Jordan Henderson is in a tight spot. The Liverpool captain is sitting on the terrace at the hotel where the Champions League finalists are staying in the hills above Marbella, listening to questions inviting him to talk about himself. The problem is, he does not like talking about himself. In football’s age of self-aggrandisement, he is the anti-ego.
At the heart of Henderson is an instinct for self-sacrifice. To understand the son, it helps to know the father. When Henderson’s dad, Brian, was diagnosed with throat cancer four years ago, he kept the news from his boy for a while because he did not want to risk derailing his career. And when his treatment began, he told Henderson not to visit him so he would not see him suffering.
So Henderson is good at carrying burdens. It is bred in the bone. On and off the pitch, he does the jobs others don’t want to. His dad was a policeman and Henderson has his sense of duty. The cult of the individual is anathema to him. It is all about the team. It is all about helping his team-mates to be the best they can be. It is about giving them the glory and taking none for himself.
Now and again, he looks out over the golf course to where the new housing developments of the Costa del Sol creep further and further up the hillsides towards the peaks in the haze. I ask him about his outstanding form this season and he grows effusive about Mo Salah. I ask him about his influence on the team and he talks about his delight about Trent Alexander-Arnold’s England call-up.
None of this is false modesty. Spend a few minutes in his company, listen to what others say about him and it is obvious that Henderson is not capable of being false.
He is a team man, loyal to his manager, loyal to his team-mates, loyal to his club and its fans. Praise unnerves him. It makes him feel selfish and conceited and, even though it is he who will lead Liverpool out against Real Madrid in Kiev on Saturday, he is the opposite of conceited.
‘I don’t like reading good things about myself,’ says Henderson. ‘With the criticism and the negative things, I always think that makes me better. You need a little bit of good now and again but the good for me comes from the manager. That’s the good I enjoy, so if I’m told I’m doing my job right, brilliant. Anything outside of that, I tend not to get involved.
‘I’m not particularly into people giving me credit. It’s not something I think about. It’s not important to me. The only thing that’s important is if I’m doing my job properly on the pitch for the team and for the manager. I don’t like talking about myself. I find it a lot easier talking about other people. I let the journalists do the talking about me if they want to. It’s entirely up to them, good or bad.
‘I try to leave that to other people. I prefer talking about how well others are doing because that’s what I want. That’s what I try to do as a captain: give them a platform where they can go and perform as best they can. That’s a big role at Liverpool and I feel that the lads here have stepped up and that they enjoy playing at this football club. The manager always says you need to stay angry and never settle. He is always pushing us for more and more and I think negative things help with that.
‘I can always accept criticism. Throughout my career, I’ve always had criticism and I think that’s good. Criticism’s healthy. It gives you that extra little bit inside you to prove people wrong, to use it as energy, to use it as fuel.’
Henderson is right about the criticism. It has been his companion for much of his career. There are still those who greet his inclusion in the England side with a groan, although that number is now far outweighed by those who have witnessed indomitable midfield performances like the one in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Roma last month and see him as one of Gareth Southgate’s greatest assets.
The criticism was probably at its height in the first couple of years of his Liverpool career after Kenny Dalglish signed him from his boyhood club, Sunderland, for £20million in the summer of 2011. Henderson struggled to live up to the fee and, a year later, with Brendan Rodgers now in charge, Liverpool were ready to offload him in a swap deal for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey.
The memory of a Thursday afternoon at the Hope Street Hotel in the centre of Liverpool, where the club goes through its pre-match routine, is still scorched into Henderson’s mind. It was a few hours before a Europa League tie against Hearts when Rodgers asked to speak to him.
‘Brendan called me in and said “Listen, this is the offer” and he asked me what I thought,’ says Henderson. ‘It implied to me that he would let me leave and it was up to me. I went back to my room. I shed a few tears. I ended up crying a little bit because it hurt so much. I had the game that night to think about it as well.
‘I spoke to my agent and told him what had happened and I said I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay and fight and try and improve and try to prove the manager wrong. My agent agreed. I spoke to my dad. He was gutted but he backed my decision to stay and fight.
‘From that point, I just kept my head down. I knew I wouldn’t get as much game time as I wanted but I still had faith. I was young enough to get my head down, keep working hard, do my extra bits and prove them wrong and I feel I managed to do that by the time Brendan left. There are always those moments in football — and life in general — which can decide the path and the route you go down. For me it was never an option to leave.’
It is typical of Henderson that he is at pains not to criticise Rodgers. In fact, he feels grateful to him. When he asked Rodgers what he needed to do to get in the first team, Rodgers showed him clips of what he was doing wrong and asked him to fix it. He did not try to force him out of the club and Henderson worked furiously to push himself into the starting XI.
