Unused to undroppable! How 'immaculate' Henderson has become central to England's World Cup dreams
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Jordan Henderson by now, it’s that writing him off is a pretty foolish move.
The Liverpool captain has spent a lifetime proving his doubters wrong, and he’s been at it again in recent weeks, quietly moving into the middle of England’s midfield, and loudly putting himself at the heart of their World Cup hopes in Qatar.
Having started the tournament on the bench, he has swiftly become undroppable for Gareth Southgate.
A steadying cameo off the bench against the USA was followed by influential performances against Wales and then Senegal, where he scored the opening goal, and though Raheem Sterling is available again after his dash home for family reasons, Henderson will almost certainly start Saturday’s quarter-final with France at the Al Bayt Stadium.
There’s a certain symmetry and symbolism there.
The first of Henderson’s 73 England caps came against the French, and to look back on the 12 years that have passed since that night at Wembley, when Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena and Peter Crouch – and how’s that for an unlikely trio? – were on the scoresheet and when the England squad included the likes of Carlton Cole, Scott Loach and Jay Bothroyd, is to witness the growth of a player, and of a person, who will one day be remembered among the best that this country has ever produced.
At 32, Henderson is, without question, one of the most authoritative and successful leaders in the sport.
He has captained Liverpool in the biggest games and to the biggest prizes, performing consistently at the sharp end of the Premier League for well over a decade, while off-the-field becoming a respected and empathetic voice supporting causes such as LGBT rights, the fight against online bullying, local and national foodbanks and the National Health Service.
On the pitch, he is closing in on 650 competitive games for club and country, and in Qatar became only the fourth England player to feature in six major tournaments.
That the others are Sol Campbell, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard tells you plenty about the levels Henderson have reached, and then been able to maintain.
“Immaculate,” was Gerrard’s assessment of his former team-mate, and the man who succeeded him as Liverpool skipper.
Jude Bellingham, who may well be joining Henderson at Anfield next season, has been similarly effusive.
"I’ve seen some of the rubbish said about him, and it’s ridiculous,” the Borussia Dortmund star said after England’s last-16 win over Senegal. “He’s so underrated technically. It’s about time he gets a bit of praise.”
Henderson and Bellingham have, in a development that has not gone unnoticed by Liverpool supporters, struck up a close bond since the latter was fast-tracked into Southgate’s squad.
The pair’s celebration after Henderson’s goal against Senegal, which Bellingham assisted, may well go down as one of the iconic images of this World Cup, especially if England ultimately end up being successful.
When, as a midfield player, your list of admirers includes not only Gerrard and Bellingham, but Roy Keane as well, it’s safe to say you’re doing OK, and it is clear that England’s younger, and perhaps more lauded, talents look up to Henderson.
Harry Kane is the captain, and a leader in his own right in terms of his goalscoring and consistency, but Henderson is clearly the statesman of this squad, the one players are keenest to learn from, and to impress.
“The Hendo and Milly test,” they call it at Liverpool, where young players and new signings must meet the exacting daily standards of Henderson and James Milner or face the consequences.
They may not be the youngest or most talented members of Jurgen Klopp’s squad – though to pigeon-hole them as purely workhorses or mouthpieces would be miles off it – but they’re the ones who set the bar on the training ground, and have done for years.
“I think the most important thing in football is to be valued by your manager, by your coaches and by your teammates,” said Gerrard, speaking to liverpoolfc.com this week. “Would your team-mates pick you?
“And everyone who speaks about Jordan speaks glowingly because he is very selfless, he works his socks off, he does as much running as anyone else, he’s a fantastic passer of the ball, he’s unselfish on the pitch, and his performances allow other people to get the credit a lot of the time.
“So, he’s very much appreciated by me, as an ex-team-mate and someone who is following his career really closely, but every interview that you hear, when you’re in the game listen to people that are around Jordan, that are playing with him and that appreciate him.
"Don’t really take much notice of anyone on the outside because it’s just useless noise.”
Southgate would certainly agree. “This is the best version of Hendo that we’ve had,” he said after the Senegal win. His influence on the group, he added, was “fantastic.”
This has, it should be said, been a difficult season for Henderson up until now. His form for Liverpool, and the team’s form in general, has been patchy, and amid all the talk of a midfield overhaul at Anfield, one of the questions being asked is how much longer will the captain be a key part of Klopp’s plans.
But a change can often be as good as a rest and, in Qatar, Henderson has been able to remind us all – critics especially – of his qualities.
If France are to be toppled, then he, Bellingham and Declan Rice will have a huge role to play, make no mistake about it.
Maybe then, he might get the respect from the wider footballing world that he deserves, although whether that really matters to him now is questionable.
After all, his managers love him, his team-mates love him, he’s captain of one of the world’s biggest clubs and in eight days’ time, he could be adding a World Cup winners’ medal to his already-impressive collection.
Not bad for a skinny kid from Wearside who plenty reckoned was destined to be a one-cap wonder…