Jordan Henderson: ‘I changed from wanting to be a player that did everything’ | Jonathan Liew | Football

“Through tough times, you can forget how much you love the game,” Jordan Henderson says. “You can take it for granted a little bit. When you’re a small kid, you don’t really think about trophies and winning things. You’re just thinking about playing football. But as you get older, your dreams get bigger. When you get to 16, 17, 18, it comes down to winning at all costs. Doing anything you can.”

We’re talking about trophies, and fulfilment, and happiness. When does pure enjoyment, the thrill of the game, give way to something larger? Why do footballers fixate so much on silverware, measure their lives in medals? At what point does it stop being about the taking part, and become about the winning?

For Henderson, this feels like the perfect moment to pose the question. Last week the Liverpool team he captains became Premier League champions for the first time. It’s the club’s first league title in 30 years, one sealed by a devastating margin. Meanwhile, Henderson himself has overcome more than most to get there: disillusionment, heartbreak, the very real prospect of being sold to Fulham in a swap deal with Clint Dempsey. On some level, you feel, he’s still trying to process what it all means.

But from his relaxed and convivial manner as he sits down for his first major interview since becoming a Premier League champion, from the laughter and honesty on display, you get some sense of the giant weight that has been lifted. There may still be seven games left of the season (six by the time you read this): records to be chased, reputations to be upheld, history to be made. But the mountain has been climbed. And the view from the summit is magnificent.

“It’s been amazing, the last few days,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s really sunk in properly. When you come to Liverpool, you’re expected to win trophies, big trophies. And the Premier League is something I’ve always dreamed of winning. Especially for this football club. Because the fans have wanted it for so long.”

It is when asked about the unsung heroes of Liverpool’s title win that Henderson’s brow furrows just a little. Tentatively, he offers a few tributes. “The owners, who we’re so lucky to have. The people behind the scenes. Your first-team staff. Your physios. The ladies in the canteen. People like Mona [Nemmer], Andreas [Kornmayer], in nutrition and fitness.”

And then he stops, and you realise why. In order to answer the question truthfully, to encapsulate what it really means to bring the title back to Anfield, he’d need to list everyone. All the coaches at Melwood. All the support staff. All the friends and family. Perhaps even the former players and managers who laid the foundations of the team that he has now captained to glory. And he’s petrified of forgetting someone.



A banner at Anfield pays tribute to Jordan Henderson. He says the club is ‘like a big family’. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

“I don’t like singling people out,” he says eventually. “It’s like a big family. That’s what’s so special at this football club. Everyone plays their part, and when we win we all celebrate together.”

In a way, Henderson’s nine years at Anfield constitute their own epic cycle: a salutary tale of perseverance and growth, of finding his place in the machine, the role that could be filled by him and only him. Signed from Sunderland in 2011 as a 20-year-old, there were times when it became harder to glimpse the player once hailed as a potential heir to Steven Gerrard: the hurricane midfielder who could do it all. True enlightenment came in realising that he didn’t have to.

“As time goes on, you learn different things tactically,” he says. “I always felt as though my best position was a box-to-box midfielder who could get up and down. Tackle. Work hard. Assist. Get in the box, but do the defensive side. Counter-press.”

It was the arrival of Jürgen Klopp that helped Henderson find his true calling: as a player whose tireless running and positional intelligence were best deployed not as marauder, but as metronome. As the ticking heart and pumping lungs of Klopp’s midfield, Henderson’s more controlled role in front of the defence – keeping the ball, keeping the shape, keeping the door shut – may contrast sharply with the bold, individualistic risk-taking of Mo Salah or Sadio Mané further forward, or Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson on the flanks. But it’s what Liverpool need him to do.

“When the gaffer came, I changed from wanting to be the player that maybe I thought I was – in terms of doing everything – to focusing on what the team needed,” he says. “When you’re a No 6, you’ve got to be a lot more disciplined. You’ve always got to be thinking about protection, counter-pressing, being aware of the counterattack.”

Jordan Henderson, here in action against Wolves, says: ‘I feel as though we’ve created our own way of playing football.’



Jordan Henderson, here in action against Wolves, says: ‘I feel as though we’ve created our own way of playing football.’ Photograph: Andrew Kearns/CameraSport/Getty Images

Was there not a part of him that wanted to play further forward, that strained at the idea of playing this less natural role? “A little bit. The gaffer would probably say yes. But ultimately I wanted to become successful. If it meant playing a certain position, that was fine with me. A year ago we had a conversation when Fabinho signed. He was fantastic in that deeper role, definitely one of the best No 6s in the world, and it was an opportunity to move a little further forward. That was over a year ago, and since then I’ve played No 6 and No 8 as much as each other. It doesn’t really matter.”

