Jordan Henderson has covered quite some distance since dropping his shorts on Soccer AM’s Skill Skool in 2008 to reveal a pair of underpants with “wow” scribbled on them as the climax to a ball-juggling trick. He cringes at the recollection: “We quickly had to come up with a few things that would make it more fun and entertaining,” the Liverpool midfielder says. “I’m using young and stupid as my excuse.”
That footage also serves as a reminder of how different it could have all turned out. Nathan Luscombe, a year Henderson’s senior at Sunderland’s Academy of Light, was victorious in the TV challenge. He is now registered to Celtic Nation in the First Division of the Northern League. “When you’re young, no one really knows what’s going to happen and how far you’re going to get,” Henderson, 24, adds.
That was certainly the case with Henderson, who will line up in Liverpool’s midfield for the Merseyside derby today, having become a fixture in the team despite a rocky start to life Anfield: question marks have dogged him.
Could he secure a football career despite suffering from Osgood-Schlatters, a growing pains condition requiring regular treatment? Was the sport the correct choice for someone who excelled at badminton and table tennis? Could he justify the £20m fee Liverpool paid Sunderland for him? Does he really run from his knees, as Sir Alex Ferguson said?
Everyone from the Liverpool owners (so says former football director Damien Comolli) to Joey Barton to the pint army at The Albert outside Anfield have voiced concerns since his move to Merseyside – not that it bothers Henderson.
“When it’s not going so well, I keep myself away from all the coverage and focus on what I need to do to fix what’s wrong,” he says when we meet at Melwood after training. “When you go through difficult moments, it is very hard to see through it, but it’s important that you do and it comes down to mental strength, where you force yourself to look beyond what’s happening now to what you want to happen.
“At the same time, when things are good and people are putting you up on a pedestal, you’ve got to close yourself off from that and continue concentrating on what you need to achieve.”
Everton vs Liverpool combined XI
Everton vs Liverpool combined XI
1/10 GK: Simon Mignolet
This isn’t exactly a vintage tie for goalkeepers with the Belgian struggling this season, though he has been much improved in recent weeks. Tim Howard, out through injury, would run him close despite a poor season of his own, while Joel Robles is a weak link for the Toffees.
2/10 DEF: John Stones
The demise of Sylvain Distin has been sad to see but Stones has all the tools to be a top-class defender in the future, for club and country. He is a little over-confident in possession sometimes and can get caught on the ball. Mamadou Sakho has all the physical tools to succeed in the Premier League but is too prone to lapses in concentration.
3/10 DEF: Martin Skrtel
Phil Jagielka’s poor form is one of the biggest reasons Everton have slipped so far this season, the England man was a rock last year but has really struggled this term. Skrtel has his critics – he’s slow and not the most comfortable on the ball – but he is a solid defender.
4/10 DEF: Leighton Baines
The England left-back is probably Everton’s biggest attacking threat, with great set-piece delivery and an unbridled willingness to get forward. Defensively he is suspect, however, but his eight assists push him past the improving Alberto Moreno.
5/10 MID: Lucas
The Brazilian holding midfielder is not quite back to his very, very best, but he is close. Lucas has been pivotal in Liverpool’s return to form, providing the perfect screen for the defence and allowing their other players to push forward without hesitation. Besic has improved as the season has gone on – and out-performed Gareth Barry - but is not quite up to Lucas’ level.
6/10 MID: Steven Gerrard
In the battle of the geriatric former England midfielders, Gerrard edges past Barry. Back when these teams met in September Barry would have been picked but he has regressed hugely this season after his brilliant loan spell last year. Gerrard was suffering at the start of the season but has improved since being pushed slightly further forward by Rodgers.
7/10 MID: Jordan Henderson
Another anomaly sees central midfielder/jack of all trades Jordan Henderson face-off with out-and-out winger Kevin Mirallas. Lazar Markovic might have battled Mirallas but he has been ruled out of the game. The Belgian Mirallas has been seemingly trying to find a way out of Goodison Park in the last month and needs to show the form and goals to match his clear talent. Jordan Henderson is one of Liverpool’s most important players, providing drive and energy from midfield, as well as filling in as a wing-back when needed.
8/10 FW: Philippe Coutinho
Since suffering the injury that kept him out of the World Cup in the summer, Ross Barkley has unfortunately not been the same player. Where he scored six goals last season he has just one so far this term. Coutinho can drift in and out of games but has undoubtable match-winning talent; as shown by the fantastic goal he scored against Bolton in midweek.
