Canada coach John Herdman is a diehard Newcastle fan, but he can be forgiven a smile when Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson hoists the English Premier League trophy.
A young Herdman coached an even-younger Henderson while at Sunderland’s academy.
“I had him as a U-11 and U-12 player,” Herdman recalled. “So it’s going back.”
Even then, Henderson was hard to miss.
“Oh yeah, he stood out. He stood out by then,” Herdman said. “He played up a year through the academy system and sometimes two years.
“What stood out was the personality. He had a really strong personality. He was a bubbly kid. Physically very able at that age. But what surprises is he’s developed into a real box-to-box midfielder but with that simplicity behind his game. When he was a kid, he was a goal scorer. He was more of a No. 10. He was easily the game-changer in the team.
“Watching him as he’s evolved into a player. Just how simple he’s made his game but also the level of tactical IQ that you can see he’s got. That surprises. I always thought he was going to go on and be a goal scorer, a No. 10 type, an attacking midfielder.”
Liverpool clinched its first English title since 1990 on Thursday when Chelsea defeated second-place Manchester City 2-1. Trailing Liverpool by 23 points with seven games remaining, Man City can no longer catch the Reds.
Born in 1990, Henderson joined the Sunderland academy when he was eight. He signed a pro contract at 18 with his hometown club, making his league debut four months later in November, 2008.
He moved to Liverpool in the summer of 2011 for £20-million ($33.7-million) and was named vice-captain in September, 2014, before taking over as skipper in July, 2015, following the departure of club icon Steven Gerrard.
Herdman, a native of Consett some 25 kilometres southwest of Newcastle, was just starting his coaching career at the nearby Sunderland academy when he crossed paths with a young Henderson. It was a job that earned him no shortage of stick from his Newcastle-loving family and friends.
Herdman had played semi-pro football in the Northern League and for his university. Knowing that a pro career wasn’t in the cards, he started taking coaching courses at 16 and had his own soccer school at 23.
Players from Sunderland started sending their kids to his school, which led to the job offer from the Sunderland academy. He spent three years there before taking a job as regional football director in New Zealand.
That eventually led to coaching the New Zealand women’s team and then the Canada women. In January, 2018, after leading Canada to two straight Olympic bronze medals, he took over the Canadian men.
Herdman makes a point of visiting the Sunderland academy whenever he goes home. On one stop, with then Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, he got to see Henderson again before his move to Liverpool.
“He sort of tapped [me] on the head and he said ‘This is the guy who taught me all of my tricks’ ... and Brucey said ‘Yeah. And I’ve had to knock all that out of you.’ It was good, it was a nice moment.”
Now 30, Henderson has made 361 appearances for Liverpool and, thanks to the team’s 2019 Champions League triumph, is one of five Red captains to lift the European Cup – along with Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness and Gerrard.
He has also won the League Cup (2012), UEFA Super Cup (2019) and FIFA Club World Cup (2019).
A former England under-21 captain, Henderson has won 55 senior caps for England.
“He’s a legend back home in the Northeast (of England) and flying the flag for those young players,” Herdman said.
Henderson won kudos during the pandemic for reaching out to fellow Premier League captains to launch an initiative called #PlayersTogether to raise funds “to help enhance the well-being of NHS (National Health Service) staff, volunteers and patients impacted by COVID-19.”
“A really down-to-earth lad,” Herdman said. “And you can see that coming from his parents. He comes from a working-class background. His Dad would be at the academy a lot. He’s been a big influence in his life as well.”