IN the summer of 2012 Jordan Henderson was at the Liverpool exit door after a difficult first season under Kenny Dalglish following a move from Sunderland reported to be worth £20million.
That Brendan Rodgers was prepared to offload the then 22-year-old midfielder — with barely a sense of what Henderson might offer in a Red shirt — to assist a move for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey (now with Seattle Sounders in the MLS) seems all the more remarkable now. Three years on, as the unassuming Wearside lad assumes the Liverpool captaincy from the departed Steven Gerrard, he has the endorsement of both Rodgers and the ex-skipper ringing in his ears.
While Brendan is on record — in one of his oft lamented, business-speak sound bites — saying Henderson “represents the best values of what we are all about as a team and as a club”, a more telling and encouraging insight comes from Gerrard, the man who passes over the armband.
“I certainly believe Jordan has everything you need to be a great captain. He’s a fantastic professional who tries to lead by example in every training session and in every game. He has really grown as a player and is improving all the time with experience. He can become a great captain for this club. He’s a fantastic player for me to hand the armband over to. I’ve got great respect for Jordan Henderson and I know everyone else at the club feels the same.”
From what we see of Henderson on the pitch; a never-say-die attitude allied to endless running and commitment and no little skill, Gerrard’s tribute hardly comes as surprise, but it is important approval nonetheless. For some supporters, Henderson’s promotion is symbolic of Liverpool’s continuing decline and a team roster that, in theory, for 2015-16 boasts not a single star name.
By comparison with some former captains; the likes of Gerrard, Sami Hyypia, Graeme Souness, Emlyn Hughes and Ron Yeats, Henderson still has a long way to go before fulfilling the role of Liverpool icon whether through force of personality or a dominating on-field presence. Reflective of the size of the task at hand in winning over the naysayers, Henderson’s recent inclusion alongside Lionel Messi on the cover of (the UK Version of) FIFA 16 has met only with endemic sarcasm and derision; the prevailing wind emanating from the depressed Anfield stands — before a ball has even been kicked under his captaincy.
If there is a sense that the majority remain to be convinced, and that many are underwhelmed at the prospect of Henderson leading out the Reds on a permanent basis, his appointment is inextricably linked with the departure of Gerrard and the overwhelming feeling that Rodgers’ management is in the last chance saloon. However, most fair observers will agree that Henderson’s development as a player over four seasons at Anfield is deserving of his elevation to club captain. As cantankerous as the crowd can be, they will give him a chance.
From the travails of that first season under Dalglish, when the hefty price tag weighed heavy and he fulfilled an alien, unselfish role on the periphery of midfield, Henderson has — literally and metaphorically — made great strides. His decision, in the wake of the Dempsey debacle and Rodgers’ hasty judgement of his worth, to stay and fight for his place was vindicated, and by the second half of the manager’s debut season he had become a regular starter.
His deployment throughout the following, memorable 2013-14 campaign as a pressing, attacking midfielder saw his energy assist Liverpool’s quick transitions to Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling and at the same time offer a shield to Gerrard’s deeper-lying defensive midfield role. When tiredness saw him overstretch and receive a crucial red card towards the end of the epic victory over Manchester City in April 2014, hindsight tells us that Liverpool’s title dreams disappeared with him down the Anfield tunnel.
Last season, although shifted around and occasionally played deeper and sometimes wider as Rodgers grappled with different systems, he was one of the few who could claim to have kept his standards relatively high level throughout a trying campaign. Tellingly, when Gerrard missed a chunk of the season through rest and injury after Christmas, Henderson captained the Reds during their best run of form which saw 13 unbeaten league games.
Morale was at its height during this period which promised a genuine challenge to claim a place in the top four after an appalling autumn. Henderson visibly grasped the nettle with a series of strong performances, symbolised by a swashbuckling opener against Manchester City at Anfield, and a scruffy, ricocheted winner at Swansea which — by contrast — was all down to persistence and determination.
Despite a growing assurance; if there was a valid criticism of Henderson, it was that he consistently appeared too deferential in the presence of Gerrard; happy to assume a perfunctory role. During 2013-14 this became less of an issue as they effectively played in different areas of the pitch, Henderson pressing ahead as an auxiliary attacker while Gerrard operated with aplomb from deep.
Throughout last season with Gerrard, when fit, restored to a more conventional central role, Henderson too often went missing, none more so than at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. By contrast, with Gerrard absent against Burnley at Anfield in March, a Kop end volley to open the scoring and a raking 40-yard assist to Daniel Sturridge were reminiscent of the atrophying skipper at his best.
Now though Henderson can be entirely his own man. While Gerrard’s playing star was falling, his stock as an ambassador and a leader was the compensating force and Jordan will surely have learnt from such mentoring. At the age of 25 and with four Anfield seasons under his belt, he boasts the right amount of experience in a squad that is packed with the young and/or the untested. His work ethic — those endless shuttles during the 90 minutes and the famed Melwood overtime — is perfect for setting of the highest professional example to this year’s cluster of new recruits. Jordan Henderson will lead from the front.
The hiring of James Milner as a potential sidekick in midfield could prove to be a masterstroke. A no-nonsense, experienced presence with cadence and rhythm to match the mileage of Henderson, gives Liverpool’s attacking midfield a solid yeoman base. Milner also comes with a trophy-winning mentality — something of which the Liverpool dressing room is undeniably short.
While Milner is more roundhead than cavalier, and if Henderson’s detractors can rightly point to an occasional lack of flair, the counterbalance comes in the potential trickery of those ahead. The immediate supply line to Christian Benteke, Daniel Sturridge et al is an area of the field where Liverpool are well-stocked with creative talent. If Henderson and Milner are charged with carrying the piano then the likes of Coutinho, Firmino, Ibe and Lallana can tickle the ivories to their hearts’ content.
That said, to pigeonhole Henderson purely as a workhorse is to somewhat damn him with faint praise. He is capable of far more than putting in 100 per cent effort, as his occasional, sometimes spectacular goals will testify. Henderson’s biggest challenge is combining the new-found responsibility of captaincy with his own evolution as a footballer. There is a brooding sense that he sometimes plays within himself; that there is a lot more to come. For all that he represents the epitome of the modern player — power, pace, fitness; sobriety even — Jordan Henderson has only scratched the surface of his talent. One wonders whether leadership and the confidence it should bring will allow him to fully express his gifts.
However crestfallen we might have been to witness departures over the years of those exotic names; Torres, Alonso, Mascherano, and Suarez and see them grace the European stage for their new employers, for Henderson and Liverpool it might be an advantage to forge an entirely new identity based on the team ethic. Beginning a new era with a “team of no stars” is perhaps the perfect environment for an assured Jordan Henderson to assume his new role and stamp a fresh, untainted authority on the club. For Henderson and, perhaps even more so, for Brendan Rodgers opportunity knocks. Strong men relish such opportunity and for the new skipper and a beleaguered manager, this season could represent the defining season of their careers.
Carragher and Gerrard have gone. The “Scouse Heart” has finally packed up. The errant Sterling has fled — his tail firmly between his legs. Luis Suarez is an increasingly distant memory of the year we “nearly won the league”.
It’s time to move on. The Kop has always loved its heroes, and there is undoubtedly a vacuum to be filled. But let’s not obsess over individuals. It’s a team game after all and we’ve now got the ultimate team man tossing the coin. He’s capable of a lot more besides.
Here’s to you, Jordan Henderson.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo