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How Jordan Henderson went from £20m Liverpool flop to Premier League title winner and PFA Player of the Year favourite


Jun. 26, 2020

On his old Bebo account – which hasn’t aged well – Jordan Henderson said he wanted to win the FA Cup with boyhood club Sunderland by the age of 30.
On June 17 this year he reached that age and, while Sunderland have sadly declined, Henderson has achieved success beyond his wildest dreams with Liverpool.
Having captained the Merseyside club to Champions League glory in 2019, he can now add a Premier League winners’ medal to his collection.
Just shy of his 21st year, Henderson joined Liverpool from his beloved Black Cats for £20million.
Things didn’t get off to a great start and he was close to leaving Anfield just a year after signing.
But fast forward nine years and he’s now one of the Premier League’s top players and has played an integral role in Liverpool’s first league title in three decades.
While his development into Liverpool’s outstanding leader has surprised some, Darren Bent exclusively told talkSPORT.com his former Sunderland teammate was always determined to reach the pinnacle of the game.
“I used to have conversations with him and used to ask him about what his aspirations were and he always said he wanted to play at the top,” said Bent.
“But he never took his eyes off things at Sunderland.”
To say Henderson initially struggled at Liverpool would be an understatement.
The 2011/12 season was a poor one for the Reds even though they won the League Cup and made it to the FA Cup final, as an eighth place league finish saw them move backwards in their pursuit of Champions League qualification.
Fans were understandably frustrated with the direction their club was going, some turning on Henderson by questioning what his purpose in the team was.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in the history of English football, even suggested Henderson would never make it at the highest level due to the way he ran.
In his 2013 autobiography, Sir Alex wrote: “We looked at Jordan Henderson a lot and Steve Bruce [Sunderland’s manager at the time] was unfailingly enthusiastic about him.
“Against that we noticed that Henderson runs from his knees, with a straight back, while the modern footballer runs from his hips. We thought his gait might cause him problems later in his career.”
Sir Kenny Dalglish, the manager who signed him, was sacked and new manager Brendan Rodgers came in seemingly not rating Henderson.
Liverpool tried to sell their young midfielder to Fulham but Henderson was having none of it and stayed on.
Henderson’s commitment to being a success was never an issue though as his former Reds teammate Glen Johnson explains.
“He struggled in the early days,” began Johnson. “He was a young kid who walked into a pretty powerful squad and at times it was a bit much for him.
“But he certainly had the right mentality in terms of how hard he was willing to work.
“It might have helped him to move as he would have played and got more confidence but thankfully he stayed. Fair play to him because a lot of players would have left.”
Henderson would remain a bit-part player before battling his way back into the side in the second half of the 2012/13 season, initially playing on the left of Rodgers’ midfield diamond – one of the many positions he’s played in a Liverpool shirt including right of the diamond, defensive midfield, right-back, right-wing back, centre-back, and his most recent role playing as a no.8.
Johnson also revealed that it was Henderson’s desperation to do well which led to him struggling for form in his early days at Liverpool.
“I used to speak to him one-on-one about things,” he continued. “He wanted it so much that he would just try and try and try but sometimes that can send you over the edge.
“There were simple things like when he played in the holding role a defender would pass him the ball, but he’d have a big touch back to be safe and when he’d turn and face the play he’s in the position of a centre-half.
“He was so eager to get on the ball but if he just relaxed and waited for the ball to come to him he receives it 30 yards up the pitch.
“It’s silly things like that but that’s just learning the game.”
The criticism faded as Henderson established himself as a key player in the 2013/14 season which saw Liverpool very nearly win the league.
He was then named vice-captain following Daniel Agger’s departure and would become top dog soon after as club legend Steven Gerrard left to join LA Galaxy in 2015.
They were big shoes to fill but Bent believes Henderson had the makings to be a good captain, albeit not in the conventional sense of barking orders to his troops.
“I saw Jordan as a leader of people; he wasn’t really a screamer but led by example instead,” Bent added.
“When he was at Sunderland he always worked really hard and shut people down so it was quite infectious. When he started chasing I used to think ‘let me get after the opposition as well.'”
However,  all that criticism Henderson faced in the early days at Anfield came back.
Not even Jurgen Klopp’s arrival and insistence that Henderson has ‘the hardest job in football’ in replacing Gerrard as captain could silence the doubters as this Liverpool side were making a habit of falling short in big matches under Henderson’s captaincy – losing the League Cup and Europa League finals in 2016, while also being beaten in the 2018 Champions League final.
There were fears Henderson would become the first Liverpool captain in living memory to not win a trophy; he will have undoubtedly felt inferior compared to some of the great skippers the club has had.
That changed in 2018/19, however.
Liverpool recruited well in the right areas including the signing of out-and-out defensive midfielder Fabinho, which changed Henderson’s role in the team for the better.
Henderson was no longer tasked with playing the holding role once Fabinho was settled in. The England midfielder moved to a more advanced no.8 role that would see him go box-to-box and have much more of an effect on matches – the most notable one seeing him help Liverpool get past Southampton as they continued to put the pressure on Man City.
Henderson got on the scoresheet as Liverpool won 3-1 at St Mary’s.
This helped transform Liverpool into a top team but they fell short once more despite amassing 97 points in the Premier League last term, City pipping them to the title with 98.
But finally, a reward for all of Liverpool and Henderson’s hard work came a few weeks after the league season finished as the Reds were crowned champions of Europe.
Liverpool’s win over Tottenham in the European Cup final followed a dramatic semi-final in which they beat Barcelona 4-0 to overturn a three-goal deficit in the greatest night Anfield has ever seen. Henderson was the best player on the pitch.
And as he lifted the iconic trophy in a baking hot Madrid, you could see the relief (and sweat) pour out of Henderson, who then had an emotional celebration with his father, Brian.
The celebration was made all the more poignant by the fact his dad was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2013.
Now having become the first Liverpool captain in 30 years to win the title, the Henderson haters are gone.
According to teammate Andrew Robertson, he has been the biggest driving force to their success – and few would argue against that point.
“He represents us all,” said the Scot of his teammate.
“He is so consistent, he drives us on in training every single day.
“The guy has been unbelievable this season. He deserves Player of the Year in my opinion, with what he has done and how he has driven our team to success.”
In many ways, Henderson’s progression has been identical to that of Liverpool’s.
He was far from the finished article when he arrived and there were a few false dawns and tricky days over the years, but take a look at what Henderson and Liverpool have become after almost a decade of spirit and hard graft.
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