Sam Pilger: Underrated Henderson has emerged as England’s real leader

The Liverpool captain has taken any disappointment about the England armband in his stride, leading the national side by example in Russia...


Over the course of his 40 years in management, Sir Alex Ferguson won 35 major trophies in Scotland and England, but inevitably even the greatest manager of all time also made mistakes.

During the 2009-10 season, Ferguson and his Manchester United coaching staff were scouting a 19-year-old Jordan Henderson as he was emerging as a talented midfielder at Sunderland.

“We looked at Jordan Henderson a lot, and [Sunderland manager] Steve Bruce was unfailingly enthusiastic about him,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography.

“But we noticed that Henderson runs from his knees, with a straight back. The modern footballer runs from his hips, and we thought this gait might cause him problems later in his career.”

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Eight years later Henderson has enjoyed a fine career, and now stands on the brink of helping to lead England to an unexpected World Cup triumph this week.

Henderson has always shrugged off Ferguson’s criticism, and grown used to being dismissed and underrated as a player, but his performances at this World Cup cannot be ignored.

From his station in the centre of midfield, Henderson has both protected the defence behind him and allowed England’s attack to thrive, reaching the semi-finals by scoring the most goals at a World Cup since they last won the tournament over half a century ago.

A succession of team-mates and managers at Liverpool have always known about his qualities, but now Henderson is earning the wider recognition he deserves on the biggest stage of all.

He has long been the player you don’t really see. In the 2013-14, when Liverpool came so desperately close to winning their first Premier League title, he was naturally overshadowed by the flair and goals of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard.

It was no coincidence he was absent, serving a ban for a red card in the previous game, on the day Liverpool’s title challenge famously imploded against Chelsea at Anfield.

And just last season, as the Premier League drooled over the supreme talents of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, Henderson was in the background, quietly providing them all with a foundation from which to show off their talents.

With the England side this summer, others have attracted the most attention; Harry Kane for his goals, Jordan Pickford for his crucial saves, but Henderson has probably been England’s most important player at the tournament so far.

Fresh from captaining Liverpool to the Champions League final last season, Henderson has become the pivotal figure in this England side, the man who makes Gareth Southgate’s system work.

Liverpool’s German manager Jurgen Klopp reacts after losing the UEFA Champions League final football match between Liverpool and Real Madrid at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 26, 2018. (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV / AFP) (Photo credit should read GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)

With calm assurance, he makes England tick, and he has done it in Russia by either squaring up to the physicality and underhand tactics of Colombia, or helping to give his side a more positive tempo and launch attacks against Tunisia, Panama and Sweden.

England haven’t lost in any of the last 30 internationals Henderson has played, a record run that extends over nearly four years since September 2014.

The Liverpool skipper has covered a lot of ground at this World Cup. He’s averaged 11.2 kilometres per game, getting around the pitch with deceptive speed, winning the ball, and quickly distributing it to others.

While Harry Kane proudly wears the arm band, and provides leadership with his goals and willingness to take responsibility, Henderson has emerged as England’s real leader.

It is to Henderson’s credit that despite missing out on the official captain’s position he has not sulked, but provided his own leadership qualities to this World Cup campaign.

From the centre of midfield, he is Gareth Southgate’s organiser; witness him yelling instructions and constantly pointing, telling his team-mates the exact positions they should be occupying and what they should be doing with the ball.

When England are not pressing enough he will be Southgate’s voice on the pitch, pleading with arms out stretched, and telling his team-mates to keep up the pressure.

It is also the little unnoticed things, like when Kane was placing the ball on the spot to take one of his penalties against Panama, Henderson urgently told Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier to get themselves back to the half-way line should the penalty be saved and Panama launch an attack.

Though only 28 himself, he has kept a watchful eye on England’s young players, moving them away from the referee, and helping to keep them out of trouble.

When England needed five penalty takers in the shoot-out against Colombia he stepped up, showing his own form of courage and leadership, and, even though his effort was saved, his team-mates and manager noted his nerve in taking on that duty.

On Wednesday night in Moscow, Henderson will come up against the brilliance and scheming qualities of Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who between them have won the last five Champions League titles, but the Liverpool man will not be cowed by these illustrious opponents, and has already shown in Russia he has the ability to stop this pair and lead England to the final.

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