AFTER a wonder goal that was greeted with little more than a grunt by the Liverpool-indifferent Martin Tyler and with a Marko Grujic-style open mouth by everyone else, it’s easy to praise Jordan Henderson today.
After the passion that poured from his celebration as he screamed “Fucking come on, YES” as he sprinted away from one of the best strikes of his career, it’s easy to offer up two fingers to those in your Reds-supporting number who have doubted the captain while you have argued otherwise.
Henderson turned in his best display in red in some time at Stamford Bridge on Friday. So right now it’s an easy time to rate him.
Equally, it was easy for Henderson’s doubters to have their moment when Liverpool crashed at Burnley and the captain was all at sea in a defensive midfield role.
Similarly, Henderson struggled in the early stages at Arsenal — too many passes sideways, too many moments showing up a player not sure.
What seemed to go amiss in the flood of criticism that came his way is that Henderson is being asked to play another new position for Liverpool. Again. He has detailed the coaching that has gone into it. The chats with Željko Buvač, the work at Melwood and the try outs pre-season. But none of that is preparation for the Premier League.
Now, a defensive midfielder. Previously, a central midfielder expected to burst into the opposition box. Before that positioned wide under Kenny Dalglish in a slot that did neither the individual or the collective any favours.
Henderson even enjoyed a brief cameo at right back away at Blackburn Rovers.
Whatever the job asked of him during his time at Liverpool, Henderson has got on with it with minimum fuss. No toys out of the pram, no mad headlines, no problems. Just a head down and hard work.
When players are outspoken, it’s regularly suggested that it’s fair enough; that professional players are well within their rights to put it out there where they would prefer to play.
Henderson, instead, has just cracked on with it. Never has there been a hint of a player not trying, of a player not desperate to improve, of a player not putting everything he has into making it work at Liverpool.
In terms of natural ability, is he one of the best to ever pull on the shirt in the middle of the park? Probably not. But he doesn’t claim to be. And the standards set in that area of the park in the history of Liverpool FC are not the easiest of benchmarks to reach. We had the best midfield in the world, remember?
In the early stages of his Liverpool career, Henderson was interviewed by a journalist at Melwood. After the recorder was switched off at the end of the interview, Henderson turned the tables and asked the writer a question. “What do the fans think of me?”
It’s just a moment. A snapshot. But it’s also an insight into a player that has always strived to improve, always been professional and always looked for ways he can improve. There is something to be said for that.
No fluke. Used to do this in training & worked hard at it. Was always practicing with Stevie G, Suarez & Coutinho https://t.co/03QGzz9FZ6
— DrZaf (@sportsdrzaf) September 16, 2016
This isn’t a player just picking up his wages, going through the motions and thinking he has made it because he is at Liverpool. We’ve had our share of those. It isn’t a player happy to sign the contracts only to renege on their side of the deal by looking for another pay-day elsewhere. We’ve had our share of those, too.
No instead, Henderson is a thinker. A trier. A player committed to making the best of his ability. And, above all, he is a reliable player that managers clearly value — one that appears to listen to what they say and carries out their instructions without fuss.
In five years at Liverpool, Henderson has racked up 218 appearances for the club, playing regularly under Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers and now Klopp. To suggest all have got it wrong doesn’t really stack up. We only ever see part of the player — the man on the pitch. The player behind the scenes counts, too. How he trains, how he interacts with team-mates, how he is taking on board instruction and how he is dealing with the lows as well as the highs.
In Henderson’s first four seasons at Liverpool, he racked up more than 40 appearances in each campaign, and it was only during the last campaign when he had trouble with foot, heel and knee problems that the count dropped to 26. Traditionally, he has been a player who can be relied on.
Talking about the season 2013-14 is now very tired as a concept, along with the ‘nearly won the league’ moniker that comes with it, but it is odd that memories have faded to an extent that Henderson’s red card against Manchester City in April 2014 — and the hand wringing that followed as a player then considered key was suspended for three games — has been forgotten.
Instead, Henderson’s first real dip in regular first-team football at Liverpool prompted calls that he was now dispensable; that Liverpool should think about an upgrade — even that Jürgen Klopp should consider someone else for the captaincy.
Hardly the best backdrop for improvement for someone who cares about what fans make of him.
And yet Henderson could now be emerging into the light once again. Few would want him dropped on the basis of his performance at Chelsea and — if he can reach that level more consistently — the doubters will soon be quietened once again.
Because it’s not the first time football’s Grim Reaper has come calling for Henderson’s time at Anfield. Yet then, too, he prevailed in the face of those that doubted him — a number that on that occasion included the manager.
