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Keane was first to see potential in Henderson after he was nearly released by Sunderland - Sbragia

4:26 PM MYT 20/04/2020
Jordan Henderson Liverpool 2019-20
A former Black Cats boss has offered an insight into the early stages of the Liverpool midfielder's career at the Stadium of Light

Roy Keane was the first to see potential in Jordan Henderson, according to Ricky Sbragia, who says the midfielder was close to being released by Sunderland until the Manchester United legend intervened.

Henderson is currently enjoying the best season of his career to date with Liverpool, who are on the verge of winning a first league title in 30 years. The 29-year-old has been a fixture in Jurgen Klopp's starting XI, contributing three goals and five assists to the Reds' cause in 35 outings across all competitions.

He captained Liverpool to a sixth European Cup triumph last season, and has built on that platform by establishing himself as one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League.

Calls for Henderson to be recognised with the PFA Player of the Year award have been widespread, with his leadership skills on and off the pitch further highlighted by his recent work in helping to donate money to those working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the England international's career path could have been quite different were it not for Keane, who handed him his first professional contract while he was in charge of Sunderland.

Sbragia, who formed part of Keane's backroom staff before inheriting the managerial reins at the Stadium of Light himself in 2008, told the Mirror of how close Henderson came to leaving the club as a youngster.

He said: "There was one professional contract still to be handed out, and it was a straight choice between three of the academy lads. The night before the decision had to be made, it still hadn’t been decided. As I left for home, I didn’t have a clue which one would get the nod.

“When I came back in the following day, Jordan had been chosen. What swung it for him? The attitudes that you see today – the ones that have made him such a success. It just goes to show how thin the dividing line is.”

Sbragia went on to detail how Henderson's loan move to Coventry came about in 2009, adding: "Roy could see his potential. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Roy brought him in, and Jordan would have picked up plenty from him. Yes, Roy was great for him.

“The years and the experience he had in that position, it was an undoubted help. As everyone knows, Roy was one of the best – if not the best – midfielder in the world at one time.

“However, towards the end, it wasn’t quite happening when Roy was in charge at Sunderland, but I remember when Jordan played one of his first matches. We were at Chelsea – and 3-0 down at half-time. Frank Lampard, Deco and Jon-Obi Mikel were playing in their midfield.

“We were getting a bit of a chasing, and Roy must have thought that it was a good time to see what he was made of as he threw Jordan on at half-time. Jordan couldn’t have been much more than 18.

“When we reviewed the match afterwards – it made for painful viewing because we ended up conceding five – Jordan had given a pretty good account of himself. He certainly wasn’t afraid of the situation that he found himself in, or the players he was up against.

“It wasn’t long after that the decision was taken to allow him out on loan at Coventry. That can tell you plenty about a young player. You do get ups and downs whenever you loan out a player. Are they going to play? Are they going to sink or swim? Do they think they’re better than the club they’re going to?

"He viewed it as he should, as a continuation of his education. He wanted to go.”

Henderson completed a permanent move to Liverpool in 2011, and Sbragia says a former charge is fully deserving of the success he has enjoyed at Anfield in recent years.

The 63-year-old coach continued: “The move was a big step. They had seen something in him. I think, back in the day, if you’d asked Jordan: ‘Where would you be in 10 years’ time?’ he was so single-minded that he would have said: ‘At the top.’

“If you said to me when he was 18 that he would go on to win the Champions League, I’d have said: ‘Steady on', but he deserves every second of his success. And you know what? Absolutely every second of it has been earned.”