Ever since the surgery, Jordan Henderson knew what he had to do. The Liverpool captain was always optimistic that he would be available for Euro 2020, the specialists and physiotherapists were positive, even if he and they were conscious of the timeframe.
The groin injury had come against Everton on 20 February, the operation just under a week later. Henderson would miss the remainder of the domestic season but, with three months to reassure the England manager, Gareth Southgate, it would be OK. Wouldn’t it?
It would not have been so without the remorseless day-in, day-out work ethic for which Henderson has become renowned. He made it and there had to be elation mixed with relief when he got back on to the pitch as a half-time substitute in England’s final warm-up game against Romania on Sunday. Enter Roy Keane, his former manager at Sunderland, who had given him his professional debut in November 2008 as a half-time substitute in a 5-0 drubbing at Chelsea.
“Clearly Jordan is not fit, I don’t think he should be involved,” Keane said on Sky Sports. “He can’t be fit if he can’t start a game against Romania. I’ve heard people saying they want him around the place. For what? Does he do card tricks? Does he have a sing-song? Does he have quizzes in the evenings? What does he do?”
Henderson smiles. “To be fair to Roy, he can say what he wants about me. He gave me my debut and I wouldn’t be here without him giving me that. I found it quite funny, actually.”
And yet, perhaps, not that funny.
“Listen, we know a little bit more detail – I know more detail and so does the manager … which Roy may not,” Henderson said. “But in terms of stuff like that, everyone’s going to have an opinion, everybody’s going to think they know better than everyone else.”
It was later put to Henderson that his selection by Southgate was more about what he can offer in technical terms. “Yeah, and the card tricks he [Keane] was on about,” Henderson replied. “I’ve got a few of them up my sleeve. As a player, you want to play. I’m not coming here just to be around the camp, like Roy was saying. Whenever I’m called upon, I’ll be ready and hopefully I can make a big contribution.”
It would not be natural if there were not concerns over a player with only 45 minutes of a friendly against Romania to his name in three and a half months – and a fairly uninspiring 45 minutes at that. Henderson made the headlines when he took a 78th-minute penalty away from the centre-forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and missed. Did his determination to mark his comeback with a first international goal get the better of him?
Of greater concern was an understandable lack of match sharpness and yet Henderson is defiant over his condition, insisting he is ready to start in England’s opening group game against Croatia on Sunday.
“I’m fit,” Henderson said. “You probably wouldn’t know but I’ve trained for a long time. It’s a little bit different training on your own instead of team training, although I managed to do that towards the back end of the season with Liverpool.
“There was a bit of a gap then because everyone was off [at the end of the club season] so I continued to work on my own and then I picked up training with England again. That period [with England] has been really good for me; the intensity has stepped up. I’m going into the tournament in a good place. I realise I haven’t played that much in recent months but I feel really good.”
Henderson’s penalty miss was a bizarre episode, given legs by Southgate’s post-match criticism of him. Why had Henderson, with the captain’s armband on and the nominated takers – Marcus Rashford and James Ward-Prowse – off, taken matters into his own hands? He is hardly known for his deadliness from the spot. The last time he took a penalty was in the 2018 World Cup last-16 shootout against Colombia and we all remember what happened then.
“The manager hasn’t had a word, not yet,” Henderson said. “I don’t know if he’s going to. Am I going to practise more penalties? It looks like I have to or maybe just leave it to people that can actually score them. It’s probably the best option.”
Henderson was asked whether his failure to score in his 59-cap career was on his mind. “It’s not a big focus of mine. The biggest focus for me is to contribute in winning games. Of course it would be nice to score. Hopefully I’m just saving that for another time.”
What would be sweet for Henderson, after all that he has lived in recent months, would be to start against Croatia and win. The history of the fixture is impossible to ignore, particularly for Henderson, part of the team that lost against Croatia in the World Cup semi-final three years ago.
“We maybe owe them off last time but we don’t need any extra motivation,” Henderson said. “We’ve got to keep working hard, keep the focus, go out and express ourselves and try to use 2018 as a platform. If we can build on those performances and experiences, we’ll be in a good place.”