“Go on then, what do they say about me?”
The afternoon, suddenly, has taken an unexpected turn. The interviewee has straightened in his chair, the interviewer is squirming in his.
It is October 2012, the day after Liverpool have been beaten 3-2 by Udinese in the Europa League at Anfield. We are at a sports centre in Croxteth, one of Merseyside’s more deprived areas, to help promote a scheme aimed at getting people off the streets and into regular football.
The star attraction is Jordan Henderson, then a fresh-faced 22-year-old who throws himself into a training session with a group of eager local teenagers. There are nutmegs, there is head tennis, there are smiles and there are selfies.
After that he sits down with the Liverpool ECHO, and this cub reporter, for an interview.
It starts well. We discuss his relationship with Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers, and reflect on the previous night’s game.
Then the curve ball.
“Jordan, you have had a bit of criticism from media and supporters after your first season. Do you think it’s fair?”
What follows is instructive, and tells you plenty about Henderson’s decency and maturity as a person, as well as his desire for self-evaluation and improvement. He doesn’t recoil, clam up or go on the defensive. He asks what the criticisms are, listens to the response and offers his own assessment.
“I wouldn’t say it is harsh, if I am being honest,” he says. “I took a lot of positives from my first year here, but there were also negatives, and I understand that.”
That was almost seven years ago, but in many ways little has changed since. The idea that Henderson must accept and overcome criticism remains. Few players have to work harder for approval and appreciation.
He smiled when that was put to him earlier this month.
“I quite enjoy it now,” he said. “I’ve got used to it.”
Liverpool had just beaten Barcelona to book their place in the Champions League final for the second year in a row, with Henderson playing a key role in one of Anfield’s greatest ever nights. “Yes I contributed,” he said, before adding, “but so did everyone else.”
Typical Henderson. Team first, individual second. Humility over hype, hard work over hubris.
Against Tottenham in Madrid on June 1, he will become just the fourth man to captain an English club in two European Cup finals.
The other three – Emlyn Hughes, John McGovern and Steven Gerrard – all got their hands on club football’s most famous trophy, and how Henderson would love to join them in that elite club.
And if he did, surely that would silence the critics once and for all? Wouldn’t it?
Henderson will complete eight years at Liverpool in June. Madrid will be his 324th appearance for the Reds, placing him 55th on the club’s all-time list. Behind him sit the likes of Kevin Keegan, Jan Molby, Bob Paisley and Jimmy Case. Legends.
His career has flourished on Merseyside, but Henderson was made on Wearside.
Born in Sunderland, he joined his home-town club as a seven-year-old. “It’s always in your blood,” he has said. “My family are big Sunderland fans.”
Henderson’s mother, Liz, was a sports teacher. “She was more hectic than me,” he has said. “She was always on the go, working, running about. I’m more laid back.”
He would visit his policeman father, Brian, at weekends. “I suppose it was a different life in some ways,” he says, “but I think I got the best of both worlds.”
At the Stadium of Light he progressed swiftly. He was small in stature but gifted technically and blessed with a rock-solid personality. He would regularly play above his age-group, impressing coaches with his attitude, willingness to learn and, even at that age, leadership qualities.
Kevin Ball was Sunderland’s assistant academy manager at the time, and remembers a quiet buzz about this unassuming, yet utterly driven, local lad.
“Physically, he hadn’t developed at 15,” Ball tells Goal. “But technically he had, and what stood out above everything else was his attitude.
“I can remember discussing him when we were handing out scholarships. Our coaches, Carlton Fairweather and Elliott Dickman, had worked closely with him and the message from them was that this was a young lad who was utterly devoted to football, who had a love of the game and a determination to be the best in every single thing he attempted.
“I asked them ‘do you back him?’ and the response was unequivocal. He came to me at under-16 level and that was that.”
Henderson had, due to his size, played predominantly as a wide midfielder in his teenage years, but Ball remembers being struck by the youngster’s burning desire to be in the thick of things, whether in training or matches.
“If I left him out, he would have the raging hump with me,” he says. “But the one thing I could say is that Jordan always listened. If I told him he needed to improve something, he got his head down and he did it.
