Sunday 26 May 2019

From London to Blagoevgrad - Ireland's Conor Henderson on new life in Bulgaria

Conor Henderson in action for Ireland Under-21s
Conor Henderson in action for Ireland Under-21s

Aidan Fitzmaurice

From the hustle and bustle of London to the sleepy Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad, close to the border with Macedonia, is not a well-travelled path.

But former Ireland U21 and Arsenal prospect Conor Henderson is very happy to be there, 2,000km away, having signed for Bulgarian top flight side OFC Pirin in August, as Bulgaria has offered the 26-year-old, once tipped as a future star with the Gunners and Ireland, a welcome chance to get his career moving after a long period in cold storage.

"It's a big decision to come out here and it's not common for British-based players to move somewhere like Bulgaria to play, but it's something I have always had in the back of my mind," Henderson told The Herald, the Londoner currently back in his native city for a spell as the Bulgarian season is on a mid-season break.

"For the last two years of my career, I just wasn't enjoying football anymore and that's why it got to the point at the end of last season I said I am not staying here, I am not happy, I want to go away and test myself."

Henderson was a highly-rated player at Arsenal and Arsene Wenger regularly handed him new contracts, but by the summer of 2013, his time as a Gunner had come to an end and he had to move on. Academy chief Liam Brady challenged Henderson to find a path forward in the game but, by his own admission, he struggled as evident by the list of clubs he played for, with little success: Hull, Stevenage, Crawley, Grimsby, Eastbourne.

And by the end of last season, he'd had enough. "It's not happened for me since I left Arsenal," he said.

"I was there since I was seven years of age, up to 22, everything was built around how the first team play, once you get to a certain age you know what's expected of you.

"So when I left at 22, I knew nothing else. You drop down the league and it couldn't be more different so I found it hard to adjust, having to dismiss the principles I had learned, that had made me a good player and I found that hard.

Conor Henderson celebrates after scoring against Italy in 2012
Conor Henderson celebrates after scoring against Italy in 2012

"There are so many good players I played with who were brilliant as young players but are struggling now, not everyone is a Robbie Brady or a Shane Duffy, good players who had been at good clubs but found it hard. You have to find your own way and this is my way."

There was an offer from a Conference club last summer but Henderson had decided to spread his wings and after one look at Pirin, he was hooked.

It's a local club for local players as Henderson is one of just three imports, but the staff and other players speak English well enough for things to work. The town of Blagoevgrad is small but welcoming. "It's not a big city but it has everything you need and if you have a day off, Sofia is only an hour's drive away. But I am here for the football, that's the most important thing and I am enjoying it."

Pirin are one of the smaller clubs in the Bulgarian league, proof in the fact that a crowd of under 600 watched their last game before the winter break, a home defeat to Champions League regulars Lugogorets.

"The small crowds don't bother me. You'd love to be playing in front of 25,000 every week but me coming off the back of two disappointing years I can't expect too much, I just wanted to come over here, play well and see what comes of it," he says.

This is what I needed. I had an option in the summer to play in the Conference but I knew this was right for me. I sat back and thought that only last week I played against Ludogorets, a Champions League side, with all their great Brazilian players. Instead of that I could be back in England, playing for a Conference South side and that vindicated my decision to come here."

While some players have a fleeting, and unconvincing, experience with Ireland, Henderson was a committed part of the Irish football scene for some time. Eligible as both sets of grandparents were from Ireland, he first wore the green shirt at U16 level back in 2007, when people like Conor Hourihane, Richie Towell and Conor Clifford were team-mates.

He progressed through the age groups, peaking with four U21 caps, the most recent in 2012, when Henderson scored in a remarkable win for Noel King's side, a 4-2 win away to Italy in a Euro qualifier.

Players from his group such as Robbie Brady, Shane Duffy and Jeff Hendrick have gone on to win senior caps but Henderson was left behind.

He's had little cause to argue for a place in the squad of late as he admits his career has stalled.

Martin O'Neill is reluctant to pick players who play for clubs outside of England, whether that's in the League of Ireland (when Seán Maguire was still with Cork City and should have been capped then), Scotland (Adam Rooney's not in O'Neill's plans) or Poland (Cillian Sheridan starred in the Polish league last season but couldn't get a sniff). So he's unlikely to turn his mind to Bulgaria.

"I haven't thought about international football, club football was my focus and that hasn't gone well in the last three years so I needed to get that sorted first," says Henderson when asked about his Ireland hopes.

"I just wanted to be happy and enjoying my football again, see where that takes me so I've had no reason to think about the Ireland team. I watch all the games and I keep an eye on the lads I played with for Ireland when I was younger but now I just want to enjoy football again, and I am doing that."

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