Jordan Henderson at 31: A transformative footballer and transcendent leader

The skipper has spent a decade at Anfield and has achieved major honours during his time at the club. This combined with his attitude to events off the pitch, is what makes him the great leader and role model for so many. JAMES NOBLE looks back at his Merseyside career thus far.

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Jordan Henderson has had quite the couple of years. In truth, he’s had quite the 31 years. The Liverpool captain’s story and impact – on his club, his sport and beyond – is increasingly, and thankfully, well told. Yet, there have been further landmarks within even the last 10 days.

Where to start, then? The present will do – and those most recent couple of landmarks. They feel like good bookmarks – and simply good markers – of who he now is, who he always has been, how he has developed and where he comes from.

Counting back, the most recent of said markers came on Friday, June 11.

The awarding of an MBE to Henderson in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list – for his sporting achievements and the key role he played in setting up the Players Together initiative in support of the NHS during the first COVID-19 lockdown in Spring 2020 – felt like worthy recognition of his sizeable contributions on several fronts.

“I accept this in the knowledge I was part of something special, rather than the reason for it,” was one line within Henderson’s social media posts in response to the honour – and it felt a genuine, significant reflection of the approach he appears to take to so many elements of life.


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Go back just a couple more days and you have the 10th anniversary of his signing for Liverpool from boyhood club Sunderland – which arrived just a few days short of his 21st birthday.

With that, came a very special video from the club. It featured his father, Brian Henderson, shots of Sunderland from the air and the ground, plus clips and images from throughout his career – from breaking into the first team at Sunderland, to skippering the Reds to the Premier League title in 2019/20 and plenty more in between.

He’s now made 392 appearances for the club, scoring 30 goals and registering 49 assists in that time.

Then you’ve got the honours. There’s that treasured aforementioned Premier League title, of course. There’s the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and 2019 FIFA Club World Cup – or world treble, if you prefer. Each lift of those pieces of silverware was preceded by the increasingly recognisable shuffle which, in itself, reflected his valuing of the team – the collective – over himself.

Before he lifted any of those trophies, there was the ‘we’ moment. That shuffle allowed him to face his colleagues, give them a close-up view of the prize and their own reflections in it and, only then, would it be lifted high for the world to see.

Such intricacies – if you can call that an intricacy – are what, from what those who’ve worked with him say, make him such an effective leader for club and country. The extra efforts he makes, the seemingly small but meaningful actions – most of which so many of us will likely never hear of.

Another of his honours – this time on a personal level – was the 2020 Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award, which was given to him alongside a brilliantly touching congratulatory message from Jürgen Klopp. A significant achievement given the quality within English football and another reflection of the drive and influence he offers both on and off the field – especially over the past couple of seasons.

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He was also 2020 BBC Sports Personality of the Year runner-up which, again, spoke volumes. As did his displays at centre-back in the couple of months following that December awards evening, as Liverpool’s 2020/21 injury challenges mounted.

Prior to the groin issue that ended his club season on February 20, his impressive adaptation to an unfamiliar role said as much about his traits as the loss of efficiency that the Reds suffered further up the pitch.

How hard he has worked to get to this level. He’s not always had such an influence. He’s not always had such faith shown in him. He’s often had questions to answer, hurdles to overcome. Each of which he’s approached with determination and quality – and he’s seemingly used them to make himself stronger.

Signing a 20-year-old was always going to be a gamble of sorts, even if many at the club in the summer of 2011 had well-placed confidence in his character and his qualities.

After a mixed debut season under Kenny Dalglish, it is now widely known that he was very nearly sold to Fulham in summer 2012 – early in Brendan Rodgers’ reign – as part of a swap deal that would have brought Clint Dempsey to Anfield.

He was determined to fight for his place, however – and he did.

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By the end of that season, he’d shown himself to be a valuable member of Rodgers’ increasingly promising squad.

The personal and collective growth continued in 2013/14, when Henderson proved a key component of a midfield setup where he flanked Steven Gerrard – helping the skipper to thrive at the bottom of a midfield diamond.

His energy, intensity and increasing quality on the ball often saw him act as the engine of that team – even after much was made in October 2013 of the observation in Sir Alex Ferguson’s new book that the then 23-year-old’s running gait would cause him injuries later in his career.

That his late sending off in the 3-2 victory over Manchester City in April 2014 – which made him unavailable for the 3-2 win at Norwich, 2-0 home loss to Chelsea and 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace – is still seen as a key factor in the Reds not claiming that season’s title, reflects the crucial contributions he was making.

Even if Rodgers’ side collectively faltered in 2014/15, Henderson seemed to keep on growing – both as a player and as a person. He was named vice-captain and his leadership qualities became increasingly noticeable as injuries meant Gerrard was absent for a reasonable chunk of his final months as a Liverpool player.

This made Henderson’s appointment as captain in the summer of 2015 largely unsurprising. There were, inevitably, questions and some doubts. Many of these were due to the fact that he was succeeding Gerrard in the role.

He was different, he would have to be. Klopp kept him as captain – with minimal fuss – upon his arrival following Rodgers’ departure in early October 2015 and, steadily, it felt like Henderson grew into the role and developed his own style of leadership within a club that was now on the up.

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He most often played as the deepest of the three midfielders in Klopp’s first two full seasons at the helm. He did so, largely, successfully – even if it wasn’t his most natural position.

2016/17 and 2017/18 both brought top four finishes and the latter, of course, ended with a Champions League final.

Many see the 12 months between that 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev in 2018 and the 2-0 victory over Spurs in the Spanish capital as one of the most interesting spells in Henderson’s career to date. The signing of Fabinho brought a brilliant – and natural – defensive midfielder into the role the captain had occupied for the previous two campaigns. By the time the Brazilian had settled as a single-pivot ‘6’ in spring 2019, it seemed unclear what Henderson’s regular role within the team would be.

Following a chat with Klopp, Southampton away on a Friday night in early April offered the answer. He came on as one of the two more advanced midfielders in the second half with the score at 1-1 and he went on to set up Mohamed Salah’s goal before he himself notched the third in a 3-1 win when his late run into the box was found by Roberto Firmino.

He thrived as an ‘8’ for the remainder of 2018/19, represented a force of nature in that role in Madrid prior to lifting his first major silverware as skipper, and has played much of his best football in that position since.

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It also seemed to help him become an additionally effective, dynamic ‘6’ in a spell when Fabinho was injured during the winter months of 2019/20. Throughout all of this time, as he evolved as a player, he seemed to be becoming an even stronger leader. That was highlighted when the COVID-19 pandemic halted football, brought about the first lockdown and Henderson was at the heart of organising the Players Together initiative.

It was highlighted again in his displays in front of much-changed backlines following injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez in the Autumn of 2020. Empty grounds simply offered further insight into the audible guidance he offered those around him.

He followed this by handing his social media accounts over to an anti-cyberbullying charity earlier this year – a campaign which was briefly paused when he and his Liverpool teammates released their short, effective statement in opposition to the proposed European Super League on the evening of Tuesday, April 20.

There are more examples and, doubtless, there will be more to come.

Henderson is one of the key reasons Liverpool have been able to be what they have been in recent times.

As his recent words reflected, though, he appears to take so much pride in being a part of something – and helping to ensure that can be something special.


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