Go east, young man. Keep left, keep smiling

Versatile Hendrie rediscovers his form and his sense of fun as hopes rise of a ticket to Japan
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Call off the search – Lee Hendrie has finally found his England smile again. You know the one: the big, happy grin that lit up the face of the 21-year-old youngster who had just been handed his first international cap against the Czech Republic almost three years ago. Since that uplifting night, loss of fitness, form and confidence have all contributed to Hendrie's exile, but the Aston Villa man is now on the verge of a recall to the national squad and the traumas of the past few seasons have been stored well out of the way.

Hendrie has worked long and hard at trying to recapture what he describes as the "happiest moment of my career". So long, in fact, that he often wondered whether he hadn't totally lost his joy of playing. The depression Hendrie suffered in the two years following his Wembley debut is not untypical of a young player standing at the buffet of fame. It was, however, wholly out of character for the Birmingham boy for whom smiling and playing well had always gone hand in hand.

At his lowest point, Hendrie even contemplated never playing again. Persistent ankle injuries, one picked up at the tail-end of the 1998-99 season and the other weeks before the Christmas before last, troubled him greatly over the past three years. And, although Hendrie played through the pain barrier during much of that time, he now admits he never felt right. "I would be turning out, but was never quite there," he says. "Both my ankles were sore most of the time and the mere thought that I might get injured was in my head all the time. When you hurt yourself twice in the same place it kills you mentally. I was so anxious that I had no confidence in anything I did. It was destroying me psychologically."

Despite Hendrie's numerous cries for help, no one seemed capable of helping. Worse still, many of those closest to him simply did not understand why he was so down. "People kept saying 'You've got this, you've got that, so why are you so unhappy'. But that would drive me even madder, because it's not as simple as that. Sometimes, you can't just snap your fingers and feel better."

Only after a call from his best friend 18 months ago did the healing process start. "I remember it so clearly," Hendrie says. "I was in a my sitting-room feeling really low, when Alex called me up. He just told me simple things, gave me simple words of encouragement, and for some reason I felt better. It was definitely the turning point." Since then, Hendrie has slowly got himself fit again, rejoined the Villa first team squad and is now pushing for inclusion in the England party.

"I feel ready for an international return," he says. "I must confess I got the video out of my one England appearance just the other day to have a little look. It's amazing. It seems such a long time ago, but it was really nice for me to remind myself of what I want to achieve again. I'm desperate to get back involved in the England fold."

Injuries aside, Hendrie has also been a victim of circumstance and stupidity. Circumstance, because Glenn Hoddle lost his job as England manager shortly after handing Hendrie his debut. "He actually told me he was really pleased with my performance but would not pick me for the following squad because he wanted to look at other players as well," Hendrie recalls. "The next thing I knew, he was gone and I was thrown out of the frame a bit." Cue the stupidity, at last summer's Under-21 European Championship, when Hendrie received a three-month international ban for ignoring a strict curfew.

Those "silly days" are long gone, however, and it was a sign of Hendrie's new-found maturity that he dedicated this year's summer holidays to preparing himself properly for the up-coming season. "I really thought about it this time," he says. "I had four weeks off and took stock of my years as a pro. It's something I needed to do. I realised that if I wanted to make progress in the second part of my career, I needed to set myself some standards. I remember sitting quietly on holiday and saying: 'This season I'm going to get back in the England squad'. I'm not going to put undue pressure on myself and start talking about the World Cup or anything, but I'm determined to push for a place in the international group."

Hendrie, whose Villa side entertain Fulham this afternoon, is not the only young hopeful desperately trying to break into Sven Goran Eriksson's tight-knit group. Others, such as his friend Matt Jansen of Blackburn, as well as Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves and West Ham's Joe Cole, are also vying for one of the few remaining midfield places. As ever, only the left side of that quartet continues to look suspect and, as expected, Hendrie is willing to fill the void. "The midfield is so strong these days, that I would be happy to get in anywhere in the team, even central defence," he jokes. "But I think my best chance is on the left of midfield. That's where the gaffer [John Gregory] says I could play for England and I think I could do the job."

Hendrie adds: "I used to play there as a kid and I like the position. I'm a naturally attack-minded player anyway, so getting forward and creating chances has always been part of my game."

Although not a natural left-footer, Hendrie would at least be more suited to the role than Nick Barmby, Emile Heskey or even Steve McManaman. Hendrie offers good pace, a wide range of passing and that Ginola-like extra: versatility. "I could watch David all day," Hendrie says of the Frenchman. "He has great balance and can play in so many different roles." Hendrie, though, grew up idolising another David, who turned out in the claret and blue of Aston Villa in the late Eighties. Platt, according to Hendrie, is the perfect example of the versatile midfielder, "someone who can slot in anywhere in the formation, has two good feet and will get you goals". "He is my role model," Hendrie says, "and I hope one day to become a Villa and England legend like him."

For now, though, Hendrie has set himself more attainable targets. "After the times I've been through," he says, "just being involved in the England set-up would mean the world to me. And now that England have qualified for the World Cup, maybe Mr Eriksson will try out a few youngsters." A recall to the squad would prompt a trademark smile. "But a seat on the plane to Korea and Japan," Hendrie says, "and I can assure you I'd have a constant grin."

The Lefties Seven rivals

Nick Barmby: the man in possession, though his last two performances, against Albania and Greece, left a lot to be desired.

Emile Heskey: if Sven Goran Eriksson stops persevering with the Liverpool man in attack, he may move him to the left wing for good.

Darren Anderton: when fit, one of England's most accomplished players. Hasadvantage of experience in two major tournaments.

Steve McManaman: what he can do for Real Madrid, he simply cannot get near to for England. Could be dropped from next squad.

Matt Jansen: perhaps Hendrie's biggest threat. Both can play on the left and both are also versatile. Will there be room for two?

Owen Hargreaves: Bayern's youngster looked lost on the left against Holland but may be given another chance in up-coming friendlies.

Joe Cole: needs to regain fitness and form before he is even considered, but Eriksson has always wanted to try him out.