Monday 21 October 2019

Final embrace with father a happy ending to Henderson's journey

Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson with his father, Brian, and the European Cup after the victory against Spurs. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson with his father, Brian, and the European Cup after the victory against Spurs. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Mark Critchley

What will be the lasting image of Liverpool's triumph? If not the obvious one - Jordan Henderson lifting the club's sixth European Cup - then maybe it will be a tearful Henderson, having freed himself from a Jurgen Klopp headlock, rushing over to the touchline and weeping in the arms of his father.

Brian Henderson was diagnosed with throat cancer six years ago, just as his son was beginning to overcome a difficult start to life at Anfield and establish himself at the club. Brian kept his illness from Jordan initially, so as not to distress or distract him from a career which was slowly building momentum.

Once Jordan knew, Brian would forbid him from visiting him hospital. He felt that the sight would upset his son too much.

"Towards the end, it got to a point where he didn't want to see me at all because of how he was," the midfielder said last year.

"He didn't want me to see him like that so I knew it was pretty bad."

Brian recovered and Jordan established himself at Liverpool to the point of being made captain in 2015, but this was not where the young Henderson's trials stopped.

If anything, stepping into Steven Gerrard's size ten-and-a-halves four years ago meant he became the most scrutinised player on the Anfield payroll.

Every week, his body language, mannerisms and leadership qualities were measured against fresh memories of a club great. So too were his performances. Some were good, some were average, some were poor. Generally, they left many Liverpool supporters wanting and demanding more from a player who was, without fail, giving everything he had.

If you had said in August that Klopp's side would return to the Champions League final, you would not have expected Henderson to start it. Armband or no armband, the arrivals of Fabinho and Naby Keita, and Klopp's high opinion of Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner, raised questions over the captain's place in the pecking order.

Almost half of Henderson's appearances in the first half of the Premier League campaign came as a substitute. Many were as a holding midfielder, a role that Henderson never felt was his best but one he fulfilled without complaint for two years or more, adapting his previous, shuttling box-to-box game for something altogether more disciplined and cerebral.

In that position, fulfilling a familiar but unnatural duty, there was always a nagging sense that Liverpool could do better. Fabinho's arrival appeared to suggest that Klopp and other decision makers at the club felt the same. Once the summer signing from Monaco found his feet in the winter, there was only one candidate to play the deeper role on a regular basis.

This could quite easily have been the beginning of the end for Henderson's Anfield career, but he has come through worse. He was a player considered such a poor signing that Damien Comolli, Liverpool's former director of football, lost his job to the words: "Jordan Henderson, what a massive mistake that was."

He was a player around the same time who told the club that he would not leave, but stay and earn his place. He did.

And so as he appeared to be in danger of losing his automatic starting place, he regained it. He spoke to Klopp, he asked to be moved further upfield, and his performances in his preferred role during the final months of the campaign extracted that most rare thing from a manager to his player: an apology. "It was my fault that for one-and-a-half years he played as a number six," the Liverpool manager said. "Sorry for that!"

For what it's worth, Madrid was not to Henderson what Istanbul was to Gerrard. It was not one of his finest individual displays in a Liverpool shirt. But neither was Saturday a night to be viewed in isolation, devoid of wider context. It was instead the culmination of work done over three-and-a-half years by Klopp; work which was often carried out to the letter on the pitch by his captain.

Shortly after Jordan and Brian's embrace, the elder Henderson gave an interview to television. "I think if he hadn't have picked that trophy up today, he would have had a bad, bad summer," he said of his son.

It could have been worse than that. It could have broken a player who has been tested, doubted and criticised at every turn, often unfairly and undeservedly so.

His reward for enduring it all is to join Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness and Gerrard in lifting the European Cup and surely - like those names - be remembered as a Liverpool great. (© Independent News Service)

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