'Wilshere was a freak and Fabregas untouchable' - Henderson reveals Arsenal memories after rebuilding career in Bulgaria

It was an FA Youth Cup-winning side that has gone down in folklore.

Arsenal didn’t just beat the competition in 2009, they obliterated them, scoring 25 goals in just eight games.

With Jack Wilshere in the heart of the midfield, the Gunners cruised past allcomers – smashing Manchester City 6-2 over two legs in the semi-final and hammering Liverpool by the same scoreline in the final.

It was a remarkable achievement, one everyone connected with still remembers to this day.

“We p*ssed it that year,” says Conor Henderson, who was part of that trophy-winning squad.

“I remember it was 6-2 on aggregate against Liverpool in the final and they were a good side as well.

“But we were an unbelievable team. You go through that whole side, it was crazy to have that many quality players.

“And we had an amazing coach in Steve Bould. So, you add all that up and we were just too good for anyone.”

Henderson was one of several hugely talented players in Arsenal’s class of 2009.

Wilshere may have been the star, but there were also the likes of Francis Coquelin, Luke Ayling, Henri Lansbury, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Kyle Bartley, Sanchez Watt and Emmanuel Frimpong.

Conor Henderson quote

“I just remember there being so much ability and so much quality in that squad,” says Henderson.

“We went into every game and we weren’t thinking: 'We have to win this.' It was more like: 'How many are we going to get?'

“Jack was just a freak. He came from Luton when he was about 10 and I remember he was a good player then.

“But then he hit 13 or 14 and that was it really, he was too good to be playing anywhere near his own age group. Physically, he was miles ahead and ability-wise he was miles, miles ahead. 

“He hit 14 and it was like, 'See you later mate, all the best!' Honestly, he was just a freak. Some, some player!”

At that stage of his young life, Henderson had his whole career ahead of him.

The midfielder had been with Arsenal since the age of six and had progressed nicely through the youth ranks at the club.

He’d been spotted while playing in a tournament in south-east London and had picked Arsenal over several other clubs that had been vying for his signature.

“I just remember my mum basically saying, 'Look, you’ve got to go to Arsenal,'" he recalled. "And I was like, fair enough. 

"I’m glad she gave me that advice!"

Henderson is now 30 and playing his football in Bulgaria with Pirin Blagoevgrad.

He’s spent the past four years in eastern Europe rebuilding his relationship with a game he fell out of love with in the years that followed his exit from Arsenal in 2013.

There were some dark times along the way but the former Republic of Ireland Under-21s international is now in a good place.

Conor Henderson Jack Wilshere quote

He has a young daughter and is enjoying his football once again, albeit in a country he could never have imagined ending up when he started out at Arsenal all those years ago.

“But this was purely about football. I just wanted to enjoy playing again. And I found that here straightaway.

“Every team tries to play. Obviously, there are teams that are better than others, but every team tries to play in the right way. 

“I was going from having maybe 30/35 touches and passes a game in England to pushing 100 here.  That's what I wanted and needed.”

Henderson’s Arsenal story is one of what ifs.

As he progressed through the youth ranks at the club, he was a player Arsene Wenger identified as a talent with the potential to go far.

“Technically, he is of the level we request here,” said the former Gunners boss. “He has a nice, smooth left foot and has a good physical build.”

After recovering from a serious knee injury and playing his part in the FA Youth Cup win of 2009, he soon found himself on the verge of the first team and was named on the bench for Premier League games against Wigan and Blackburn towards the end of the 2009-10 season.

He finally made his debut in March 2011, playing the full 90 minutes as Arsenal beat Leyton Orient 5-0 in the FA Cup at the Emirates Stadium.

Conor Henderson Arsenal Leyton Orient

“That night against Leyton Orient was amazing," Henderson said. "Just everything about it, winning the game, playing the full 90 minutes at the Emirates in front of 60,000 people. My family was there.

“It was everything you dream about since you're a young kid. That’s why you’ve sacrificed your childhood, your teenage years. Not doing what your friends from school are doing.”

Coming off that pitch that night, Henderson was hoping that his career had just begun.

He remained in and around the first-team picture for the rest of the season and in the summer he was part of the travelling squad that Wenger took away to Germany for a pre-season training camp.

“It was great working with those players,” he said. “Cesc Fabregas, for me, was just untouchable. I don't think he gets enough credit sometimes. He was ridiculous.

“When you are training with him, you look at him thinking, 'You're not big, you're not strong, you're not quick.' But you could not get the ball off him. 

“He was just three, four, five moves ahead of everyone. Amazing player. Amazing!”

With Henderson training regularly with the likes of Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri, it looked like he was on the verge of a major breakthrough, only to suffer a serious knee injury – one that would rule him out for the entire 2011-12 campaign.

It was an injury that effectively ended his Arsenal career.

“Regardless of how well I was doing before and how much the boss might have liked me, a year is a long time in football to miss and especially a club like Arsenal,” he said.

“They go and buy the best players from around the world. Not only first-team players, but youngsters as well, and I guess you kind of do get forgotten about.

“And, at that age, I hadn't even had a loan. I was 20, going on 21 and I’d only played one first-team game of football. You see players now who have got 50/60 by that age.

“So, the timing of that injury was very tough to take, but it happens. It's not only happened to me, you just have to deal with it, and get on with it.”

Conor Henderson Arsenal

Henderson eventually returned to full fitness, but with his contract running out, he left Arsenal in the summer and joined Hull City.

A move to Crawley Town followed a year later before the midfielder had spells with Grimsby Town and Eastbourne Borough.

He tried his best to settle down during this period and get his career back on track, but for someone who had grown up knowing nothing but Arsenal, it was a time in his career that left him feeling completely unfulfilled.

“It was difficult,” he said. "I’d gone from training with those top players and only knowing the way that Arsenal played, to then almost flipping a switch and being in League One football.

“I found it hard to adjust, but also, I didn't really want to, to be honest."

Henderson reached a crossroads in 2017.

Having fallen out of love with the English game, it was either pack it in completely or try something new.

He decided to explore the latter option and spoke to some agents with the hope of finding a new adventure abroad.

That’s when the opportunity came up with Pirin Blagoevgrad in Bulgaria and after spending a short time training with them, he signed on for the season.

Four years later and Henderson is still there, although he did have a short spell with FC Dunarea Calarasi in Romania in 2019 before returning, and his time eastern Europe has helped rekindle his love affair with the game.

“In England, I just wasn’t enjoying football,” he said. “After maybe two-and-a-bit seasons in the lower leagues, that's when I had a realisation that it just wasn’t for me anymore. 

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“I wasn’t happy and my family were worried about me all the time. It wasn't fair on the people around me, so I had to make a change. 

“I need something out of my comfort zone and Pirin gave me the opportunity to come here for four or five days. I think they half expected me to change my mind.

“But I remember those four or five days were great. I enjoyed it and obviously I’m still here now, so something went right.”