Jordan Henderson is by far the biggest paradox to have existed in Liverpool Football Club. Never in the past, has a single Liverpool player divided fans and critics alike – let alone the captain of one of the most exciting sides in Europe. How does a player create the seemingly irrefutable impression of being a midfielder who isn’t attractive and prefers a side pass over a forward pass and at the same time being a midfielder who isn’t afraid of tackling and running all over the place? He also happens to be a part of most Liverpool counter-attacks as well. In today’s footballing environment, where everything is binary – a player is either good or bad, a manager is considered a hit or a flop based on his trophies, and a football club’s success is measured in black and white – Jordan Henderson is one of those tiny anomalies arising from the grey fringes, dividing the best of friends and uniting the worst of enemies.
To be able to understand the air of uncertainty around Liverpool’s captain, one has to truly appreciate the value of a first impression. And that takes us back to 2011, when the man was just a boy with raw talent, with a promise of potential and the weight of a 20 million fee hanging over his shoulder. While it might be considered a pittance today, it was an amount that brought a rather unhealthy amount of scepticism with it – and it stuck. As the season progressed, Hendo’s stock plummeted. He was offered to Fulham in order to get Clint Dempsey – someone Liverpool really did not want in the first place. If this was bad, the price-tag made the situation seem as bleak as it could possibly get. In response to Fulham’s asking price of 6 million – Jordan Henderson was offered in addition to 3 million. That was a devaluation of almost 85 percent in a single year. Even Bitcoin’s fall from grace wasn’t this dramatic.
It is an understatement to say Henderson struggled at Liverpool – trying his best but never really fitting into Brendan Rodger’s plans. He didn’t start a single game until the last week of November. Eyebrows were raised and questions were asked. Was Kenny Dalgish guilty of committing an error in judgement? Was Henderson really worth the 20 million? Why was he earning close to £60,000 a week, especially when he was below Nuri Sahin in the pecking order? What did he bring to the team? Multiple questions were asked, conveniently forgetting the fact that he had an England cap at the age of 20. The trend would have continued and Henderson would have found himself on the fringes had he not started the game against Arsenal in January, where he scored the second goal.
Having played all over the field, at right-wing, midfield and even as the right-back on one occasion, nobody really understood what Henderson brought to the table. He ran with drive and determination but with a complete lack of direction. He seemed out of place in the Liverpool midfield – without the quickness and creativity to fit into Rodger’s vision of a creative as well as a quick midfield capable of passing the ball around, giving the impression of being a handcart trying to fit into a world dominated by bullet trains. And yet, he was integral in Liverpool’s title run in 2014, having earned Brendan Rodger’s own stamp of approval when he was asked at what point Liverpool lost the title. He didn’t talk about that Crystal Palace game or the Chelsea game, and instead, choose to talk about Liverpool’s much-maligned midfielder.
“I knew [the title was lost] when Jordan got sent off against Man City. I knew I couldn’t replace him. But it’s gone now.”
He might have been talismanic in Liverpool’s title run, but it didn’t matter. Henderson’s critics would stay forever, thanks to an opinion formed in 2011.
His injury record did him no favours, with him being constantly sidelined through major parts of Liverpool’s late years with Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp’s early years. In the latter’s first season, Henderson could only manage 26 appearances in all competitions, barely playing a part in Liverpool’s scintillating Europa League run. Things got worse the next year. Beset by bad luck, Henderson’s season in 2016-17 was particularly his worst – a recurring foot injury interrupting spells of impeccable form. References were made to Sir Alex Ferguson, who claimed the Red Devil’s interest in Henderson waned due to his gait, which would apparently cause trouble in the future. A rather inaccurate reference – while Ferguson predicted he would have problems with his knee, it was his ankle that turned out to be his Achilles’ heel, resulting in a promising season ending prematurely in February itself.
So you have an injury prone player with proven potential but dubious form, with a sprinkling of brilliant performances amongst instances that weren’t special, despite him rarely getting a rating under 6. This raised the million dollar question: Could Jordan Henderson captain Liverpool, filling the boots of Steven Gerrard?
Such comparisons have always been the subject of debate. Can someone fill the boots of their predecessor? From the Mughal era (Can Humayun fill the boots of Babur) to current world events (Can Tim Cook equal Steve Jobs’ legacy?) to pop culture (Can Hangover 2 match its prequel?), people love asking if X could be as good as Y – forgetting the fact that X and Y can be different. (This debate is not about ability. Gerrard is by far one of the greatest individual talents that the Premier League has witnessed.) When it comes to captaincy, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard are completely different personalities, and that has to be appreciated.
While Gerrard can conjure moments of magic out of thin air, leading the team from the front, Henderson prefers to lead in the background. While passive in comparison, the passion is undeniable. As captain, Steven Gerrard led Liverpool through a title run and has lifted the Champions League trophy. Jordan Henderson has donned the armband through Liverpool’s title run as well as a Champions League winning run. Henderson deserves more respect from fans, rivals and pundits alike for his attitude both on and off the pitch.
This season, in terms of ability, Henderson has been brilliant for Liverpool. Unshackled from the number 6 role thanks to Fabinho, he has made the most of this newfound freedom, running all over the place, making vital interceptions and pining inch-perfect through balls into attack. Take his assist to Sadio Mane against Chelsea at Anfield, for instance. Salah was denied, but Henderson sprinted in support. His first touch put him in space, his second was perfectly weighted, putting him in the right place at the right time, and his third saw the ball being chipped into the back post where Mane couldn’t miss. Three deft touches. A deadlock broken.
If this doesn’t convince you, I present to you Liverpool’s game against the Saints. The game was still 1-1, with Naby Keita’s effort equalizing Shane Long’s early opener. Enter Henderson and Milner, and the entire dynamic changed. It is a testament to Henderson’s leadership and quality that Liverpool finished the game 3-1, with the Liverpool captain being vocal when needed, bagging an assist in the process. He was far from his best at Madrid in the UCL Final, but he still managed to make more tackles and interceptions than any player in a red shirt.
Anyone who tells you that Jordan Henderson is undeserving of leading the Liverpool side or is incapable of captaining the team is potentially deluded or has not watched him play this season. He has been instrumental in the dressing room, with every player backing the captain. When Divock Origi scored the opener in the comeback against Barcelona, Henderson remained square-jawed, placing the ball back in the centre spot. He played through a knee injury, injecting painkillers and working it off on an exercise bike throughout half time so that he wouldn’t seize up. According to Jamie Carragher, he was the one to revitalize spirits, playing in his preferred box to box role in midfield. During the presentation ceremony, he asked Klopp and Milner to lift big ol’ ears along with him, after spending a majority of his time commiserating with the Spurs players. He played a major part in helping signings acclimatize in new surroundings – with emphasis on Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Roberston. He gave Sean Cox a fitting tribute in Italy and was the first to tweet after fans were injured in clashes in Portugal.
Jurgen Klopp’s first words after winning the league were directed at his captain’s critics:
“Jordan Henderson is captain of the Champions League 2019 winner. That’s satisfying actually.”
In all his 9 years at Liverpool, Jordan Henderson has resembled a stick of dynamite on a slow fuse. The fuse has burned out slowly, yet steadily. He might be a little late to the party, but he has exploded alright. And the fireworks are for all to see. It’s true he will never be a Gerrard, or a Souness, a Dalglish or a Hyppia. He’ll always be Jordan Henderson, and believe it or not, he’s written his name in Liverpool history.
Captain. Leader. Liverpool Legend? Only time will tell.
Feature Image via Liverpool Echo
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