Jordan Henderson‘s Liverpool career was over. It was the summer of 2012, and a swap deal with Fulham for Clint Dempsey had been lined up, Liverpool prepared to cut their losses on the player they had signed from Sunderland for around £16 million only a year before. Brendan Rodgers had just been appointed to replace Kenny Dalglish, and his mind was made up. Henderson was out.
Henderson said no. There was no meek acquiescence, no admission that this meant his still-nascent Liverpool career had failed. He just said no. He had only just turned 22, and he later admitted that he shed a tear at what amounted to immediate rejection by Rodgers. And the more people you speak to who have known Henderson for years, the more you realise this was entirely in character.
“A lot of people would’ve just accepted it,” former Ireland midfielder David Meyler, who came through at Sunderland at the same time as Henderson and knows him better than most, told ESPN. “‘Oh, the club doesn’t want me, I’m off to Fulham.’ But he said, no, you know what, I’m gonna stay here. I’ll prove you wrong.” Under three years later, with Rodgers still in charge at Anfield, his mind emphatically changed, Henderson replaced the retiring Steven Gerrard as Liverpool captain.
It seems strange now to think back to then, when Henderson was chucked in the same rejects bucket as Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, as another of the expensive mistakes Liverpool made in the transfer market at the start of the 2010s. Henderson was almost a punchline, a byword for wasted money; over 350 appearances later and after lifting the Champions League trophy and the Club World Cup, with the Premier League presumably to be added at some point, he has proved an absolute bargain.
Back then, in his younger days, there was a puppyish quality to Henderson, a midfielder who resembled a Labrador who would run around relentlessly and retrieve things, but not really do anything with any sort of subtlety. It was easy therefore to dismiss him, easy to pick up on any perceived flaw as a reason to write him off. Sir Alex Ferguson’s rather weird comment that Henderson had a suspect gait, that he “ran from his knees with a straight back, while the modern footballer runs from his hips” is one that stuck for a while, and almost felt like an academic citing for anyone who didn’t rate Henderson: “Fergie thinks he’s no good, so it must be true.”
But even when he was barely out of his teens, there was something slightly different about Henderson. “We might have to report for training at 9 o’clock,” Meyler said of their days as youngsters at Sunderland. “He’s in at 8, doing work in the gym. After training, he’s doing work outside, working on his passing. All that kind of stuff, he did it.
“I remember when we were 18 or 19, we would play a reserve game before we broke into the first team. If we won, the whole team would go out, but Jordan wouldn’t. Jordan’s never drank. He always had that desire, dedication, commitment to be successful. He made the sacrifices young.”
Dedication to training and abstinence from alcohol is all well and good, but you wouldn’t exactly call it special — a slightly heightened level of professionalism perhaps, but not exceptional. But Henderson did still have something that others didn’t. Something a little more intangible, but still obvious.
“We’ve got a saying in France,” Damien Comolli, the former Liverpool director of football who signed Henderson, told ESPN. “We say, ‘Every part of his body was sweating leadership.'” Liverpool were first attracted to Henderson because their analytics suggested he was worth pursuing, but it was only after meeting him that Comolli became convinced that they had to have him. Comolli had an immovable, maximum budget of £15 million for Henderson, and not a penny more. He paid £16.75 million.
Comolli recalled being impressed with an anecdote told to him by the people at Sunderland, about the time Henderson was dissatisfied with a free kick he took against their local rivals Newcastle. The next day in training he took over 300 dead balls, driven by an almost manic obsession with self-improvement.
“We talk a lot about extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation,” Comolli said. “He’s somebody who has got where he’s got because his intrinsic motivation is off the charts. When I met him, that’s what came across the most. This sheer desire to succeed, to improve every day, refusing to lose, refusing to give up an inch.
“I was convinced at the time that he hated losing more than he liked to win. I think the way he plays now, it shows — he walks onto the pitch thinking, ‘You’re not going to beat me today.'”
Comolli had left the club by the time Liverpool had decided Henderson was no longer for them. Indeed, he has said it was partly because the club’s hierarchy blamed him for overspending on Henderson that he was dismissed, but while Comolli might have made mistakes at Anfield, Henderson wasn’t among them.
“I think I called his agent and said, ‘What the hell are they doing here?'” Comolli said of when the Fulham deal was in the air. “I was laughing at what I was hearing, that they were trying to sell him. I thought this is another Gareth Bale, when Harry Redknapp tried to sell him to Nottingham Forest.”
Now Henderson is the captain of the champions-elect, and if any individual awards are handed out, he will be in pole position — as arguably the most important player in the most dominant team in Premier League history — to receive plenty of them. When his role as the coordinator of a Premier League-wide effort among players to donate money to medical professionals dealing with the coronavirus crisis was mentioned to Meyler and Comolli, both barely reacted. Not because they don’t think it’s a noble cause, but because it’s so utterly unsurprising that Henderson was at the heart of it that it’s barely worth remarking upon. All of this, they said, was clear all of those years ago.
Back then, you could look at this bundle of barely finessed energy and dismiss him as merely a willing runner, not someone to really take too much notice of. But a few people looked closer, and those who knew him best always thought he was the real thing. They were right.