The hard work starts now for Henderson

Posted by guest on February 2, 2013, 09:00:47 PM

There was a moment very early into Jordan Henderson's Liverpool career that would shape the subsequent 18 months of it. In fairness, Stoke is not the place most would choose to hang from the cliff-face.

With Liverpool 1-0 down but looking likely for an equaliser, Henderson broke through from midfield and, with ball at feet, approached Asmir Begovic. One shot, saved; a second shot, saved; a third shot, with unerring predictability, saved, this time by a Stoke defender. With each shot, a fresh limb seemed to sprout before him; with each block, more confirmation to those who originally baulked at the signing.

The young midfielder knew it. His mouth opened wide, trying to exhale the disappointment, his neck craned towards the sky, but the sky simply laughed back at him. An elongated blink, a rub of the eyes. This was no dream, but reality in all its deadening brutishness. It was at that moment he realised what an unforgiving, unrelenting gallery he played before. From Sunderland captain to overpriced Liverpool flop in a flash. There's no place like home, but this wasn't Kansas. It wasn't even Wearside.

Henderson had it difficult at Anfield from that moment. It was not necessarily the trident of misses that burst the bubble, but simply what would follow. An equaliser at a ground so notoriously difficult for Liverpool would have handed him two goals in his first four games, and at a time so vital too. Instead, Henderson would be characterised as the quintessence of cowardice, a midfielder brought in for big money who returned little in the things that truly matter. He would not score again until the final home game of the season.

This was always going to be the issue. Now more than ever, in this generation of Internet highlight reels with backing tracks of trance music, people measure everything in goals, assists and pretty balls with spin, pizzazz and wallop. The distances run or number of interceptions matter little, for a million beads of sweat are worth one convoluted goal celebration. If people wanted to watch good movement set to strobe lighting and thumping music, they would visit the dance floor.

Do not let hindsight lead a merry dance, for there should be no suggestion Henderson was wrongfully denied the Ballon d'Or after his first season with Liverpool. He was anonymous for a number of games, struggling to make any sort of impact. He offered little defensively, nothing going forward and not much else in-between. He was a player bereft of the confidence or self-belief, though hardly surprising given the malice bandied about the stands.

But he did not spend the season as an abomination, either. Those who long for the past will only ever see things in black and white.

This was a quiet youngster not far removed from his teenage years who sometimes played as if there were 16 million millstones around his neck. He was not responsible for his gigantic fee, nor was he responsible for playing more than any other Liverpool player last season. The running man of the squad was simply run into the ground.

He made 48 appearances in total last season, and few of them in a role he was comfortable with or fully briefed for. A youngster who could barely grow hair on his face was expected to grow extemporaneously. The more he played, the pricklier the resentment grew - so too the expectations on him to impact a team floundering in mid-table.

You know how this story goes. You already know the next chapter. You know how he was dangled out of the summer transfer window, like roadkill from a lamppost, for any lower-half scavengers to devour. You know how perception began to change, ever so slightly, after an impressive substitute appearance against Wigan in November.

But it's a tale worth reliving, because after a youngster is written off so sourly, the road to redemption tastes that little bit sweeter. It's happened many times before, it will happen many times again. For years, Brazilian glottal stop Lucas Leiva suffered from a similar affliction. It is not something limited to Merseyside either.

He is not in the clear yet. There is an inclination from many to subconsciously totalise good things and bad things throughout a career. Until the good outweighs the bad, there will always be caveats to the praise; likewise, before all is engulfed by hysterical inferno as a world class player suffers a few bad games, there is the dampening reflection of all that came before.

They have a point. Even the most ardent believers of Henderson will admit defeat over last season, irrespective of who could be blamed. A few good months this season, coupled with signs of promise and little else the season before, does not prove everything. He still has a lot to do to justify his fee, as unfair as that notion is. He also still has a lot to do before he convinces those who focus on the bad to shift their focus to the good.

He's making a good attempt at it.

Perhaps it was the realisation of how close he was to becoming an expensive flop and the Kop's very own selfish-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps it was the move further up the pitch by Brendan Rodgers, allowing his best attributes to truly show. Perhaps it is simply that a young player needed a year to acclimatise to playing before the bear-pit of expectation.

Whatever the reason, the 22-year-old has been magnificent recently. After months of kaleidoscope-twisting by Rodgers to find the perfect midfield pattern, it appears his eye should have been cast elsewhere. The midfield only truly looks balanced with Henderson at the apex of the midfield three, rantipoling around the pitch, not allowing the opposition time on the ball and making sure Steven Gerrard has time on it.

The people who used to clamour for his removal now clamoured for his presence against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Those who lamented his short passing as safe now lavish praise upon it. Given he made his first league start of the season in November against Swansea, the revival has been as quick as it has dramatic.

That is not to suggest there has been a sudden shift in mentality from those watching and waiting. Goals, assists and pizzazz still matter. But now Henderson has started to add those to his game, the things he has always possessed - energy, intelligent passing, ball retention - are looked at more favourably.

He scored the goal that would ultimately confirm Liverpool's progression in the Europa League in Udine in December, before scoring the goal that would ultimately remind the Liverpool supporters what he was capable of. His powerful, swerving, long-range effort against Norwich in January brought him his biggest Anfield cheer, his biggest celebration, and his biggest moment in that burdening red shirt. From then, everything he touched was applauded, every blade of grass scurried across appreciated. Every pass, in full onomatopoeic glory, had Norwich in a stupor.

And so to the Emirates in midweek, where he let everybody into this secret renaissance. Henderson has been the subject of much scrutiny since Wednesday evening, receiving more column inches and interview requests than he has in his previous 21 years. But a goal and an assist against a Champions League side, albeit probably not much longer, will do that for a player.

His goal was a checklist of all that has been levelled at him since signing for Liverpool. No longer did he appear physically lacking as he bustled past two Arsenal defenders; no longer did he seem mentally fragile as he drove towards goal with intent. His composure and goalscoring ability could not be questioned, if only for that one moment, as he stroked the ball into the net and put his side 2-0 up.

It is hard to tell whether his overall performance would have been noted so enthusiastically by the watching world if not for that goal. But for once, the little things were noted - the tireless running from first kick to last, the impressive turn of foot, switching defence to attack rapidly, the movement off the ball and his intelligence on it.

As Henderson celebrated his goal, all inhibitions departed. Thoughts turned to that afternoon in Stoke a season-and-a-half previous. Once again, his mouth was wide open - but this time he inhaled the adulation of the small pocket of Liverpool fans in the corner who had transformed into an amalgamation of limbs. Once more, his neck craned towards the sky - but this time, he stared out to the vast arena he had just claimed as his.

And he ran. He has for the majority of his career. But this time, his running was the centre of attention. He ran along the goal line, along the touchline, freely, joyfully. He ran without hindrance, for he no longer had so many hurdles to jump.

There is a chance all this is too much, too soon. One swallow does not make a summer, nor do a few months shape a career in either direction. But there can be no denying Henderson offers Liverpool something few others do: balance. In a midfield of many similarities, it is the balance he brings on the pitch that makes him unique, verging on indispensable. It is his balance off the pitch that will ensure that he will keep his humility and feet firmly stationed, even if others around him don't. His debut season at Anfield will always serve as a brutal reminder.

There is always one anecdote that lingers with Henderson. During an interview for the local newspaper, he asked the journalist to divulge a few of the things fans criticised him for. He listened intently, and then agreed with some of the replies.

Proof, if nothing else, that the last person who will think the narrative ends here for Henderson is Henderson himself. But he will do his utmost to make sure it will have a happy ending.


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