The celebration was ecstatic but also seemed to contain a hint of defiance. Jordan Henderson cupped his ears at the rejoicing Liverpool fans as though he wished to know what people thought now.
He had just completed a run characteristic of the archetypal English box-to-box midfielder, charging into the penalty area and connecting with Roberto Firmino’s delightfully-weighted cross to score.
The clock stood at 86 minutes and this was the moment Liverpool knew Friday’s game at Southampton was well and truly won — and that they would remain top of the table this week. Mohamed’s Salah superb strike in the 80th minute was decisive, but this was the point at which they could breathe freely again, another escape secured.
Manchester City will still win the Premier League if they maintain a 100 per cent record. But the manner in which Liverpool keep eking out victories suggests that City will have to do just that if they wish to retain their title. Henderson’s gesture, seemingly at odds with such a triumphant moment, was perhaps directed at Liverpool’s critics in general, rather than the away fans. In the recesses of social media, there remain outposts quick to dismiss Henderson’s ability and influence.
When he joined Liverpool in 2011 it seemed a stretch to pay £16million for a promising Sunderland player just about to turn 21. So unconvincing was he that when Brendan Rodgers took over a year later, he attempted to ship him out to Fulham so he could bring in Clint Dempsey. Rodgers’ view would change. Indeed, last summer, he drew attention to the fact that in Liverpool’s last title charge in 2014, Henderson’s absence in the definitive game against Chelsea at home — the day of Steven Gerrard’s slip — was crucial. Having been sent off in injury time against Manchester City, he was suspended.
‘His physical influence, the pressing he brought to that team, was really missed,’ said Rodgers.
Next Sunday, Liverpool play Chelsea at home. This time Henderson will be there and he will be starting if the 30-plus minutes he contributed at Southampton are anything go by. Gary Neville made the point that Friday’s game changed when Jurgen Klopp brought on James Milner at right back and Henderson in midfield on 59 minutes.
Notwithstanding the need to rotate, the early change was an indication that Klopp had erred initially. Without Henderson, Liverpool’s midfield was swamped. For the final third of the game, that was never the case.
Klopp is still bemused when people refer to the rise of Henderson, roaring with laughter when he is asked about how the player has matured for club and country.
‘It would be a shame if he was not better now than he was at 21,’ said Klopp. ‘Of course, he is a much better player. Hendo, from my point of view, is a brilliant player. He’s our skipper, he’s a fantastic character. If I had to write a book about Hendo, it would be 500 pages. So I’m very positive.
‘The most difficult job in the last 500 years of football was to replace Steven Gerrard. In the mind of the people it was “If it’s not Stevie, it’s not good enough”. And he has dealt with that outstandingly well so he can be really proud. Now we have to think of the future and he is a very important part of our team.’
The fact Henderson was in the box at all was an indication of the refined role he could be playing in the final five games this season.
‘I haven’t got in those positions often this season because I’ve been playing a deeper role but I’ve had conversations with the manager and felt as though I could affect it a little bit higher up,’ said Henderson. ‘Thankfully I could contribute. It was a big goal.’
Klopp acknowledged that we might be about to see the attacking side of Henderson’s game. ‘When I came in and first thought about the team, Hendo was a box-to-box player. We made him a No6 (a deeper role) and that’s good. I think it’s helped him a lot to play in different positions. Against Southampton the runs in behind their defence helped us a lot.’
Henderson was vice-captain for the memorable 2013-14 season that came so close to the title and remains integral to the team five years later.
Only he among current regular starters really knows what the pain of losing a toe-to-toe race like this means to Liverpool.