It’s easily forgotten four years on that Henderson was offered as a makeweight in a failed bid for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey in the summer of 2012.
Speaking later that year, he said: “I worked really hard to come to a club like Liverpool and I didn’t want to leave in a hurry. I want to stay at Liverpool for as long as I can. I want to keep fighting for my place and I told the manager that.
“I said I wanted to stay and keep fighting because I believe I can get into the team. I just wanted to focus on playing for Liverpool, work hard and get myself into the team.
“Some people might have thought they’d rather go and play football but I said I will continue to work hard every day, keep fighting and I believe I have the ability to be in the team.”
The decision to stay and what followed — a transformation into a mainstay in the team under the same manager (and later the appointment as captain) — showed that Henderson has a spirit and determination that is vital in a game that cares little for the human side of things.
Given the circumstances, a Stewart Downing-style shrinking into introspection would have been understandable. Instead, Henderson was true to his word. He keeps on working, he keeps on fighting. And he’s still here, now winning big games for Liverpool.
Criticising what Henderson can’t do with a football is easy, and has been a common occurrence since he arrived at Liverpool. This season, he can’t play defensive midfield. Back then he couldn’t play on the wing. Or he doesn’t score enough goals. He even runs wrong, because Alex Ferguson says so.
A glance at Henderson’s career stats suggests he has never been prolific in front of goal, so why are his 23 goals at Liverpool almost held against him in some quarters? His best count for the Reds in a season is seven in 2014-15. At Sunderland, he scored five in 79 appearances.
On loan at Coventry City, Henderson scored one in 10 games, despite Tim Sherwood’s insistence on Goals On Sunday this week that he was “doing that sort of thing at Coventry” when talking of his strike at Stamford Bridge.
Why is there not instead a focus on what Henderson can do at the football club? He is capable of a goal, but it is not his raison d’etre. He is an all-energy midfielder. A player who knits the play. An intelligent footballer capable of a good pass and a good goal but also a protector who can join it all together. He is an organiser that can contribute at both ends of the pitch, and one who has been on the pitch more on often than not both in terms of staying fit and keeping his discipline.
It seems Henderson is constantly held against unrealistic standards few will reach in the game. Top of the list: Steven Gerrard.
When Henderson succeeded Gerrard as captain of Liverpool, he was taking the armband from a bona-fide great — a player who turned out 710 times for the Reds and scored 186 times; a man who lifted the European Cup. For a generation of Liverpool fans, Steven Gerrard is peerless.
Comparing Henderson to Gerrard is unfair and unhelpful. They are boots that in many ways can’t be filled, certainly not anytime soon. It is Mission Impossible.
When Gerrard himself spoke to The Anfield Wrap in America this summer following a chance meeting at the game, it was perhaps telling that he took the conversation to Henderson without any prompting.
He said then: “We all need to get behind Jordan — the manager, the staff and the fans. He had a very difficult year last year with injuries.
“I’ve been there when you’re on the floor with injuries and you’re frustrated. It affects your confidence — you’re desperate to get back and other players are coming in, doing well and people are doubting you, saying maybe we should move him on.
“If we all get behind Henderson and he finds his top form he can be a very big asset for Klopp this year. I hope he starts the season strong and gets his confidence early. I just want everyone to get behind him and give him that chance.”
The former captain has faith in the current one and yet some still say Henderson shouldn’t be captain. Some say he isn’t fit to be captain (and in the next breath will quote the greats — Gerrard, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Emlyn Hughes and Tommy Smith).
But who should be the captain? James Milner? Dejan Lovren? Emre Can? Joel Matip? There isn’t a stand-out candidate apart from the man who actually holds the armband.
And as for not being ‘fit’ for the captaincy (apart from the fact that he is), there is the small matter of players like Jamie Redknapp, Paul Ince and Mark Wright being awarded the honour in the past. Every single player to wear the armband at Liverpool hasn’t been a captain fantastic in the Steven Gerrard mould yet it seems Henderson is only ever compared to the greats when it comes to criticising his suitability.
After Chelsea, it was telling that Klopp went to Henderson early for his on-pitch man hug. He got a chat as well as the customary embrace. The beaming smiles on both men suggested a conversation somewhere sometime off the pitch had just come true on it.
Henderson might not be the superstar, the big shirt seller or the man making the world 11 in the back bedroom of the FIFA players, but he is respected by his team-mates, respected by his manager, and perhaps he deserves a little more respect further afield.
No less than Pele once said success is a result of hard work, perseverance, learning, sacrifice and love of what you do.
Henderson has displayed all of those things at Liverpool.
Perhaps, under Klopp, he can finally taste success beyond playing an hour in the League Cup final win in 2012.
If anyone deserves it, he does.
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