shortcomings. To see him with the European Cup under one arm and the Premier League trophy under the other will be very gratifying. A Player of the Year award would be even more so.
For others, it would be a moment to pause for thought and reconsider how players are judged and on what those evaluations are often based. Also, a time to dwell on how loyal to our first impressions most of us are and continue to be.
Henderson has always be in conflict with his own value. When he signed for Liverpool in 2011, it was on the recommendation of Damien Comolli, who had used whatever analytics model the club were employing to identify a very hard-working player, but also one who created lots of chances. Unfortunately, when the club spent nearly £20m on the basis of those conclusions, it over-emphasised them and made them much too literal.
It implied that Henderson should conform to the ideals of the creative footballer. There are the obvious ones – like the floppy hair, the tangible guile and the South American passport (Pablo Aimar, essentially) – but also the more subtle associations. Players who open doors and cut lines at the very top of the game are supposed to possess a certain level of technique. They’re meant to receive and move the ball smoothly and to sashay across the grass. They should make the game look easy and, if there’s one thing that Henderson doesn’t do – even now – it’s that.
Such a disconnect is problematic. It makes a player much harder to accept. Like a lithe centre-half or a short goalkeeper, it creates a situation where – to be of value – a player first has to defeat initial distrust and discomfort over what he isn’t. As a fan, it’s much easier to place your faith in – for instance – someone like Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, because their abilities are that much more pronounced. With Henderson, who doesn’t often have an overwhelming individual effect on games, acquiring that confidence is much harder and it’s a process that takes much longer.
Not that this has been a smooth curve. To pretend that Henderson has always just been the victim of false perception would be disingenuous. His success now has been dependent on years of trial and error, good form and bad, and the work of many other, more obviously gifted players around him.
But therein lies another issue: we’re not very good at accepting that players can evolve. If most of us were honest, we’d admit that we form an idea of what a footballer is (or is likely to become) very early on in his career, and then stick to it irrespective of what he does next.
From that point, we’re either apologists or critics – in one camp or the other, fighting a cause or making gratuitous criticisms. What actually causes that is difficult to say – an implied need to have a yes/no opinion on everything in football, perhaps? – but it is clear that rarely does any sort of re-evaluation happen.
We’re all guilty, but it’s a very strange habit. The vast majority of players are between the ages of 20 and 30, during which time they’re experiencing all sorts of changes. They’re developing physically, of course, but also mentally and socially. Most people – footballers too – begin that decade staggering out of pubs and clubs in the early hours, but end it married with children and going to bed before the 10 o’clock news.
Applied to a sporting context, the range of effect is extremely broad – a player’s approach to his conditioning and diet is likely to change, so too his capacity for studying analysis and accepting criticism and using it constructively. Even just considering those superficial factors, it seems incredibly unlikely that any player would retain the same shape throughout his entire career and yet – for whatever reason – we treat them as pre-packaged goods, contained within a fixed shape.
Jordan Henderson isn’t the ultimate example of that. He’s just the most recent one and now the most convenient way of making such a point. But should this season eventually finish as expected, with Liverpool as champions and him as Player of the Year, then that would be a fitting reminder of just how changeable football can be and how pliable its component parts actually are.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.