TEAMtalk’s Michael Graham recalls the early career of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, and the character that makes him a coach’s dream.
It’s not something that is noted often, but Sunderland have a decent record of producing young players. Granted, it’s not the level of the elite clubs with the elite budgets, but it’s respectable.
Twenty-two-year-old Jordan Pickford is currently impressing between the sticks for both Sunderland and England under-21s, while Lynden Gooch, an American who has been with the Black Cats all the way from under-16s level, has done well after breaking into the side this season.
The football league is not short of Sunderland academy products either, with one-time England call-up Jack Colback at Newcastle, and Championship player-of-the-month for August Conor Hourihane among those thriving on the back of their time at the Stadium of Light.
There is, though, of course, one stand-out name on the list of Sunderland academy alumni, and that is Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson. He’s a player who, despite his recent brilliant winner at Stamford Bridge, divides opinion but, then again, he always did.
Henderson first broke into the Sunderland side under the then new manager Steve Bruce in 2009. He was 19 and had starred the previous year on loan in the Championship with Coventry, so he wasn’t a complete unknown by any stretch of the imagination.
The first time I personally saw him was the opening game of the 2009 pre-season Amsterdam Tournament. Sunderland had another midfield academy product at the time, Grant Leadbitter, who had established himself as a dependable member of the first team squad, and he was partnered alongside Henderson in the centre of the park.
Now, Leadbitter is a good player. He always was. He’s someone who represented England at every level until senior, was a force in the Championship for not one but three clubs (two of which were promoted with him in the side), and has just returned to the Premier League with Middlesbrough.
Leadbitter’s presence alongside Henderson, though, did him no favours in the long run. The comparison was too stark. Henderson was receiving a ball, getting his head up, and moving it on in the same time it took Leadbitter to just get it under control. There was no hiding place for him. That summer, he was sold to Ipswich.
Henderson, though, did not enjoy an easy start at his boyhood club. Division of opinion followed him almost immediately. Originally a right-winger both for the academy side and Coventry, using him in central midfield was the brain-child of Bruce and it wasn’t universally popular to say the least.
Over the next season or two, he almost fed the division himself, even if he did it in the most positive way. Much of his most eye-catching work in the pitch was his delivery into the box from wide positions, even when he was deployed more centrally.
In fact, even today, five years after his departure to Liverpool for best part of £20million and having established himself as an England regular, debate still exists among Sunderland fans over his best position, his true quality, and whether or not selling him was a masterstroke or criminal.
Those who never seem to waver in their appreciation and admiration for him are those who have worked with him and know him. That’s evidenced by the succession of Liverpool and England managers happy to back him, but it goes back to his Sunderland days too.
Former Black Cats captain and academy coach, Kevin Ball, tells a story about how the youth team and even coaches would all text Henderson on a Saturday night to get the X-Factor results as they’d all be out drinking and knew that he wouldn’t be. He still doesn’t drink to this day.
He had a fan in Bolo Zenden too, who, then in the twilight of a career that had seen him play for the likes of Barcelona, Liverpool and Chelsea, would regularly stay back with Henderson after training for extra work.
When Henderson became a father and was congratulated by a friend, he commented back that ‘he’s always been a bit too grown up anyway’ when considering the added responsibility in his life.
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Ultimately these are the reasons why Henderson the footballer divides opinion. He’s never been one to hide from responsibility and stand still. The ambition and dedication to drive onwards that he showed as a youth player for Sunderland still manifests itself on the pitch for Liverpool today.
He could easily play the simple, backwards passes and coast by on impressive yet ultimately worthless passing accuracy statistics, but that’s not his character. He wants to try the ambitious pass and play, he wants to embrace the responsibility to make something happen.
Sometimes, that goes wrong and he looks bad for it. It’s the thing that is noticed and remembered by many fans and members of the media. But he’s a player you are going to want in your side – and that’s why he is yet to encounter a coach who doesn’t.