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Jordan Henderson's inspirational story is a valuable lesson for the Liverpool captain's detractors
Midfielder is fifth man to captain Liverpool to European Cup glory
Last Updated: 03/06/19 7:48am
Jordan Henderson is a Champions League-winning captain. Jurgen Klopp calls it satisfying. It is also a lesson, writes Adam Bate.
Seven million views and counting for the video of Jordan Henderson embracing his father after Liverpool's Champions League triumph. It's surely destined to be one of the indelible images of the evening - and an appropriate one as well. It was the humanity of Liverpool's captain, flaws and all, that earned him criticism. It has earned him this moment too.
Jurgen Klopp alluded to the more difficult experiences his skipper has endured when speaking in the press conference after Liverpool's 2-0 win over Tottenham in Madrid. "You know what people said about a couple of players of this team," he began. "Jordan Henderson is captain of the Champions League winner 2019. That's satisfying actually."
It is seven years now since former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers called Henderson into a hotel room to be told that he could leave Liverpool. The club were keen on a swap deal with Fulham in order to engage the services of Clint Dempsey, the now retired United States international.
There were tears that day too but not of joy or pride as in Madrid. This was rejection and for some it would have been the end of the story. Henderson decided to battle through it and overcome those who had criticised everything from the fee paid for him to his gait.
Speaking to him years later in the changing rooms at St George's Park, Henderson explained this was in his nature. "That's just how I've always been since I was a young player," he told Sky Sports. "I always want to improve everything about my game. It's not just the things I feel I need to improve on. Even the things I believe I do well I still want to get better at."
Now he has his reward and it seems the right time to reflect on not just his journey but what it tells us about how we dismiss talent. The perception of Henderson is more than unfair, a symptom of a world in which everyone must be cast as hero or villain, real deal or fraud. The boy from Sunderland was capped by his country at 20. The talent was always genuine.
Still only 20 at the time of his transfer, Henderson had to make those first forays amid intense scrutiny. Not with the goodwill that accompanies a youth-teamer stepping up from the academy but with the scepticism that a £20m fee brings. With that in mind, the words of former Liverpool coach Michael Beale were thought-provoking in the aftermath of victory.
"You will always have the one in a million who are able to progress direct to the first team but for others like the superb Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah et cetera, they were not ready for Liverpool at 19 or 20 and made steps in their career to this level," noted Beale, now at Rangers with Steven Gerrard. "It's all about getting better each day."
That's Henderson ethos all over but having to make those steps under the spotlight rather than arriving fully formed has had consequences. The improvement has rarely been enough for all. He did win over the Anfield crowd during the 2013/14 season - his absence for key games during the run-in seen as decisive in Liverpool falling just short of the title that year.
But it has not been straightforward for him even since then. Replacing Gerrard as Liverpool captain brought its own pressures and its own excessive demands. Every defeat and every setback was evidence of him being not quite good enough to carry that mantle. Having now emulated his predecessor, that is another judgement that is well worth reassessing.
Henderson has been a model captain. He is the man who ensured a flag bearing the name of Sean Cox, the fan attacked before the semi-final against Roma last year, made it onto the pitch in the Italian capital. A year ago, he stayed on the pitch to congratulate Real Madrid. This time he sought out Harry Kane and Mauricio Pochettino to offer commiserations.
He played through the pain during that outrageous semi-final win over Barcelona, taking painkiller injections and then spending the half-time interval on the exercise bike to ensure he did not seize up. According to Jamie Carragher, he was also the one who "revitalised Liverpool" in the spring upon finally reverting to his favoured box-to-box midfield role.
In Madrid, Henderson was far from the star of the show, but it is still worth noting he made more tackles than any other Liverpool player and made more interceptions than any of his team-mates too. When it was all over, he joined the greats as only the fifth man to lift the European Cup for Liverpool. His status as a club legend is now secure.
Of course, this is football and the talk of how Liverpool can improve has already begun. It would be no great shock if midfield is mentioned and Henderson will be expected to fight for his position once again. He knows it and he is ready for it. Two daughters have provided perspective. He will embrace the next challenge with typical good grace.
Whatever happens in the future, and Henderson has been the first to talk of how the team must build on this success and seek to overhaul Manchester City in the Premier League, his name is written into Liverpool history now. Not the sort of player football is always quick to celebrate, but one who has shown many of the qualities all of us should aspire to.