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Jordan Henderson: From ‘expensive flop’ to Liverpool captain & Premier League champion

Jordan Henderson and Frank Lampard
Henderson joined Sunderland’s academy at the age of eight and spent 12 years with the club before joining Liverpool

Underrated and undervalued. Not any more.

The Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year and a contender for the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year, Jordan Henderson has also been a European and Premier League champion over the past two seasons.

Not bad for a player once considered an expensive flop, told he couldn’t run properly and someone the Reds wanted to use as a makeweight in a deal to sign Clint Dempsey from Fulham in 2012.

But, as he looks set to win his 57th cap England cap against Denmark in the Nations League on Wednesday, we look at how did he become the heartbeat for club and country and evolve into the leader we see today?

‘The last one through the door’

Henderson made 71 Premier League appearances for his hometown club Sunderland before his £20m move to Anfield in 2011.

However, he was almost rejected by the Black Cats, who had doubts over his best position and about his size.

“When we were making decisions on players at 16 there were big question marks about him,” said Ged McNamee, the club’s academy director at the time.

“The medical department did some tests and the consensus was that he was going to grow but he was the last one through the door. We spoke to the family and it was quite an emotional meeting because there was a lot of pressure taken off their shoulders, but he flourished once his body settled.”

From being touch and go to earn a scholarship, Henderson made rapid strides at the Academy of Light, impressing with his work ethic, attitude and ability.

“He had the drive to be a player and the manager Roy Keane saw something in him that he liked,” added McNamee.

“After a reserve game that had gone badly, Roy asked Jordan and a few other lads if they thought they could play in the first team and when Jordan said ‘yes’ it showed him he had a bit of bottle about him.

“When he was called over to train he would quite often play in matches alongside Roy in central midfield. So as a 16- and 17-year-old he would have someone of that stature and quality talking to him, coaching him and telling him what he needed to do.

“The manager was on at him all the time but I think it drove him on to improve and want more.”

‘The star of the team is the team’

Part of the ethos at the Academy of Light was that the ‘star of the team is the team’ and it is one that appears to have stayed with Henderson ever since.

A taste of the Championship – during a loan spell at Coventry in 2009 – also helped to toughen him up, three months after Keane had given him a top-flight debut in a 5-0 defeat at Chelsea.

Jordan Henderson and Frank Lampard
Henderson made 13 appearances for Coventry in 2008-09 before a broken foot ended his loan spell at the club

“You could see he had something about him and how he could become a leader,” said former Coventry goalkeeper Andy Marshall.

“At the time we would have really struggled without him. He held it together for us at such a young age.

“We were thinking ‘who the hell is this kid?’ but one of the first things that you noticed was his work-rate – too often players from big clubs go on loan lower down and the work-rate isn’t there.”

‘His mentality is phenomenal’

Henderson’s form on his return to Sunderland brought an England debut against France in November 2010 and gave him the springboard to join Liverpool for around £20m

However, life on Merseyside did not start well as he suffered from being deployed on the right and drawing unfavourable comparisons to Reds skipper Steven Gerrard.

“It was always going to be impossible for him to live up to that,” said former Reds midfielder Danny Murphy.

“It is only since Gerrard left in 2015, and the team started evolving under Jurgen Klopp, that people have been able to see Henderson’s own qualities.”

Jordan Henderson
Henderson was made Liverpool captain in 2015, just under three years after refusing a move to Fulham

Former boss Brendan Rodgers initially attempted to offload the midfielder in his pursuit of USA international Dempsey.

“To be on the brink of being sold or loaned to Fulham and saying ‘no I am sticking here, I want to fight for my place’ – that belief in himself shines through,” said former Reds defender Stephen Warnock.

“He had a lot of knocks with people putting him down, but his mental strength is probably one of the best or strongest we’ve seen in the Premier League. I think his mentality is phenomenal.”

Henderson’s growing influence

Since the arrival of Klopp in 2015, the 30-year-old midfielder has arguably elevated his game year on year.

With Henderson Statistic Without Henderson
130 Games 55
90 Wins 31
28 Draws 13
12 Losses 11
289 Goals for 111
2.2 Average goals for 2
115 Goals against 64
0.9 Average goals against 1.2
69% Win percentage 56%

Stories like wanting to share his Football Writers’ awardexternal-link with his team-mates and his note and giftexternal-link to the departing Dejan Lovren underline Henderson’s status.

His work also went beyond football during the UK’s lockdown when he was instrumental in contacting fellow Premier League captains to organise a coronavirus fund to raise money for the NHS.

“I actually went up against him when he made his first start for Sunderland in 2008. He was a right midfielder then and his dad came up to me after the game and said ‘it’s my lad’s debut, is there any chance of getting your my shirt as a keepsake’,” Warnock added.

“Little did I know what he would go on to in his career, and be the great captain of Liverpool that he has become.

“As a central midfielder, you see a completely different player. It suits his game. But it is more than just a change of position – he has grown into the captain’s role and realised he carries a little bit of weight.

“When you see him turn around hammering the likes of Sadio Mane, Mohammed Salah and Virgil van Dijk and they are listening to him, it shows they understand the role he plays as a captain and what he brings to the team.

“He has earned his place as one of the great Liverpool captains, for everything he has done and the way he has done it. He was the captain who lifted the Premier League trophy at the end of that wait, but he has given far more than that – if you look at everything he has done, he has been phenomenal.”

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