In the early days of his career, Jordan Henderson felt like he was the exception. His rule was simple, no alcohol during the season, and he has always adhered to it. The Liverpool and England midfielder was well aware of the correlation between sacrifice and achievement.
“Whereas now when I look I would say the exception is drinking,” he says. “A lot of the best players don’t drink at all. A lot of the Liverpool team don’t drink.”
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Which prompts the obvious question: who are the drunks on the team? “I can’t throw them under the bus,” he says with a laugh.
It’s easy to say that professional footballers should be teetotalers; essentially they are paid to stay fit and therefore abstention has to be part of the deal. So sometimes your fitness regimens and clean living choices are thrown out; there is the failure to recognize them, to respect them. Which is a bit harsh.
But listening to Henderson, now 32 and a leading statesman for club and country, is a refresher on why it’s all worth it. And why he expects him to stay that way for several years.
Henderson suffered an injury at the European Championships in the summer of 2021, which restricted him to substitute appearances, also saving himself with one. But when Liverpool played in as many games as possible last season (63 in total), Henderson appeared in 57. “I think I played more games than anyone else in Europe,” he says.
This time, Henderson suffered a hamstring problem against Newcastle on August 31 and has missed Liverpool’s last three games. But he says he knew from the start of last week that he would be fit for England and their Nations League games against Italy on Friday and Germany on Monday, as rehab looked good quickly. And if his thoughts are fixed on the World Cup in Qatar which starts on November 20, the finals are not the limit of his international ambitions.
“I look at some players who are still playing international matches at 36 and 37 years old,” he says. “So it just depends on how you feel physically and I feel great. Physically, it’s not a problem and I’m still excited to be here with England. If that wasn’t the case, then maybe I’d think about it. [retiring from internationals] but I’m always excited to be called.
“My biggest dream as a child was to play for England and that will never change. I want to do it as long as possible and do my part. Is Qatar the last chance to win something? I hope not. I still feel good.”
Henderson is asked if he feels fitter than when he was 20 and working his way through the game at hometown club Sunderland. “I don’t know about that because he was pretty fit then, but I know what you mean,” he says. “Physically, I feel like I’m in such a good place – it’s a big part of how I play and it’s also a reflection of how seriously I take the game off the pitch.
“Everything has developed a lot since I was younger, like nutrition and recovery, although I’ve always done those kinds of things anyway. I have never done that [drunk alcohol during the season] And I’ve always eaten the right things. She was always in me. I never wanted to go out drinking or do anything like that. It was always football, football, football.”
Henderson no longer feels like a first-choice pick for Gareth Southgate, even though he retains the faith of the England manager. Southgate has come to prefer Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in the middle of his team, as he too tries to manage urgent claims from Jude Bellingham. Henderson has started three times for England since before the European Championship; In light of his efforts for Liverpool, he was rested from the team that struggled in the first quarter of Nations League games last June.
Southgate said there was no point in pushing Henderson through those games because he already knew what he could do. Now, with Phillips injured, Henderson might have a chance to prove it again.
For him and everyone in the England setup, Italy will always be synonymous with the European Championship final at Wembley and the agony of defeat on penalties. “You never get over bad losses properly,” he says. “He will always stay inside, although that can be a good thing. You can use it as extra motivation, a little bit of burning desire to fix things.”
The World Cup looms large. After Germany’s tie, the next time England meet will be for the final and opening group match against Iran on 21 November. So how does Henderson see it all?
“I always feel that with England we have a chance to win, ever since I first came into the setup at 20,” he says. “There has always been that dream and want to achieve something with England. Actually stepping over the line and being a part of it… I’m still striving for it.
“Hopefully the quality that we have and our experiences over the last couple of years will help us.”