The summer period ahead of the new football season starting has been dominated as usual by transfer business. Close to home, Sunderland have made some great signings and have so far been able to hold on to their star players.
To me, the most surprising move was the transfer of Liverpool captain and former hometown hero Jordan Henderson, who’ll now play for Saudi Professional League club Al-Ettifaq.
He was thirty three in June, and I can understand the temptation of a rumoured £350,000 weekly salary in the Middle East, especially at his age.
The midfielder will link up with Steven Gerrard, who is manager of the Saudi Pro League side. The pair were teammates at Anfield before Gerrard left in 2015.
Current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp expressed surprised at his captain’s departure.
I know it was a really, really tough decision for Hendo and I was around or with him all the way.
It’s sad, absolutely strange, because he is the only captain I had here at Liverpool, but I think it is exciting for him as well.
We will miss him, without a shadow of a doubt, that’s clear - as a man and as a player. But, as I said, that’s football.
‘That’s football’ is a phrase commonly used by managers when things don’t go their way.
Former Black Cats boss Steve Bruce used it often prior to his sacking in late November 2011, and he was the one who talked up Henderson’s abilities and sold him to the Merseysiders in June 2011, for a fee believed to be close to £20 million.
Those funds helped to fund Bruce’s rebuild at Sunderland, which ultimately proved to be ill-fated.
There are some great memories of Henderson in red and white, however.
The standout one for me is the stunning and unexpected 3-0 victory at Carlo Ancelotti’s Didier Drogba-inspired Chelsea in November 2010.
I have the DVD of the game and I often return to it in order to remember the good times. Henderson put in a terrific performance as a box-to-box midfielder in that match.
I also read the autobiography ‘Jordan Henderson’ on my summer holiday and I must admit that it’s a well-written page-turner which I found compelling. As with any book by players or managers from my hometown club, I do wish they would focus more on Sunderland, but I guess he left while still young.
Nonetheless, he joined the youth system aged eight, so his formative years were spent at our club and it’s clear that before as well as after his parents’ divorce, his father Brian, a policeman and amateur footballer, was a huge influence.
He survived oral cancer during Henderson’s early Liverpool career and was able to attend the 2019 Champions League final in Madrid.
Henderson became Liverpool captain in 2015 and led the side to Champions League victory in 2019 before they went on to win the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup later that year. He was also the Reds’ skipper when the club won the 2019/2020 Premier League, ending a thirty year wait for a league title.
His other honours at Liverpool include winning the FA Cup in 2022 and League Cup in 2012 and 2022, and his account of life at Anfield seems very honest as he confesses to being uncertain at times, and often moody if things weren’t going well in his early years.
His leadership qualities did emerge as he was appointed captain upon the departure of Gerrard, and seventy seven caps for England tell their own story.
His ability to drive and inspire commitment to important causes outside of football was illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic when he contacted his fellow Premier League captains to organise a COVID-19 fund that raised millions of pounds for the NHS, especially for frontline workers.
He was appointed an MBE in the 2021 Birthday Honours for ‘services to football and to charity, particularly during the pandemic’, and he’s also been a high-profile supporter of LGBT causes, both at Liverpool and nationally.
While reading Henderson’s book ahead of the announcement of the move to Saudi Arabia, I harboured hopes that he would one day return to his Sunderland roots in the way that Grant Leadbitter did.
The former Ipswich and Middlesbrough midfielder took a cut in wages but brought the fun and passion back to his footballing life, and as captain, he helped our younger players with the trauma of trying to emerge from League One.
He was in the Sunderland side that won the EFL Trophy in 2021, but a similarly emotional Stadium of Light return for Henderson seems unlikely now.
If I was giving Henderson a school report on the 2022/2023 season, it would read, ‘could do better’.
Liverpool endured a torrid time for long periods, he didn’t score in forty three appearances, and when the Saudi cash came calling, it appeared that he compromised his principles.
For example, former German international Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay once he’d hung up his boots, posted a telling message on social media.
I did believe for a while that Henderson’s support for the LGBT community would be genuine. Silly me.
This doesn’t stop me from admiring the guy, both as a terrific footballer and as a Sunderland fan, I’m sure.
Henderson has completed the most passes of any player in Premier League history, with 22,340, a testament to his status in the game, and I’d recommend his book, published in October 2022, as it’s a very good read.
However, it’s at times like this I regret what excessive amounts of money have done to the beautiful game.