Written off from all quarters at different stages of his career, Jordan Henderson has risen like phoenix and is now being touted to be Premier League’s Player of the Year.
He is Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic, an inspirational leader who often rises to the occasion when most needed, but does most of his handiwork away from the spotlight. However, he is also the player who, for all of their superstars, makes Liverpool tick when at his absolute best.
For Jordan Henderson, though, the validation and acknowledgement of his class and talent has not always been forthcoming. Over the years, he has had plenty of obstacles in his way and has had to prove himself over and over again. Now being hailed as a possible Premier League Player of the Year candidate, we take a look at Henderson’s long and arduous journey.
A childhood hurdle and the Manchester United rebuff
Born to a policeman father and a fitness instructor mother, it became clear from an early age that Henderson had the aptitude for sports. A young Henderson joined the Sunderland academy aged 7, but was troubled by knee pains right from an early age.
At the Sunderland academy, Henderson was “smaller and skinnier” than the other hopefuls, but the real kicker came when he was 16. Diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter, a growing pains disease which requires regular treatment, the then-teen was at an uncertain phase in his life. However, he tackled the condition head-on to eventually make grade in the Sunderland first-team.
Fast forward a few years and after impressing then-Sunderland Steve Bruce, Henderson was touted for a switch to Old Trafford by the former Manchester United captain. However, Sir Alex Ferguson chose not to sign him, citing a rather peculiar flaw that he noticed in the youngster upon closer scrutiny.
In his second autobiography, Ferguson revealed, “We looked at Jordan Henderson a lot and Steve Bruce was unfailingly enthusiastic about him. Against that we noticed that Henderson runs from his knees, with a straight back, while the modern footballer runs from his hips. We thought his gait might cause him problems later in his career.”
Henderson’s gait had been the cause of a potential Manchester United move never coming to be. The Englishman instead ended up joining United’s bitter rivals Liverpool, where a remarkable, albeit obstacle-laden career beckoned him.
Rejecting Fulham and a show of character
At Liverpool, Henderson did not have it easy. Signed by Kenny Dalglish in 2011, Henderson was branded an expensive flop in his very first season at Anfield. So much so, that a year after making his way to the Merseyside club, Henderson could have been on his way out.
Newly appointed manager Brendan Rodgers did not quite fancy Henderson and in his bid to get Clint Dempsey in from Fulham, he attempted to use Henderson as a makeweight. The former Sunderland man, however, was not having it and insisted he was not going anywhere.
Recounting that period of his life, Henderson said, “It wasn’t a nice thing to hear. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wasn’t playing regularly and they gave me the option if I wanted to go. I told them: ‘No, I don’t want to, I want to keep fighting for my place.’ I came to Liverpool wanting to stay here for the rest of my career. I certainly didn’t want to leave after a year.“
For a manager who has infamously been ridiculed for calling on his players to show character while at Liverpool, he sure would have been delighted to see one of his players doing exactly that. It was not all talk, though, as Henderson put his head down, spent every spare minute at Melwood to work on areas that needed improvement and forced his way into Rodgers’s plans.
By the time 2013 arrived, Henderson was a regular, even as fans remained unconvinced of his abilities and bellowed the choicest of words for him. However, his importance to the side was to become starkly obvious, as in the 2013-14 season, it was his energetic displays that enabled the likes of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard to run riot.
Much was made about Liverpool’s dramatic collapse in the title race, but a close inspection would reveal that it was Henderson’s absence in the run-in that was partly the catalyst for the capitulation. As the old adage goes, “You do not know the value of something until you lose it.” Excruciatingly for Liverpool, that held true when it came to Henderson.
Following Gerrard and the injury horrors that beckoned
By the time the 2014-15 season rolled in, the unwanted reality was slowly setting in for Liverpool fans. Steven Gerrard was on his last legs and his legendary Liverpool career was perhaps winding down. It is in this season that we saw the first signs that Henderson could be the “Chosen One” to become the next club captain when the fateful day arrived.
On 16 different occasions that season, Henderson donned the armband for Liverpool, showing that he had what it takes to step into Gerrard’s big shoes when he eventually departed. Gerrrard did announce that his playing days with Liverpool were up at the end of the season and in the summer of 2015, the armband was passed on to Henderson for good. Then, came the horrors.
At the start of the 2015-16 season, Henderson was taking painkilling injections for severe discomfort in his foot. Just two games into the season, though, he was sidelined with a heel injury. Before he could even complete his return, Henderson then broke a bone in his foot, which ruled him out for a couple of months.
This is when Jurgen Klopp had arrived at the club and uncertainty followed Henderson once again. The Liverpool captain finally returned in November, but even then, the Liverpool captain was suffering due to an incurable foot problem known as ‘plantar fasciitis’. Another major injury ruined the second half of his season, as Henderson torn a ligament in his knee in April.
The burden of following Steven Gerrard was already too much to handle, akin to what Manchester United have gone through when Sir Alex Ferguson called time on his celebrated managerial career. Henderson, though, was also being hampered several injuries. Was the former Manchester United manager right all along?
Self doubt was beginning to creep in and in his own words, Henderson confessed that he was questioning his contribution as the captain. The doubts among sections of the fanbase were starting to surface again as well. However, he had a supporter in Klopp, who recognised the pressure that he was under. Slowly but surely, Henderson would start to feed off Klopp’s belief.
Becoming Liverpool’s inspirational leader
The 2016-17 season had been another difficult campaign for Henderson. After a strong first half of the season, he would miss the last three months due to another foot injury. However, Klopp’s show of faith was driving him on and Henderson played a key role as Liverpool reached the Champions League final at the end of the next term.
This is when the first signs of Liverpool’s transformation into a powerhouse of a team became evident. And, Henderson was at the heart of this evolution, dictating play from midfield, excelling as a holding midfielder, a role that he had hardly reprised before Klopp came around to Anfield.
This is what characterises Henderson better than anyone in this Liverpool side. He is ready to fill in wherever his team needs him. Over the years, the Liverpool captain has played everywhere in the midfield and even as a centre-back and a right-back during emergency situations.
For Henderson, the needs of the club will always hold a higher priority to what he wants, where he wants to play. Sure, he has be exceptional as a no. 8, but when Fabinho, a vital cog in this Liverpool side, was sidelined for a couple of months, it was Henderson who dropped deep to play as a holding midfielder once again, never letting the Reds feel the absence of the brilliant Brazilian.
With his own selfless attitude, Henderson has led by example, which has also helped him win over the fans who would earlier doubt him. By putting in the hard yards and adding more elements to his game, Henderson has escaped the tag of being a sideways passer, instead becoming the player who drives Liverpool forward. At the same time, he has also egged his teammates to continually strive for self-improvement.
In a team that is laden with superstars front and back, it is Henderson who holds the team together like a glue. The Liverpool captain can constantly be seen shouting at everyone, keeping players on their toes. As Klopp would explain recently, it is not about the shouting, but demanding standards that he expects from himself in the first place.
Indeed, by setting those standards, Henderson has become the beating heart of the team that has conquered Europe and the world and is now on its way to win the Premier League for the first time. This is a player who has had to win over doubters at every stage of his career. This is a player who understands what it means to be the Liverpool captain, continuing in the spirit of Steven Gerrard.
He might not be recognised as one of the best midfielders in the world. Perhaps, it’s time he was. Perhaps, it could start with Henderson being crowned the Premier League Player of the Year in a couple of months’ time. For now, Henderson is Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic, a player who is a delight for Klopp to work with. The kind of character he is, maybe that is enough for him.