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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Jordan Henderson, what have you done?

Jordan Henderson never shirked a challenge during 12 years of service to Liverpool.

There were tears when he learned that Brendan Rodgers was willing to sell him to Fulham shortly after the Northern Irishman’s appointment as manager in the summer of 2012.

He had endured a torrid first season at Anfield under Kenny Dalglish but refused to accept that he was finished on Merseyside, and snubbed a move south. He emphatically won Rodgers over — to the extent that he was given the captaincy when Steven Gerrard left for LA Galaxy in 2015.

During the early stages of Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield reign, Henderson was dogged by a debilitating heel condition and frequently written off. Extra competition in midfield arrived over the years with the signings of Georginio Wijnaldum, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fabinho and Thiago — but it just made him even more determined to prove his doubters wrong.

When he scaled such heights — leading Liverpool to Champions League and then Premier League glory, and being crowned Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 2019-20 — it was all the sweeter because of the adversity he had battled through.

Henderson was key to Liverpool’s winning mentality (Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

So what changed? Where was that defiant ‘I’ll show you’ attitude last summer when it became clear that Liverpool would not stand in his way if he wished to pursue a move to Saudi Arabia?

With Henderson now on the brink of signing for Dutch club Ajax after reaching an agreement with Al Ettifaq to terminate his contract, how he must wish he could turn back the clock.

All those uncomfortable questions he had to answer, all that negativity, all that damage done to his reputation. All those accusations of hypocrisy — of embracing a new career in a country where homosexuality is illegal having previously vowed to stand “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the LGBTQI+ community. None of it was necessary.

In the end, his legacy in Saudi stands at 19 appearances — some played in front of less than a thousand spectators — with Gerrard’s side sitting in eighth in the 18-team division. What a mess.

Henderson was far too hasty when he decided to leave Liverpool after discussing his future with Klopp last July. He told The Athletic in September that he felt unwanted after being informed his game time was likely to be reduced in 2023-24. As well as Klopp, he also spoke with the club’s principal owner John W Henry.

“If one of those people had said to me: ‘Now we want you to stay’, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.

But Henderson wasn’t forced out of the door. Klopp didn’t want to lose him but felt he owed his long-serving captain an honest assessment of his prospects in the context of the midfield rebuild.

“I told Hendo I wanted him to stay but we had to talk in these conversations about the possibility of not playing regularly,” Klopp said. “I cannot have a talk before a season and tell a player they will have 50 games this season; it all depends on performance. And if Hendo had performed, he would have had maybe 50 games, absolutely possible.”

Aside from the lure of the vast riches on offer in Saudi and the attraction of playing for Gerrard, Henderson was concerned about being stuck on the bench in the build up to the Euros. But why didn’t he back himself to defy his doubters like he had previously done so often? How was playing more regularly at a much lower level ever going to help his international ambitions?

Yes, Liverpool had signed Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai to strengthen their midfield, but James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had all left, while Fabinho was on the brink of heading to Saudi, and Thiago and Stefan Bajcetic were long-term absentees due to injury.

Liverpool had only intended to sign one more midfielder before the approach from Ettifaq; it was only after Henderson left that their plans changed and they ended up recruiting both Wataru Endo and Ryan Gravenberch.

The skipper’s role had already evolved prior to last summer. Having started 76 per cent of Premier League matches in 2021-22, that figure dropped to 61 per cent in 2022-23. But he still made 43 appearances (29 starts) in all competitions last season.

Henderson’s decision to leave Liverpool remains baffling to many (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

At the age of 33, he was hardly going to play more frequently. But there still would have been plenty of opportunities for him with Liverpool competing on four fronts.

He gave up so much: the captaincy, the emotional Anfield send-off he would have been guaranteed and the chance to win more silverware with Klopp’s resurgent side.

There’s no bad blood. Henderson is still a popular figure within the club and remains in close contact with players and staff alike — Klopp even referenced having a conversation with him as recently as this month. He will always be welcomed back to visit with open arms.

The regrets over the events of last summer belong solely to him rather than Liverpool. In his absence, Klopp’s side have surpassed all expectations.

Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold have stepped up to fill the leadership void and there’s a freshness and energy to the new-look midfield. There’s been space in the squad for youngsters such as Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott to flourish.

As his Saudi experience turned predictably sour, how many times Henderson must have looked at Liverpool swatting opponents aside and cursed that ill-advised decision to walk away? He could have been in the thick of this title challenge, and dreaming of lifting more silverware as the club captain, a position he would have retained, with Van Dijk wearing the armband when he wasn’t on the field.

Instead, he’s about to sign for the fifth-placed team in Holland.

He broke the habit of a lifetime when he shirked the challenge facing him at Liverpool last summer. The money was eyewatering but he’s been counting the cost ever since.

(Top photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images)

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