It has become something of an irksome trend, of late, for myopic hacks, prompted by Jordan Henderson's heroics last season, to hold forth on the wonders of the Liverpool midfielder and to eulogise about his tremendous engine and surprising ability. These broadsheet pontificators and tabloid rumour mongers actually seem surprised by the Sunderland native's ability, as if it has just blossomed in the last twelve months. Tragically, their previous apathy towards him was matched by many Liverpool supporters. Indeed, the amiable young man endured some repellent hostility both from the stands and from the cowardly keyboard warriors who bleat and whine on various online fora. Having to berate a couple of mouth-breathing oiks who stood next to me on the Kop and harangued their own player with odious abuse remains one of this scribbler's least edifying moments as a Liverpool fan.
Here at TLO Towers, Henderson was appreciated from the beginning and most right-thinking supporters could see past his unfortunate association with Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, or CHAD as they were pejoratively known. Henderson is the only member remaining of the world's least popular boyband. It is testament to the young man's steely focus and application that he survived not only fan abuse but also a debut season being employed as a right winger (replacing fan favourite, Dirk Kuyt, in the process) by Kenny Dalglish and an apparent lack of faith from Brendan Rodgers.
As Rodgers' first season went on and Liverpool found their groove following the arrivals of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, Henderson was utilised in various midfield roles by the Antrim man and seemed to have made himself a fixture in the manager's thinking. However, the England dynamo's confidence took another knock when it appeared as if Rodgers was content to let him leave the club last summer. That move was reportedly rejected by the player who believed enough in himself to stay and fight for a regular first team berth at Anfield. His self-possession and quietly fierce belief paid off in the most dramatic fashion and finally woke many up to what a talent he is.
It is not too fanciful to suggest that the timing of Henderson's late-season suspension may have been as pivotal a factor as any in Liverpool's agonisingly narrow loss of the title to Manchester City, such is his importance to the make-up of Rodgers' side. It is wildly reductive and no little slight to speak of the tonsorially immaculate 24 year old as simply a work horse. Henderson does cover a prodigious amount of ground in the course of a match but he also has willingness to make unselfish runs for the good of the team and the moral courage to show for the ball in all situations. Most importantly, he also has the high level of technical excellence and tactical awareness that his manager demands of any player occupying such a key position.
All Liverpool fans will hope that Steven Gerrard's decision to retire from international football will prolong his days in the Red, especially if he can recreate his stunning form from the latter part of last season. However, there has already been a slight shift in the power balance on the field of play, and while Gerrard will always be the captain and talisman, Henderson has begun to do the things which his senior colleague used to. He has become the vigorously beating heart of the team, a perpetual motion machine whose probing, pressing, passing and tackling have given both example and inspiration to those around him on the park
A leader at all levels of the game, Henderson has captained the England Under 21s with great distinction and easy authority. Now, as Gerrard bows out of Three Lions' duty and moves deeper on the field of play, it is the perfect opportunity for the immensely likable younger man to come to the fore in both teams. Typically, Henderson himself is only interested in progression. Laurel-resting is not an option and he is looking to the future with a pleasing hunger for even greater responsibility.
"We all have to step up a level, that had to be the aim – whether Luis was here or not," he averred. "The whole point is you have to keep improving as a player. You have to always be learning from guys like Stevie. I feel as though I’m maturing. I am older now and I need to get better again from last season. For England, I am slightly older than some of the others. But I have grown up with them through the U21s, where I was captain and I had a good relationship with them. If I am in the squad, I will take more responsibility, especially now with Stevie going. He’s probably the best player this country has ever seen, so you’re not going to be able to replace a player like that.
"What we have to do is develop the young talent coming through, and there is a lot of it. We’ve got to let them show how good they are. The likes of myself, Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley need to take on more of a leadership role than before. We were so close to winning the league, it just slipped away at the last minute, so it really hurt a lot. But we can take a lot of confidence from that because we played so much good football. It makes us hungry to go back and finish it off this season."
Brendan Rodgers has joked about the ludicrous fitness levels that Henderson possesses and indeed the club's staff have told of how they need to save him from his own relentless enthusiasm by enforcing periods of rest for the ever-motile young man. That apparently bottomless reservoir of energy will be absolutely crucial if Liverpool are to build on last season's heroics. He may have a fondness for excessive amounts of hair product and an endearingly goofy perma-grin, but Jordan Henderson is a serious footballer and a captain in waiting. Already on this tour we have seen the midfielder instinctively spring to the defence of young Adam Phillips and this innate capacity to lead along with his customary verve and brio will be a delight to watch as the coming campaign unfolds.