So how does he now weigh up risk on the pitch? When the ball rolls towards him, what factors go into the decision-making process? “It’s quite instinctive,” he says. “There’s a lot of things we think about that people don’t see. Decision-making is what you see, but it’s also what you’ve been looking at over your shoulder. Top players are always scanning, always checking the picture, so when they get the ball they know exactly where the next pass is going to go.

“To be honest, the way that we play has been coached for a number of years now, so it becomes natural. You know the principles of the team, you know what’s expected every single game. I feel as though we’ve created our own way of playing football over the last few years, and it’s been pretty successful.”

Teams don’t evolve this sort of instinct and automation overnight. It’s taken Klopp five years to produce a team capable of fulfilling his vision, and in Henderson he has a general who will enforce it to the letter. “He’s dealt with a lot in his life,” Henderson says. “And football is all about dealing with situations, negative or positive. He’s so good at finding the right words, saying the right things: whether we’ve been in finals that we’ve lost, or competitions that we’ve won.”

Jordan Henderson and Jürgen Klopp with the Club World Cup last December.



Jordan Henderson and Jürgen Klopp with the Club World Cup last December. Photograph: David Ramos/Fifa/Getty Images

What makes him angry? “Everything!” Henderson says with a hearty laugh. “He is very intense in training. I quite like that. I’d say he was a bit angrier at the beginning, when he first came, than he is now.”

The conversation turns to politics. During the long weeks of lockdown, as Liverpool’s title procession was put on hold, Henderson – in common with many of his fellow players – had time to do a little soul-searching. With the other 19 Premier League captains, he established PlayersTogether, a fund that will raise millions of pounds for the NHS and other causes during the pandemic. He filmed a video for the Black Lives Matter movement. He has seen, for the first time in recent memory, footballers coming together to demand social justice and speak out on causes that move them.

“I know footballers get a lot of stick,” Henderson says.

“Of course you still see certain players making mistakes, doing things they regret. But just because it gets put on the front page of the newspaper, everyone gets tarnished with that same brush. There are so many good people within football, as you’ve seen over the past few months. The perfect example would be what Marcus [Rashford] has done with school meals. But so many other players have been giving to charities which people won’t even hear about.”

Jordan Henderson
(@JHenderson)

#WhenWillWeSeeChange? pic.twitter.com/JZYj3K2cP7


June 16, 2020

As Henderson is the captain of an innately political football club in an innately political city at an innately political moment, it feels only natural to ask for his take on the current landscape. He watches, and reads, and keeps himself informed. But he also sees elements of the political culture in this country that turn him off.

“I always feel it’s about getting at each other,” he says, choosing his words carefully.

“It’s one blaming the other. You don’t know who to trust. It’s so difficult to know who’s telling the truth and who’s not. It feels like everyone’s looking for someone to fail and do something wrong, so they can jump on that.”

What about his own politics? What are the values that inspire him? “Ultimately, it’s about looking after each other. A really powerful thing the players did over this pandemic was coming together for the greater good. There’s so much rivalry on the football pitch, but all of that went to one side. That was a really powerful thing.

“I would like to see politicians coming together a lot more to find the best solutions. Not the best solution for them, or what gets them the most votes. What’s best for the people of the country? How do we look after each other? How do we all come together? That’s been a value of mine since I was a kid, and always will be. Looking after each other, solidarity between people, that’s the most important thing. And the players have shown that these last few months.”

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This is, you realise, a man with horizons and ambitions. As a footballer, Henderson ultimately refused to be defined by the labels or the limits that others set for him. As a captain, he is equally determined that like the Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup that came before it, this Premier League trophy alone will not define him. The 4-0 defeat at Manchester City on Thursday night perhaps offered a reminder not only of the magnitude of this season’s triumph, but of the size of the peaks to come.

“At the start of every season we talk about winning everything,” he says. “Why not aim for every trophy and every competition? FA Cup, Premier League, Champions League, League Cup. We believe in ourselves. You’ve seen that over the past couple of seasons. There’s been disappointing results, but we’ve always reacted in the right way.

“This’ll be no different. After the Champions League win, it was all about reaction: go and want more. After this Premier League win, it’ll be the same again. We’ve just got to keep that mentality. Keep wanting more.” And he fixes his questioner with a flint-hard look, as if daring us all to doubt him.




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