“He engaged with everybody. He spoke to the physios, the sports science staff, the nutritionist, his team-mates. It was always ‘what do I have to do to get better?’ He’d be there practicing set-pieces, or doing extra weights sessions, or watching clips of other players. He was just completely driven.”
Ball’s group was a good one. Jack Colback, Connor Hourihane and Martyn Waghorn have gone on to enjoy stellar professional careers, while a winger named Nathan Luscombe would ensure his place in Henderson’s story by beating the Liverpool captain in a one-on-one session for Soccer AM’s ‘Skillz Skool’ back in 2008.
“Jordan had taken Nathan under his wing,” Ball remembers. “That was his style. He had a real caring side, and his family were very close to Nathan.
“Nathan beat him in that Soccer AM thing, but Jordan would have loved that. He would have seen it as a challenge, a chance for him to go away and improve.”
Ball shares a quote from Scott Pearce, who was the Academy’s head of sports science at the time of Henderson’s emergence. “In an Olympic team, Jordan Henderson would be a gold medallist,” it reads.
“It sums it up really, doesn’t it?” he smiles. “I appreciate it can sound a bit sickly, because everything is so positive, but there was really nothing else you could say about him. He was a joy to work with.”
Pearce’s wider assessment of the teenage Henderson, which Ball shares with Goal, is similarly glowing. “He made sacrifices most teenage boys wouldn’t,” it reads. “He saw setbacks and failure as opportunities to grow and develop. He took responsibility, soaked up knowledge and was a caring and kind person, with a ruthless, self-determined streak.”
Ball recalls a story where trainees were tasked with cleaning the Academy facilities as part of their weekly chores.
“The job nobody wanted was cleaning the carpet,” he laughs. “It was an old carpet, thick with mud and dirt. It was a nightmare! You had to get on your hands and knees with a brush and scrub it.
“Anyway, the coaches would judge whether the tasks had been completed to an acceptable standard. And we would judge them harshly! If one of the jobs hadn’t been done well enough, they’d all have to stay behind and finish them.
“So we go down to have a look at this carpet and it is spotless. I mean it looks like a new carpet. We can’t believe it. So I ask the boys ‘who did the carpet?’ It was Jordan. He’d gone and borrowed a hoover off the cleaners, he’d scrubbed it to within an inch of its life. He’d spent hours on it. That was him. He knew if he didn’t do it properly, his team-mates would suffer. I’ll never forget that carpet!”
The Hope Street Hotel, Liverpool.
Henderson is supposed to be preparing for the second leg of a Europa League qualifier with Hearts, but his world has just been turned upside down.
He’d been called into a side room by manager Brendan Rodgers and informed that Liverpool had offered him as part-exchange in a deal to sign Clint Dempsey from Fulham. The decision, Rodgers told him, was his.
“I went back to my room and I shed a few tears,” Henderson would reveal last year. “It hurt so much.
“I spoke to my agent and told him what had happened and I said I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay and fight and try and improve and try to prove the manager wrong. My agent agreed. I spoke to my dad. He was gutted but he backed my decision to stay and fight.”
Henderson had cost Liverpool £16million when moving from Sunderland in June 2011. He’d emerged as one of the country’s most promising young players at the Stadium of Light, making 71 Premier League appearances before his 21st birthday, as well as 13 during a loan spell with Coventry City in League One.
His first season at Liverpool brought him a League Cup winners’ medal. Henderson played more games (48) than any other player in Kenny Dalglish’s squad, but doubts about his suitability were never far from the surface. As a right-sided midfielder, he lacked trickery and speed, while in the middle he struggled to impact games.
He’d gone to the European Championship with England that summer, a late call-up to replace the injured Frank Lampard, but Rodgers was far from convinced. Within days of his arrival as Liverpool boss, he was confiding in journalists that Henderson and Andy Carroll, another big-money Dalglish buy, were “not Liverpool footballers.”
He had it wrong. While Carroll, whose training-ground approach could not have been more different, was loaned and eventually sold, Henderson took a different path.
“From that point, I just kept my head down,” he says. “I knew I wouldn’t get as much game time as I wanted but I still had faith. I was young enough to get my head down, keep working hard, do my extra bits and prove them wrong. I feel I managed to do that by the time Brendan left.”
