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Henderson ready to be guiding light on Reds' date with destiny

 

By Simon Hughes

Hetton-le-Hole is twelve miles away, Jordan Henderson would say, thinking after the interview about the distance separating his home in Sunderland and the birthplace of Liverpool's most successful manager, Bob Paisley.

In fact, when Paisley won his third European Cup, it was against Real Madrid and the unlikely goalscorer came from Sunderland. His name was Alan Kennedy.

It is the names in football that are remembered first but those names are often defined by the places they are associated with. Paisley's upbringing was centered around the pit and a ball, or a pig's bladder from the butchers where Paisley's Uncle Alan worked.

In Up There, a book about north east football, Michael Walker details Paisley witnessing the General Strike of 1926 and the profound impact of seeing his father rummaging through the coal tips in search for crude fuel. Hetton would leave something with him. "Character, to be modest, to be thankful for small mercies," Paisley would later say. "…perseverance, reluctance to give in."

Paisley's words back then certainly apply to Liverpool's captain now. Henderson's own father might have worked on the docks had it not been for the decline of the ship building industry. Instead, he became a policeman and to some extent, this must explain his discipline and his determination to protect others. He sees it as his job to help.

Doubts remain about Henderson's status as a top-level footballer. Should he become only the fifth captain in the Reds' history to lift the European Cup on Saturday night, surely that perception will finally shift.

In a Liverpool city centre hotel earlier this week, he spoke generously for more than half-an-hour.

It was clear he was measuring his answers. It is possible he did not want to say anything out of the ordinary - why break the routine or the focus now?

He was asked about his and the team's relationship with the fans. Perhaps it is stronger now than it has ever been since the 1980s. There are so many relatable figures and relatable back stories and ultimately, they are doing so well. In Rome, Henderson plucked a flag from the crowd and insisted his team-mates stand in front of it as a show of solidarity with Sean Cox, the Irishman struck down and left for dead outside Anfield by Roman ultras ahead of the semi-final first leg. Henderson's thoughts trailed back.

"All the players were delighted with the result and it was a great night for us but when you hear things like that it puts things into perspective," he said.

"When you win or lose no-one dies - you win or you lose. But when you hear someone is seriously hurt or in a coma like Sean, it does hurt us as a player because at the end of the day he just wants to watch a game of football and watch us play and support us.

"He had come to support us so for us as a team, it's important to support him and his family in a tough time.

"For me, as captain, it is a responsibility you have to take on board, to get in touch with the families. I felt as though in the second leg, the players had it in the back of their minds; that someone had come to support us and was seriously ill in hospital. We could use that to help us go perform for him and his family."

Henderson says he began to understand the importance of leadership under Kevin Ball as a youth player at Sunderland. The experiences of playing for two former Manchester United captains in Roy Keane and Steve Bruce were also crucial. Yet his eyes glow whenever he mentions Jurgen Klopp.

In many ways, Liverpool's road to Kiev began in a Basel Novotel two years ago in the aftermath of their demoralising Europa League final defeat to Sevilla. It was in the early hours of the morning when Klopp, in the hotel bar, stood in front of the team and announced: "I felt really, really s**t three hours ago. It was really s**t two hours ago…but now we are back here together and it is better. This is just the start for us."

Henderson recalled the mood before Klopp's intervention as "the worst feeling ever," before Klopp, "reminded the players that he was still proud that we got to the final, reminding us of how much we'd improved since we came in."

Henderson added: "He looked at the bigger picture and the future and he felt as though it could be a big moment in our careers, really - to learn from the experience. If we got to another final, we'd be ready."

Real Madrid will be waiting in that final - a club whose confidence has skyrocketed if you believe Spanish press reports about the identification of weaknesses in this Liverpool team. As captain, Henderson's view of the opponent was delivered rather more graciously. So much impresses him about Real Madrid, but that does not mean he is overawed by the prospect of the possibilities.

"They know how to win," he said.

"They are a team of winners, individually they have world class players all over the pitch. They find a way to win and that's what the best teams do. That's what we have to do at the weekend, just keep doing what we have been doing through the campaign - we've been brilliant. And on the day, be brave and play like we know we can and if we do that we can hurt them."

Liverpool vs Real Madrid

Champions League Final

Kiev Olympic Stadium, Saturday, 7.45pm

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