People keep telling Lee Hendrie he missed the boat. His first England cap was also his last, leaving him with 14 minutes of fame. Much as he would like to have added to a dazzling cameo against the Czech Republic at Wembley eight years ago, his face lights up more when he talks about the day he missed the bus.
The scene was Selhurst Park. Hendrie, who starts a third month on loan from Aston Villa to promotion-chasing Stoke City back on West Midlands turf at Coventry on Saturday, had just helped them to three Championship points against Crystal Palace and emerged to find the media in wait.
The red-top press revelled in the collapse of his marriage hours after the wedding, not to mention his escapades with fast cars and red cards. And yet, as the self-styled "most approachable man you could ever speak to", the 29-year-old midfielder obligingly paused to chat about Stoke's win. Meanwhile the coach left without him.
"Luckily, Tony Pulis [the Stoke manager] had stayed behind and I saw him," Hendrie recalls. "He assumed I was off clubbing in London and said, 'You be careful down here tonight'. I told him, 'Believe it or not, I want to get home'. He rang the bus and it came back. The lads said no one noticed I wasn't on, but I suspect it may have been a wind-up."
Pulis's gesture was reciprocal. Hendrie and a clutch of fellow loanees, including Andy Griffin (Portsmouth), Salif Diao (Liverpool) and now Patrik Berger (Villa), have helped to transform a team whose sat-nav appeared programmed for relegation. In his 11 appearances Stoke have joined the fast lane to a possible Premiership place.
The rebirth of such a lavish talent will inevitably lead some observers to wonder what might have been. Steven Gerrard, who once stoked the England Under-21 engine room with Hendrie and Frank Lampard, hails him in his autobiography as "probably the best young midfielder at the time". Wistful regret is not in Hendrie's style, however, and he uses the term "one-cap wonder" with both pride and self-deprecation. "The funny thing is, I nearly scored for England that night. If I had, maybe it would have been a different story. The other factor was that it proved to be Glenn Hoddle's last game in charge. His assistant John Gorman told me I'd be in the next squad, but it wasn't to be.
"Some of the newspaper stuff may have stopped me getting more caps. I'm not saying I'm squeaky-clean because I've done some daft things. But I got branded 'football's bad boy' and people made money by selling untrue stories. Now I feel I've grown up. I've got two young kids and the last thing they want to see is their dad getting into trouble."
Saturday's victory over West Bromwich Albion could have been his Stoke swansong. Martin O'Neill, for whom he has played just seven minutes since the Northern Irishman became Villa's manager, pondered a recall as injuries bit into his squad, but allowed Hendrie to stay.
This was good news in the sense that he is "loving every minute" at the Britannia Stadium. But also bad news because O'Neill's preference for the raw promise of Isaiah Osbourne and Peter Whittingham suggests that Hendrie, Villa's longest-serving player, may find his days at the club are numbered.
"It's hard to walk out and forget a place after 12 years. My heart's always been at Villa. It felt weird pulling on Stoke's stripes after so long in the claret and blue. I also have close friends there, like Gareth [Barry] and Jlloyd [Samuel], and I'm always asking what's happening.
"I'm really pleased with how they're doing and I think Martin O'Neill was a fantastic appointment. He's an honest, intelligent guy and he won't mess about. I didn't play much last season under [David] O'Leary. I came on as a sub at Arsenal on the opening day, but my fitness wasn't great and I thought, 'I won't get a sniff here'. I felt almost forgotten, especially with the lads doing well. I wasn't going to go in to O'Neill demanding to play, because I didn't think I should be. But I needed to get back out there. I'm at a stage in my life where I need to play, not sit on the bench or be in the reserves."
His father, the former Birmingham player Paul Hendrie, is a friend of Pulis from their time as team-mates at Bristol Rovers. His influence, and the former Plymouth manager's plans to deploy him in an attacking role, swayed it for Stoke.
"I could have gone to Palace or QPR, but the gaffer struck me as a nice man and honest, too. Stoke were near the bottom, so I wondered what I might be letting myself in for. But I also looked at the quality of the squad and thought they could do well.
"I've been told they were playing more of a long-ball game and needed someone to link play, which is what I do. Getting three goals has been a bonus.
"When we beat Norwich 5-0, all the family backed me to be the first scorer. I was very popular when it happened!"
Hendrie's renaissance has echoes of the way Pulis's most illustrious predecessor, Tony Waddington, made Stoke a refuge for ball-artists who were regarded elsewhere as wasters or over the hill. Many put down roots in the Potteries, but Hendrie is certain to attract interest during January's transfer window.
"I'd like to think I'll be playing in the Premiership again," he says. With Villa? "Maybe. I believe they watched me at Leicester, which was tough because they're a very direct side."
At Stoke, perhaps? "I don't see why they shouldn't get promotion," he replies, proceeding to prove that the body-swerve remains part of the Hendrie repertoire. "It's a big club, with a good stadium, passionate support, an excellent manager and wealthy chairman [Peter Coates].
"Bring in a few more players and who knows where they could end up?"Reuse content