If you ever want to start an argument with a football fan, there’s an easy way to do it.
Say something about Jordan Henderson.
It can be good or it can be bad. It can be an impassioned defence or a brutal critique. But whatever you say, be warned; it will provoke a reaction.
Liverpool’s captain continues to divide opinion like few others. Whether it’s for club or for country, the midfield man is forever a source of debate, a lightning rod for criticism.
And yet, still, a key figure.
Today, Henderson will start as England look to book their place in the quarter-final of the World Cup. In May, he led Liverpool in a Champions League final. For Gareth Southgate and for Jurgen Klopp, he is valued, appreciated and necessary.
Yet for many, he is an imposter, an average footballer given a status far beyond his capabilities . He’s upgradeable, fortunate to have fooled people for so long. Somehow, he’s conned a host of managers and team-mates into believing he’s good enough. He’s the Derren Brown of the Premier League.
He’s not, of course. As ever, the truth is a little more straightforward and a lot less dramatic. And maybe the World Cup will help, to coin a Klopp-ism, “turn doubters into believers” when it comes to Henderson.
“I don’t like reading good things about myself,” Henderson said ahead of the Champions League final. Good job, you could say, although praise arrived following strong performances in England’s opening two games in Russia. Tunisia and Panama may not represent the most stellar of opposition, but if standards needed setting then Henderson did just that. Harry Kane is Southgate’s captain, but he’s not his only leader .
There is, speaking to players and observers, something a little different about this England setup. It’s a little more relaxed, a little more together, than in previous years. There’s pressure, sure, but also belief. And among a relatively inexperienced group of players, a surprising amount of steel too.
Henderson, at 28 one of the senior members of the squad, represents its core values. Selfless to a fault, utterly dedicated to the game and ready to meet any challenge head-on, he’s a shining example. “A manager’s dream,” says Jamie Carragher, who spent two years with him at Liverpool and saw at close quarters just how much the Wearsider puts into his career. Day in, day out, it was work, work, work.
It can sound a bit hollow talking about a footballer’s “attitude”, his “commitment” or his “work ethic” if truth be told. Many would argue it’s the bare minimum for a player to give his all, be it in training or matches. Henderson’s devotion, though, still stands out.
At Liverpool, team-mates laugh about his demanding, at times abrasive, style on the training field. He is “a workaholic” says Dejan Lovren, and “an angry man” according to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Simon Mignolet talks of how he “sets the highest standards possible” and expects all, not just some, to think in the same way. Those who begin to let up are swiftly informed, whether they’re Mo Salah or Trent Alexander-Arnold. “He was unbelievably intense, every day,” says Carragher, himself a devoted trainer. “He just always wanted to improve.”
At England, it’s the same. Henderson’s is the loudest voice on the training field, he’s the one who gets in the referee’s ear on the field. He is, along with Kane, the man Southgate trusts when issuing detailed tactical instruction. Missing out on the captaincy to Kane was a disappointment, but not one Henderson has dwelt on for a second.
Preferred to Eric Dier as England’s designated ‘controller’ in midfield, Henderson has justified his manager’s selection. He’s rarely spectacular, but always available. He runs and he covers, he talks and he offers. He sacrifices so others can grab the glory. Against Panama, a game England had won by half time, he ran more than any other player, and he did so with and without the ball. You don't relax at 0-0 or 1-0, he believes, so why do it at 5-0? Good habits are always good habits.
There are things he could do better, for sure. He still, for example, tends to get rid of the ball too quickly when pressurised, where other midfielders would back their touch and their technique a little more. He can also drop too deep at times, standing on his centre-backs’ toes and asking for the ball instead of doing something more progressive. He’s not perfect, by any means. He’s not Luka Modric or Philippe Coutinho or Kevin De Bruyne. And no, he’s not Steven Gerrard either. Boy do we know that.
But is that the worst thing in the world? Watching Dier and Fabian Delph against Belgium should leave no doubts as to Henderson’s importance to Southgate's side. England, like Liverpool, miss him when he isn’t there. He has more good games than bad, and he allows others to play their natural game ahead of him.
Now, the challenge is to take the next step. At Liverpool he’s become something of a nearly man. He was part of the last Reds side to win a trophy, the 2012 League Cup, but since then he’s lost in finals of the FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League and Champions League, as well as being part of a side that finished second in the Premier League. He’s the model pro, yes, but not yet a proven winner.
Could that change in Russia? Over-confidence is not advised when it comes to England – Colombia will provide a stern enough test for Southgate’s men – but the draw could hardly be more inviting. If ever they had a chance of reaching the last four or better, this is it.
If they do so, then Henderson will play a big part. Not a headline-grabbing one, not a highlights-reel one, but a vital one nonetheless.
Maybe, who knows, it’ll be enough to silence some of those critics.
Then after that he can go and find world peace, eh?