9/10 FW: Raheem Sterling
In Daniel Sturridge’s absence Sterling, still only 20, became Liverpool’s most important player. He has six goals in his last 11 in all competitions and provides a direct, lightning fast threat that defenders hate to deal with. Steven Naismith is an important player for Roberto Martinez, and can be a match-winner, but even the most blue-nosed Everton fan would gladly swap him for Sterling.
10/10 FW: Romelu Lukaku
Picking the Belgian ahead of the England striker was easily the hardest decision to make and could go either way. Lukaku has not played like the £28m striker Everton thought they were getting in the summer, with just 10 goals in 31 matches so far this season. But Daniel Sturridge, as good as he has looked on his return, has played just 50 minutes of football since his return. Lukaku needs to live up to his hefty price-tag if Everton are to win this game and improve during the rest of the season.
“Smaller and skinnier” than the other hopefuls at the Academy of Light, as its manager Ged McNamee recalled in 2011, Henderson always had to dig deeper, to show more. “He’s just a smashing lad with bags of natural ability and a strong work ethic,” says McNamee. “He’ll always keep going and will always give you 100 per cent.”
That assiduousness has ensured Henderson survived football’s fascination with finding fault, especially in his early days at Liverpool. “You have to fight things like doubt and believe that all the work you do will help push you on, that’s when you have to give extra – not give up.
“With the criticism, you can’t take it too personally. People will always have opinions, you just have to remember who you are, what you’ve sacrificed and what you’re working to achieve.”
It is this tunnel vision that helped Henderson cope when his father was diagnosed with cancer last year. The revelation came with a request from his dad: “Try to be man of the match in every game you play.” He was exactly that in four of the next five fixtures. “I wouldn’t trade the downs and going through all the tough stuff, because it shapes you into a more steely person,” he says.
When Brendan Rodgers took over at Liverpool, the manager was uncertain what Henderson could offer but now says he is the “moral compass of the group”.
Henderson says of Rodgers: “He’s been huge for me, both personally and for my career. On the pitch, he has sharpened me tactically, and off it, he’s helped me so much. He was so good to me and my family when my dad was having surgery and he doesn’t just manage players in a football sense, it’s more than that. Even when it comes to things like leadership abilities, he’s quick to spot it and work with you on improving.”
Rodgers refers to Henderson as “a sponge who never tires of soaking up information” – he has sessions with Chris Davies, Liverpool’s head of opposition analysis, after every game to go through what he’s done well and where he can improve. It is no surprise, then, that regardless of the system Rodgers chooses, Henderson plays. He has operated in a variety of roles across midfield, as a wing-back or a more traditional right full-back, as well as in the hole.
“I’m much more rounded when it comes to positional and tactical awareness,” Henderson says. “I’ve matured a lot as a footballer from being versatile and understanding how the game operates from different roles. Whatever position I play, I make sure I know everything that is needed from me and, when you’ve been used in so many, you automatically know if you’re attacking centrally what the wide player on the right needs – for example, as you’ve played in both. I think I’ve fitted into different roles well and adjusted to different systems.”
There is an area of his game that is flawed, though, as his manager reminds him: goalscoring. Henderson got five last season and was set a target of 10 for this campaign. He has three so far.
“That is the area of my game I have to improve. Obviously, my role changes a lot in the team [but] I have to push to add more goals. As long as I’m contributing, playing well and doing what is required of me tactically, and we’re winning, then I’m happy. I know the goals will come.”
But how does he know when to push on or hold position? “It depends on how I feel in the game,” he says. “There’s times where I have to be mindful that I need to be controlling and not looking to break beyond [the defence], so it’s about sensing when it’s right to go and if there is a gap to get in. It’s something that you tweak game by game depending on the tactics and the situations.”
While the midfielder’s goal tally needs work he has crafted four of Raheem Sterling’s nine strikes this season. In fact, the pair have been the team’s most creative partnership, with Sterling assisting all three of his team-mate’s goals. “I get on really well with Raheem,” he says. “We’ve worked together for a few years so I know exactly where he’s going to move and where I should play the ball, and it’s the same with him for me.
“My job is also to find him when we’re on England duty, so it’s a constant supply between us and it becomes natural. We’ve got a superb relationship off the pitch and I think it comes across when we play.”
A few more goals – a bit more “wow factor” you might say – and Henderson would be the complete footballer. Who would have thought that when they were watching TV all those years ago?
- More about:
- Liverpool FC