Jordan Henderson, often maligned by Liverpool fans, has recently developed into a standout performer. Michael Sweeting takes a look at the midfielder’s career and asks where he can go from here.
The 3rd April 2011, Sunderland are on a downward spiral and losing 5-0 away to Manchester City. A twenty year old Jordan Henderson, who had struggled on the right of midfield, trudges despondently off the pitch at the Etihad Stadium to a chorus of boos from his boyhood teams fans. Initially a superstar at Sunderland, his form had dipped dramatically and coincided with a worrying loss of form for the Black Cats as well. That day, watching their side crumble to another dismal defeat, the Sunderland fans let rip on one of their own.
For many young players this would have been a devastating blow. Being booed by your own team’s fans is bad enough for many, but when like Henderson you stood shoulder to shoulder with those fans just a few years before it must have been doubly hard to take. Jordan showed resilience though, he bounced back and scored two vital goals to beat Wigan at the Stadium of Light and save Sunderland from the drop.
Despite the questions asked and the boos directed at him, he stood up, accepted the challenge and saved Sunderland’s Premier League status. It’s the kind of reaction that is found in top footballing talents and three months later he took the pitch at Anfield as one of the new wave of talent brought to the club by Kenny Dalglish.
Unfortunately for Henderson his Liverpool career got off to a slow start. Despite an early goal against Bolton Wanderers at home, he never really got going. Pushed out of necessity to the right hand side of midfield his performances were at best average but more commonly just poor. His talent range just didn’t suit his position – a technically strong and athletic player he was forced to try and become a David Beckham-lite.
Once again the boo-boys came hunting and often his selection was met with disgruntled rumblings and jeers. Dalglish’s insistence to play him every game probably did more to hinder than help as he fell into a cycle of worse and worse performances.
This time however, Henderson was not alone. His career to date tracks remarkably similar to that of current fans favourite Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian international spent years being openly booed and criticised; inexplicably played in every game regardless of form before seemingly overnight turning into a world class defensive midfielder who was loved and adored. Lucas turned what he himself described as a ‘nightmare’ into a great success story even to the extent that he now compares favorably to the man it was though he could never hope to be – Javier Mascherano.
At the start of the Rodgers reign and the signing of Joe Allen for £15m, Jordan Henderson was deemed surplus to requirements and very nearly joined Fulham in a cut price £4m deal. It was a strange decision, as Henderson’s skill set seemed on paper to fit perfectly into the Rodgers system; he passes and moves quickly, covers a lot of ground offensively and enjoys keeping the football. Nevertheless, Rodgers was forced to keep Henderson after the Fulham move fell through but he began as very much a back-up option, mostly getting chances in the Europa League and League Cup. Meanwhile, the Premier League eleven lacked an urgency and fitness in midfield – Steven Gerrard still toiling away in the attacking midfield role that his legs simply weren’t up to anymore.
It was in the Europa League that the green shoots of life emerged again for Henderson. Guilty of wasting a glorious opportunity in Moscow v Anzhi he was part of the team tasked with beating Udinese to ensure progression. Henderson was magnificent; he passed quickly, harried opponents and capped it off with a well taken goal to earn a deserved 1-0 victory and thus progression.
The relief as the ball hit the net that night in Moscow was felt in Liverpool and a tonne seemed to be lifted of the young man’s shoulders. Over the Christmas period, with a large fixture pile up Henderson shone bright in the attacking midfield role, his running and energy causing all sorts of problems for opposition defences and played a large part in Liverpool gaining four vital wins from the six matches.
Now Henderson has ousted the out of sorts Joe Allen, saw off the talented Nuri Sahin and established himself in the Liverpool midfield, operating slightly ahead of the formidable Lucas-Gerrard partnership and revelling in the role. Last time out against Norwich City he fired Liverpool ahead with a screamer which required superb skill and technical ability before delivering an inch perfect pass to Downing in the build up to Liverpool’s third which showed the other side to his game, strong off the ball running followed by a composed lofted pass on the edge of the penalty area.
Henderson isn’t the finished article, he can still fade out of games from time to time and maybe he shies away from trying clever touches when having a poor game but he’s twenty-two years old and already showed a great deal of maturity to get over the booing of two separate groups of supporters and his time spent at training is legendary. If he can continue to improve and not have such rollercoaster form then Liverpool will have a gem on their hands but it requires patience, particularly from the fans.