It was intriguing to see Jordan Henderson named alongside heavy-favourite Lewis Hamilton on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year six-person shortlist.
Both have been fundamental to the success of relentless winning teams in 2020 - but that’s probably where the comparisons begin to diverge.
Hamilton is the face of the all-conquering Mercedes team. He has an innate skill for racing, tipped for greatness as a child prodigy. He is most likely to win the SPOTY award after claiming a record-equalling seventh F1 title recently (although Eurosport's campaign for snooker legend Ronnie O'Sullivan may yet swing it...). To translate Hamilton's status to footballing terms would be to liken him to a superstar striker.
In contrast, Henderson has had to make the most of every drop of his ability, working hard to improve before finally enjoying the fruits of defying his doubters much later in his career. He has been a vital cog in Jurgen Klopp’s Red machine; in F1 terms he’d be like a highly reliable race engineer on the Pit Wall.
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He was named the Football Writers’ Player of the Year last season, but even then it left his critics puzzled. Some suggested it was because he was a representative of Liverpool’s ‘collective’ brilliance rather than for his own consistently strong performances. It sounds like a negative, but it’s not. He was the leader of the outstanding team.
The midfielder has earned his status as a club legend the hard way, having to win over fans, pundits and even an old manager in Brendan Rodgers after turning down a move to Fulham back in 2012.
Of course, that’s not a new story. It’s well-trodden turf in articles detailing his path to becoming a Champions League-winning captain and the honour of being the first Reds skipper to lift the top-flight title in 30 years. But it just reiterates the strength of his mentality.
Liverpool's Jordan Henderson challenges for the ball against Ajax
Image credit: Getty Images
Henderson’s display against Ajax was a timely reminder of why he’s such a key man for Klopp’s mentality monsters - both when he’s at the heart of the team and especially if he’s absent.
Indeed, that’s when it’s particularly notable. Henderson didn’t feature in Liverpool’s flat showing at home to Atalanta last week and the Reds didn’t hit a higher gear at Brighton until he emerged as a second-half substitute. So it was no surprise Klopp was very keen to keep him involved after he started against Ajax on Tuesday night.
The German was seen in deep discussion with his physio, Chris Morgan in the second half. It seemed that they were unsure if Henderson should stay on for 90 minutes after just returning from injury and complaining of a stiff back, but Klopp clearly felt his presence was key to seeing the game through.
And he was right.
Henderson was highly effective in the game-management that saw Liverpool edge to a morale-boosting victory after a tough week. The way he conducts himself on the pitch rubs off on those around him and it’s no coincidence that in the nine matches he has started this season Liverpool have won seven and drawn two of them.
He may not have the swagger of a Thiago Alcantara or the talismanic presence of his predecessor with the armband, Steven Gerrard, but there’s no doubt he has a huge impact on his teammates, often providing the platform for the leading lights of the side to relax and play their special brand of football.
Against Ajax it was more of a hard-fought team performance, but he was just as important as a reassuring and incessant voice of experience for the younger players in the team.
It was a fitting way to underline his qualities on the night he was shortlisted for another prestigious award. Henderson is rarely the ‘superstar’ and he probably won’t lift that particular trophy, but he won’t mind if it means Liverpool can stay on track for more team honours in 2021.
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