His struggle to prove himself impacted on his home life. ‘My wife, Rebecca, will say that, in those couple of years, I wasn’t a nice person to be around a lot of the time,’ says Henderson. He did not sulk but he worked so hard, putting in extra sessions in the gym and at training that, when he got home, all he wanted to do was sleep.
‘When you are young, things can affect you,’ he says. ‘Football was my life. From when I was a little boy, football has always been the priority and the biggest thing in my life. No matter what else was around, that’s all I wanted to do. When things don’t go well, it does hurt. It affected me when I went home. It was a tough time but I felt I matured a lot.’
He matured so much that when Steven Gerrard retired, Rodgers made Henderson captain in his place. Liverpool’s front three may attract most of the headlines these days but there is no disputing who leads the side. He has been so impressive with the armband that many see him as the obvious choice to lead England at the World Cup in Russia next month.
It is instructive to listen to what the Liverpool captaincy means to him as he tries to join Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness and Gerrard in the great tradition of the club’s European Cup-winning skippers.
‘It gives me great pleasure to see other players around us getting the rewards for our togetherness,’ he says. ‘Mo’s awards mean a lot to me because it shows this group has helped him come here and settle into a great team. That shows how good this group of players is as well as what a great player he is.
‘When I took the role on, I wanted to give everything to the team, like I always have, put them first and make sure we have a good dressing room of players who are prepared to work tirelessly for each other and have a good togetherness off the pitch and be a really close-knit group. I like that responsibility. That’s what I thrive off. I try to lead by example and I have done since I was a little boy. It’s in me as a person.’ Henderson and Rebecca have two children, Alexa, four, and Alba, three, and being a father has helped him relax.
Jurgen Klopp recognised soon after he arrived at the club quite how much weight Henderson was carrying on his own shoulders and tried to spread the load. But it was his dad’s illness that did the most to put things in perspective.
Henderson had forced his way back into Rodgers’ side in the autumn of 2013 and the club was fashioning an unlikely tilt at the title when Brian Henderson was diagnosed with throat cancer. He delayed telling his son for as long as he could. When Henderson finally found out, he was devastated. What my dad went through made me more of a man,’ says Henderson. ‘It puts things into perspective quickly. I say that football is everything to me but when things like that happen, you realise there are other very important things outside football. I took that quite hard at the time. It was a shock because I had never dealt with anything like that before.
‘He is a very proud man and he didn’t want me to see him when he was getting treatment because of how he looked. I knew the only thing I could do, the only way I could help him, was play well on the weekend because I knew he’d be watching. That’s a different pressure. I wanted to play well to help my dad be healthy again and, if I can do that, I can play in any circumstances.
‘I didn’t see my dad much in that time. Very little. He wouldn’t let me. Brendan was very good. He said I could go back home whenever I wanted to see him, so I saw him just before he went in for his first treatment. Then I would see him again a few weeks later and it wasn’t too bad but, towards the end, it got to a point where he didn’t want to see me at all because of how he was.
‘He didn’t want me to see him like that so I knew it was pretty bad. I was in regular contact but the only thing I could really do was try and perform on a weekend and luckily enough at the time, we started winning every week.’
Brian recovered from the cancer and will be in Kiev on Saturday to see his son attempt to walk in the footsteps of Liverpool legends by winning the trophy that has come to define the club’s identity.
For Henderson, 27, playing in the match will be the realisation of a dream. When Liverpool made it to the final, his dad reminded him that when they had gone to watch the 2003 final between Juventus and AC Milan at Old Trafford, Henderson had turned to him and said that he wanted to play in an occasion just like it one day.
He is under no illusions about the size of the task. Zinedine Zidane’s side are attempting to win the trophy for the third year in succession and Henderson will likely see Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, two of the best midfielders in the world, lining up opposite him. And that’s before any mention of Cristiano Ronaldo.
‘We’ll be the underdogs,’ says Henderson. ‘But I know that if we can perform to the level we have been performing, then we can give them a right good game. We can take inspiration from what the legends of this club have achieved but this is about our history.’
Henderson is keen to acknowledge debts he owes. To Roy Keane, who gave him his debut at Sunderland, to Steve Bruce, who became a mentor to him, to Dalglish, who remained an unfailing support, to Rodgers, for helping him turn his Liverpool career around and now to Klopp, who trusts him implicitly and is bringing the best out of him.
And to his parents, Brian and Liz, who taught him about duty, sacrifice, service and responsibility to others. ‘I will be indebted to them for the rest of my life,’ he says. ‘And I try to make them as proud as possible every time I play.
‘My mam used to say: “There’s always someone watching, no matter who you play. You have to perform every single time”. I have tried to do that since I was a kid.
‘You have to try to be the best you can be every single day. That applies to everything in life. You have to try to be better every day as a person. You can always improve. You are going to make mistakes along the way but it is how you learn from them. I try to be the best person I can be for this team and for my family.’