A strange thing happened on March 11 2020. An hour before Liverpool took the Anfield field for the second leg of their Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid, Jürgen Klopp, as is the custom, released the starting line-up for the game.
Midfield anchor Fabinho was missing from Klopp’s starting team, but that – though a little surprising – wasn’t the strange thing: the Brazilian had only recently returned from injury and was still feeling his way back to form.
Even the identity of his replacement wasn’t that strange: team captain Jordan Henderson had after all played in Fabinho’s position for the two months he’d been out injured. The strange thing was the fan reaction to the starting line-up. Now, anyone who’s even slightly familiar with social media knows that the one-hour span between line-up reveal and kick off is venting time – a time when every fan, their dog and their cat, pick apart the manager’s choices and proffer myriad reasons why an alternative choice would be better.
And anyone who’s followed Liverpool over the past decade would know that Jordan Henderson has often been on the wrong end of these rants. Benching the popular Brazilian for Henderson in a big Champion League game would typically be the perfect spark for the usual social media pile on.
The strange thing is…..there was no outcry this time. It may seem an odd thing to say of a man who lifted the Champions League trophy in Madrid last June, but if one moment could capture the day Henderson finally won over the last vestige of doubters – finally turned doubters to believers, to borrow from Klopp – this was it.
Klopp, of course, has never had any doubts about his captain, but it was telling that even the most demanding of Liverpool’s naysaying fans didn’t have a moan about this. Finally, acceptance.
It’s been that kind of season for Henderson, one that has finally brought appreciation of his individual attributes and contribution to his team, and one that will end, on Wednesday night, with him holding aloft the Premier League trophy as the first title winning Liverpool captain in 30 years.
It will be a fantastic crowning moment for a well told redemption story: the big money transfer from Sunderland at 20; the early struggles under Kenny Dalglish; the proposed tear-inducing, ultimately declined transfer to Fulham; initial rejection and then acceptance under Brendan Rodgers; and the unwieldy, thankless job of succeeding a legend as captain.
That, in a nutshell, is the Jordan Henderson story: the ugly duckling turned handsome prince, the rejected stone becoming cornerstone and all that. The Fulham transfer is an oft repeated story – Rodgers’ attempt to send Henderson to Craven Cottage in part exchange for Clint Dempsey.
But there’s a lesser told story that really brings it home for me: when Rodgers arrived at Anfield in August 2012, it was another young English midfielder that first caught his fancy. While Henderson was being offered to Fulham that summer, Jonjo Shelvey was signing a new long term contract at Liverpool, and once the season started, it was Shelvey that would start regularly for the new boss, while Henderson sat on the bench.
The pecking order was clear; Shelvey started the big match against Manchester United in September; Henderson took his place on the bench. Yet, that 2012/13 season would be the making of Henderson, a real turning point. By January, he had forced his way into Rodgers’ plans, starting regularly in the second half of the season as Liverpool finished the season strongly.
By the start of the next season, the tables had turned: Henderson had become a vital cog in Rodgers’ title chasing team; Shelvey had moved on to Swansea. A year later, with Steven Gerrard moving on, the same manager named him captain.
That story speaks to resilience, character and a never-say-die spirit. But there’s more to Henderson than that. Clearly, no one becomes captain of European champions – and a key player in three title-chasing campaigns – merely on the strength of their character. It also speaks to ability, adaptability and a desire to learn. Its an important point to make because it has become easy to take the popular narrative of Henderson’s qualities at face value – hardworking, full of running, energetic, selfless – while ignoring or underrating the technical and tactical facets of his game.
Good ball control and a decent passing range have always been part of the package – Henderson’s 14 assists over the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons where more than Philippe Coutinho’s tally of 13 – and while his versatility was once a problem under Dalglish, it has become a real asset under Klopp. Henderson always had the tools and capacity, but under Klopp he has added positional nous and tactical awareness – knowing where to be to best help his team – and it’s no coincidence that he can now play comfortably and competently at both No. 6 and No. 8 in Klopp’s system. He even filled in at centre back in the absence of Virgil van Dijk at the World Club Cup in December.
It’s no exaggeration to say some of his performances this season have reminded one of the great title winning captains of Premier League lore – Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane – not so much in terms of footballing ability, but more in the way he patrols and dominates midfield, snapping at heels and putting out fires, and ultimately bending games to the will of the unrelenting team he leads. It’s form that may well see him named Football Writers’ Footballer of the year when the votes come in on Friday.
In truth, Henderson didn’t start 2019/20 at the peak of his game. Ironically, it would take that aforementioned injury to Fabinho and a switch back to the No. 6 position for his season to take off. It’s of course a position Henderson was familiar with, one he had only relinquished following Fabinho’s arrival and integration the previous season.
The Brazilian had started the season in supreme form too, so there was much concern when he went down injured in late November, just ahead of a busy December schedule. Many thought that would be the undoing of Liverpool’s excellent start to the campaign. Yet, Henderson ensured he wasn’t missed one bit. His energy, positioning and persistence kept opponents pinned back, and his quick passing and distribution set the tempo for Liverpool’s attacking play.
Perversely, despite moving to a more defensive role, his attacking contribution increased significantly.
December was particularly productive. A superb long pass set a goal up for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Burnley on the 7th; a long pass from deep led to Mo Salah’s decisive goal at Salzburg three days later; and another superb pass sent Mané on his way to set up Roberto Firmino’s extra time winner in the World Club Cup final against Flamengo on the 21st. It set the tone for a season that will end with Henderson recording four goals and five assists, his most productive since 2014/15.
Those aren’t earth-shattering numbers by any means, but there’s more to football than numbers. There was certainly more to Henderson’s impact than goal contributions. The 30-year old was outstanding over the next three months, pushing his teammates to win after win, until injury struck in Madrid in February.
During that time, Liverpool won 13 straight Premier League games to set an unassailable lead in the title race. Of those 13 games, BBC Sports named Henderson Man of the Match five times. Ten days after Henderson’s injury, Liverpool went down 0-3 at Watford, their first defeat of the season. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Henderson has already been voted BBC’s Premier League Player of the Year.
Whether he will add the more prestigious, more credible Football Writers’ award, remains to be seen. It could just as easily go to Man City’s spectacular Kevin de Bruyne or Liverpool’s scintillating Sadio Mané. Frankly, I couldn’t care less, and I doubt that the selfless Henderson cares either.
He’ll already have the “holy grail” in his hands by then – hoisted high after his signature shuffle no doubt. For a man that’s all about the team, that’s the one that really matters.
That’s the ultimate prize of redemption.