In many ways, everything that could have gone wrong for England’s Under-21s in their European Championship opener against France on Tuesday did go wrong. They conceded two penalties, had a man sent off and were denied a brave point by a calamitous late own-goal from Manchester United target Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
However, there was one man still on the Old Trafford payroll who came out of the game with his reputation further enhanced as Dean Henderson’s string of key stops, including an excellent penalty save to deny Moussa Dembele, underlined his wonderful growth as a top-class goalkeeper.
Being a goalkeeper at Manchester United has not been an easy occupation in recent years unless your name has been David de Gea. While the Spaniard racked up four Player of the Year gongs in five seasons, many a promising young shot-stopper has seen his stock fallen in the United ranks. Not so Henderson.
Over his 12 months on loan at Sheffield United in 2018-19, Henderson was one of the Blades’ star men as Chris Wilder’s side returned to the Premier League for the first time since 2007 on the back of recording the Championship’s joint-best defensive record.
Henderson’s 21 clean sheets in 46 league matches provided the bedrock for the South Yorkshire outfit, and so good was he on a consistent basis that there has even been some suggestion that United would consider expediting him into De Gea’s number-one jersey sooner rather than later on the back of some suspect showings by the Spain star over the last couple of months of the campaign.
In actual fact, United are readying a new long-term deal for the Cumbrian 22-year-old, whose current deal has a year to run as well as a club option for a further year, ahead of a planned return to Bramall Lane for the 2019-20 season. Sheffield United’s promotion has worked out superbly for all parties, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer able to send Henderson back out on loan to a familiar setup in which he has excelled and getting to see him make the step up to Premier League football at the same time.
Sheffield United boss Wilder has lauded Henderson’s impact and is keen for the young shot-stopper to return to Bramall Lane. “Dean made it clear to us that he has a very strong interest in coming back to Bramall Lane, and Manchester United are happy to go along with that,” Wilder told the Daily Mirror .
“He wants his United contract sorted out first of all but, in terms of putting another temporary deal in place, I think we’re in a good place with that one.
“United are pleased with what happened when he came here, with the way his game developed and the way he progressed over the course of the year.”
It is easy to see why Wilder was so happy with Henderson’s performance level in 2018-19. Having had previous temporary spells in the National League North with Stockport County, League Two with Grimsby Town and League One with Shrewsbury Town, he took little time coming to terms with Championship football.
By the spring of 2019 he was one of the form goalkeepers in England, racking up seven successive clean sheets as the Blades strung together six wins and a derby draw away to Sheffield Wednesday. It was a run of form which would tee them up for their successful final push for promotion.
All the while, Henderson – who first joined United from Carlisle as a 14-year-old – was making spectacular saves left, right and centre. His reading of danger and positional play proved to be his outstanding qualities, with many of his better stops looking more rudimentary than they really were due to his having already got himself into prime position.
His concentration levels are through the roof too, with his ability to keep his eyes on the ball and his excellent anticipatory footwork combining to leave him one step ahead of the game on most occasions.
Even when potentially caught on the hop he seems to be ready for anything, as best exemplified at Birmingham in April when Gary Gardner’s cross took a huge deflection off Blades defender Martin Cranie and looked destined for the top corner with Henderson wrong-footed. Yet the youngster somehow recovered and threw both hands in the way to paw out the effort, not only keeping out the effort but also stopping his side from conceding a potentially-costly corner.
When you realise you've gone from United's No.1, to United's No.2...— Ladbrokes (@Ladbrokes) June 18, 2019
Dean Henderson 👏 pic.twitter.com/QMx5PrDUCs
Henderson also has the cocky edge so often seen in world-class number ones, telling reporters after Tuesday’s England Under-21 defeat: “You can quite evidently see I’m a Premier League goalkeeper.” He even ‘liked’ a betting company’s tweet proclaiming him as Manchester United’s new number-one alongside a picture of a grimacing De Gea following the match in Cesena.
For now, though, he will get the big new contract his performances have deserved and will be asked to wait his turn a little longer, heading back to Bramall Lane hoping to deliver more of the same in his first stab at the Premier League.
He may not become David de Gea’s successor just yet, but that day may not be as long in the future as it appeared 12 months ago.