Henderson would not start a league game under Rodgers until the November of that season, and admits his home life suffered as he pushed himself to the limit with extra sessions and extra stress. “I wasn’t a nice person to be around,” he said. All he wanted to do when he got home to his wife Rebecca, he admitted, was sleep.
It paid off though. By the end of the campaign he had made 44 appearances, scoring six times. He was going nowhere.
In 2013/14, Henderson’s influence grew as Liverpool, led by Luis Suarez’s magic and Steven Gerrard’s class, mounted an unexpected title challenge.
Five games from the end of the campaign, the Reds welcomed Manchester City to Anfield. Victory would put Rodgers’ side top of the table, in control of their destiny.
They got the win, but at a cost. In the final minute of stoppage time, with City chasing an equaliser, Henderson threw himself into a challenge with Samir Nasri, earning a straight red card. Liverpool were top of the table on a run of 10 straight wins, but privately Rodgers worried his midfielder’s three-game suspension could derail their charge. “I knew we couldn’t replace him,” he would later say.
It was during that suspension that Henderson’s leadership qualities, spotted by Ball and Co at Sunderland, came to the fore. As Liverpool approached the finishing line, naturally the media requests began to pile up. Henderson met with Rodgers and with the Reds’ head of press to discuss an idea.
“I’m suspended,” he suggested, “so why not send me and let the other lads focus on their football?”
Rodgers agreed. Henderson, though banned, travelled to Norwich for Liverpool’s next game. He faced the cameras and spoke to the newspapers. “We can’t lose his personality off the field as well,” said Rodgers. “He’s vital for us.”
How things had changed.
Henderson, as stated, has overcome plenty in his career. The fear of rejection at Sunderland, the fear of failure at Liverpool. He’s been criticised and written off, he’s spent time on the sidelines, wondering if he would ever fully shake off a debilitating heel injury.
He’s seen team-mates come and team-mates go, managers too. He’s been at the top of the table and in the middle of it, challenged for honours and played the part of also-ran. He’s experienced the full range of emotions.
Nothing, though, could ever have prepared him for that spring afternoon in 2014 when his father sat him down to tell him his news. Brian had cancer of the throat. It was bad.
“Before that happened, I thought that getting criticism and things like that was difficult,” Henderson said. “But that was the most difficult time of my life. I wasn’t prepared for that day.”
Brian had delayed telling his son for as long as he could, eager not to distract him from Liverpool’s title challenge. “I knew how much he loves Liverpool doing well,” Henderson said. “So I knew I needed to stay strong for him.”
Henderson visited his father before his first round of treatment, but saw little of him thereafter. “He wouldn’t let me,” he says. “He’s a very proud man and he didn’t want me to see him because of how he looked.
“I knew the only thing I could do, the only way I could help him, was to play well on the weekend because I knew he’d be watching. That’s a different pressure. I wanted to play well to help my dad be healthy again.
“If I can do that, I can play in any circumstances.”
Brian eventually beat the cancer, and continues to play a key role in his son’s career. Nobody was prouder when Henderson was made vice-captain by Rodgers in 2014, or when he succeeded Gerrard as skipper the following year.
He was in Kiev last summer to see Liverpool’s Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, and followed Henderson’s progress with England at the World Cup in Russia, where they reached the semi-finals.
He’ll be in Madrid too, of course. So will the rest of the family, including Jordan’s two daughters, five-year-old Elexa and four-year-old Alba. “They told me becoming a dad would change my life,” Henderson has said. “It’s true. I don’t play for myself any more, I play for them.”
Typical Henderson, you might say. Selfless to the last, no time for self-publicity or praise. “I don’t like reading good things about myself,” he says. “I’m not particularly into people giving me credit.”
“That’s just him,” says his old coach Kevin Ball. “He’s been criticised his whole career, but only because he never does anything but put his team first. How many players will do the role he is asked to do, every single week, without complaint?
“When he joined Liverpool, I told him ‘don’t ever change, because if you do I’ll come down there and kick you up the arse!’ I needn’t have bothered. He’ll never change. He’s the same now as he was when he was 15, a winner, a leader, someone who gets more pleasure out of a collective triumph than any personal glory.”
On June 1, though, Liverpool’s reluctant hero will get the chance to seize the limelight on the biggest stage of all. Beat Tottenham and he will have his place in history.
Few players, few people, would deserve it more.
Words by Neil Jones