It was a comment that many of his fellow footballers were angry about, and sought to challenge – but Jordan Henderson looked at it another way. It is now why everyone sees him hold the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award.
Back in April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made his now notorious criticism of players and their wages. Sitting here after footballers have done so much, Henderson is asked about that. His response is indicative.
“That’s irrelevant to me. This is stuff that I personally don’t like: blaming other people and blaming each other. That’s the biggest problem for me, everybody is out to get each other, everybody is out to make a political stand or whatever that may be. I think the Premier League and the players across the board showed that you can put all that aside and come together and do something for the country to help people who need it the most and who are going through a tough time.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
“When you go through hard situations, you need everybody together, you need everybody fighting together to make change really for the better.”
That sense of collective – both with his team and beyond – is one major reason that Henderson has won one of the game’s major individual awards. With Liverpool, the midfielder performs a crucial tactical role, pinning the side together so other stars – previously more celebrated stars – can go about the more glamorous work. They thereafter generate the headlines, but he generates the energy necessary though his voice and influence. He is the same away from his team. Henderson is using his voice to get players to use their platform, to do that bit more – especially at such a trying time.
It certainly fits the FWA criteria that the Footballer of the Year must lead by “precept and example”.
That’s no surprise since “morals” are mentioned a lot in his interview to celebrate the award, as he praises the influence of his family. The endearing image of Henderson celebrating last season’s Champions League victory with his cancer-surviving father Brian was another that fostered the sense of the midfielder as a player of character – which is another reason why so many journalists voted for him.
“The morals I have are all from my family and I cannot thank them enough,” Henderson emphasises.
Henderson now feels we’re going to see more morals from the game, particularly through the Players Together initiative, which has already raised millions for the NHS.
He feels it is one positive that has come out of the trying last few months, that many footballers have realised their social power. Henderson has been key to that, even if he humbly points to others when talking about it. Through an initial call with the other captains, Henderson was put into contact with Ellie Orton, the chief executive of NHS Charities Together.
“We agreed that it was something powerful we could do to help the people that needed it the most and not only financially,” he reveals. “Of course we raised a lot of money for the NHS Charities Together, but I think the biggest thing when I spoke to Ellie and the lads as well was the emotional side to it.
“A lot of people love football and they look up to us and idolise a lot of players up and down the country and so for that to be flipped and for us to look up to them and do something for them, that made a massive difference psychologically and it gave them a great boost at a really tough time.
“I think what we’ve done so far is incredible. Not only for the NHS but for the Black Lives Matter campaign, that the players led on that side. And I have to say it is across the board. It is every single club captain and all the players across the Premier League have been involved in these things.
“It’s very important. It was a big positive out of a really bad last few months. To put rivalry aside and for all the captains and player representatives of all the clubs in the Premier League to come together and to support and help the NHS staff and volunteers for all the work they were doing was really powerful and meant a lot to us. I think we’re all really proud of what we did over that period and the captains and the players across the board were fantastic and I think it made a big difference to all the NHS staff.
“And in the future if we have to come together then I think it’s a good platform for us, I think it’s been a really powerful thing that we’ve done over these past few months. You never know in the future. We can maybe use it for other things, for people who need help the most and to make change for the better.”
It probably sums Henderson up that, when he’s asked about it, he immediately points to others.
“Marcus [Rashford] is a perfect example of that, and what he’s done is incredible,” Henderson says. “Raheem [Sterling] as well in terms of racism and making a change in that sense. And obviously all of the captains, the players, across the Premier League. I couldn’t speak highly enough of what they’ve done over the last few months to support the people who needed it the most in the NHS but also in trying to make change in the Black Lives Matter campaign and trying to use their profile and platform to make change in a positive way.”
It has helped change the perception of footballers, that was put out there by Hancock.
“To be honest there are always going to be negative stories but, overall, the footballers I’ve played and worked with over my career, there’s not many I can have a bad word to say about. They’ve all been amazing, I’ve respected every single player I’ve worked with and a lot of players will do stuff which no one will even hear about, off their own back.
“So, I know footballers will get stick and maybe sometimes rightly so but I think the overall majority of the Premier League and footballers in general, they’re just human beings at the end of the day and they do care and they just want to help [use] their position to make change, whether that is the NHS and the pandemic or a Black Lives Matter campaign to make change against racism or whatever that may be in the future. I think that’s important and we showed that we can come together and put rivalry aside and try to make real change for the bigger picture.
“No-one knew this situation was going to come and of course I know how difficult it must be. But the most important thing for me and this is just my personal belief in life is that you need people together to make change and be successful. I think Liverpool football club and Liverpool as a city can show that really well.”
Something else that strikes about Henderson is that, in doing all this, he isn’t pushing. He is encouraging, always pointing to the collaborative. It becomes evident he got that from his father.
“He never demanded I do anything I didn’t want,” Henderson says. “He just used to always say as long as I’m happy, he’s happy. He just taught that to make sure of something that you want, you have to absolutely go and get it. So I would say those two things stand out for me: to make sure I’m always happy and to always have a positive mindset, but also if you want to do something you’ve got to give it 110 per cent every time. And if you want to achieve something it has to be your dream and I’ve tried to do that as well.”
The story of how Henderson reacted to his 2012 rejection by Brendan Rodgers, and the route to this – league-winning captain, Champions League-winning captain, Footballer of the Year – are by now well told.
He can only tell of his joy, and appreciation. In doing so, though, he again speaks of the collective.
“When you look at the players in the past that have received the award it’s a phenomenal list, so to be part of that is really special,” Henderson admits. “But, I could sit here and say that this award is just for me it’s the whole team and what an unbelievable year and season it’s been for every single one of us and for me the award could have gone to any one of us.”
The ultimate individual award in football couldn’t have gone to a more selfless individual.