Written by Liverpoolfc.com contributor, Melissa Reddy.
Jordan Henderson has covered quite some distance since dropping his shorts on Soccer AM's Skill Skool in 2008 to reveal a pair of underpants with 'wow' scribbled on them as the climax to a ball-juggling trick. He cringes at the recollection: "We quickly had to come up with a few things that would make it more fun and entertaining," the Liverpool midfielder says. "I'm using young and stupid as my excuse."
That footage also serves as a reminder of how different it could have all turned out. Nathan Luscombe, a year Henderson's senior at Sunderland's Academy of Light, was victorious in the TV challenge. He is now registered to Celtic Nation in the First Division of the Northern League. "When you're young, no one really knows what's going to happen and how far you're going to get," Henderson, 24, adds.
That was certainly the case with Henderson, who could line up in Liverpool's midfield for the Merseyside derby today, having become a fixture in the team despite a rocky start to life Anfield: question marks have dogged him.
Could he secure a football career despite suffering from Osgood-Schlatters, a growing pains condition requiring regular treatment? Was the sport the correct choice for someone who excelled at badminton and table tennis? Could he justify the £20m fee Liverpool paid Sunderland for him? Does he really run from his knees, as Sir Alex Ferguson said?
"When it's not going so well, I keep myself away from all the coverage and focus on what I need to do to fix what's wrong," he says when we meet at Melwood after training. "When you go through difficult moments, it is very hard to see through it, but it's important that you do and it comes down to mental strength, where you force yourself to look beyond what's happening now to what you want to happen.
"At the same time, when things are good and people are putting you up on a pedestal, you've got to close yourself off from that and continue concentrating on what you need to achieve."
"Smaller and skinnier" than the other hopefuls at the Academy of Light, as its manager Ged McNamee recalled in 2011, Henderson always had to dig deeper, to show more. "He's just a smashing lad with bags of natural ability and a strong work ethic," says McNamee. "He'll always keep going and will always give you 100 per cent."
That assiduousness has ensured Henderson survived football's fascination with finding fault, especially in his early days at Liverpool. "You have to fight things like doubt and believe that all the work you do will help push you on, that's when you have to give extra - not give up.
"With the criticism, you can't take it too personally. People will always have opinions, you just have to remember who you are, what you've sacrificed and what you're working to achieve."
It is this tunnel vision that helped Henderson cope when his father was diagnosed with cancer last year. The revelation came with a request from his dad: "Try to be man of the match in every game you play." He was exactly that in four of the next five fixtures. "I wouldn't trade the downs and going through all the tough stuff, because it shapes you into a more steely person," he says.
When Brendan Rodgers took over at Liverpool, the manager was uncertain what Henderson could offer but now says he is the "moral compass of the group".
Henderson says of Rodgers: "He's been huge for me, both personally and for my career. On the pitch, he has sharpened me tactically, and off it, he's helped me so much. He was so good to me and my family when my dad was having surgery and he doesn't just manage players in a football sense, it's more than that. Even when it comes to things like leadership abilities, he's quick to spot it and work with you on improving."
Rodgers refers to Henderson as "a sponge who never tires of soaking up information" - he has sessions with Chris Davies, Liverpool's head of opposition analysis, after every game to go through what he's done well and where he can improve. It is no surprise, then, that regardless of the system Rodgers chooses, Henderson plays. He has operated in a variety of roles across midfield, as a wing-back or a more traditional right full-back, as well as in the hole.
"I'm much more rounded when it comes to positional and tactical awareness," Henderson says. "I've matured a lot as a footballer from being versatile and understanding how the game operates from different roles. Whatever position I play, I make sure I know everything that is needed from me and, when you've been used in so many, you automatically know if you're attacking centrally what the wide player on the right needs - for example, as you've played in both. I think I've fitted into different roles well and adjusted to different systems."
Source: The Independent