Jordan Henderson: ‘Real Madrid are facing a different Liverpool, for sure’

Jordan Henderson consults his diary for a date to present a prize from this year’s NHS Big Tea fundraiser. He is the prize. “I’m not sure if that’s a good prize,” he says, with typical modesty and a laugh. “But if we can get as many schools as possible to sign up for the Big Tea that would be brilliant. I’ll visit the winner of the prize draw and do some Q&As with the kids, although that might be tough over the next few weeks.” The Liverpool captain’s schedule is busy with a Champions League final once again.

History awaits the 31-year-old in Paris on Saturday. At the Stade de France Henderson will become the first Englishman to lead a team in three Champions League or European Cup finals. “Wow, I didn’t know that,” he says. With a reversal of fortune against Real Madrid, or another demonstration of the power of Jürgen Klopp’s team, he will emulate Emlyn Hughes as a two-times European Cup-winning captain of Liverpool. Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Carles Puyol are among the select group of skippers who have lifted the famous trophy more than once.

“You say Emlyn Hughes is the only Liverpool captain to win it twice,” Henderson says. “I’m sure he would have said it was the Liverpool team who won it twice, not him. That’s the way I look at it. If we do manage to win it twice it’s because of the team, it’s because of the manager, it’s because of the staff and everybody involved. When the time comes for me to look back on it, that’s what I’ll think about. I never really see it as ‘me’.

“Yes, I wear the armband on a match day and I’ve been here a long time but there are so many other leaders within the dressing room, so many big players, and it is a collective effort. It’s not about me trying to match other amazing captains that Liverpool have had, or trying to beat records. I am fortunate enough to be in a world-class team and very proud to be able to wear the armband and lead the team out. We will give it everything and hopefully bring another Champions League back to Anfield.”

Henderson is a humble, selfless leader, but speaks with firm conviction on the second Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in four years, relocated to the city where Alan Kennedy’s goal decided the clubs’ first final confrontation 41 years ago.

“I would say they are facing a different Liverpool, for sure,” the midfielder states. “We did very well to get there when we played Madrid in the final in 2018. The lads were incredible. But we’ve grown since then. New players have come in, we’ve been successful, we’ve had bad moments as well within that period, and all of that you learn from. I definitely feel this is a different team to what Madrid faced a few years ago.”

Jordan Henderson walks past the Champions League trophy after defeat by Real Madrid in the 2018 final.
Jordan Henderson walks past the Champions League trophy after defeat by Real Madrid in the 2018 final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The biggest difference Henderson identifies in Liverpool is not so much personnel – on Saturday Klopp could select eight of the team that started the 3-1 defeat in Kyiv – but their appetite for success. It has been insatiable throughout this season’s pursuit of four trophies. Liverpool thrilled on the run to the 2018 final but were not established winners. The Henderson shuffle before a trophy lift had not been witnessed. It will be performed for the seventh time in three years should Liverpool land their seventh European Cup in Paris.

“The Champions League was always a dream of mine to win, the Premier League was always a dream of mine to win, and when you do that you need to re-evaluate,” Henderson says. “You need to process that and think: ‘What now?’ It’s about the next challenge and finding a way to want it even more. And I think when you do become successful and win trophies it makes you want to get back there even more and do it all over again. You learn that it’s about the journey and all the memorable games it takes to get there. This season has been incredible for that. To be in this position with a chance of a treble on the last game of the season is an achievement in itself. You have to give credit to the lads for that.

“The hunger has always been there, and when you do win the hunger grows, and you start thinking of other challenges, such as becoming a team that wins the Champions League twice. There are not many players who have done that, so to win it twice would be incredible. It’s the same with the Premier League – the first Liverpool team to win it in 30 years. You are creating history all the time and that’s what it’s all about. The more trophies you win the more history you create.”

Joy for Jordan Henderson as he lifts the Champions League trophy in 2019.
Joy for Jordan Henderson as he lifts the Champions League trophy in 2019. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Henderson will have family and friends in Paris, including his father, Brian, whose embrace with his son after the 2019 Champions League final was one of the most emotional moments in Madrid. “It would be nice to have a repeat of that,” says the England international, who has been rested for June’s four Nations League fixtures. The NHS Big Tea is at the centre of his summer agenda instead.

Having organised the #PlayersTogether initiative at the start of the pandemic – discussions had started among Premier League captains before the then health secretary Matt Hancock called on players to “take a pay cut and play their part” – Henderson, awarded an MBE for services to charity last year, is now an ambassador for NHS Charities Together. The organisation works with more than 230 NHS charities to provide extra help for staff, patients and volunteers, including counselling and psychological support for post-traumatic stress disorder, and funds more than 700 community partnership projects.

The NHS Big Tea is the charity’s annual fundraiser, encouraging the nation to celebrate the birthday of the NHS by hosting a tea party while raising money. Schools are being encouraged to host events that will contribute to staff mental health projects and the long-term recovery of the NHS after Covid‑19. Participating schools will be entered into a free prize draw for a chance to win a visit from Henderson. His promotion of the NHS Big Tea, which takes place on 5 July, is his latest way of giving back to the health service that treated his father for cancer in 2013.

Jordan Henderson embraces his father, Brian, after the 2019 Champions League final.
Jordan Henderson embraces his father, Brian, after the 2019 Champions League final. Photograph: BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

“I became more aware of the mental health aspect through #PlayersTogether and it is something we have focused on with NHS Charities Together,” Henderson says. “We are practically back to normal life now, but the last few years have impacted on NHS staff massively. It has been really emotional to meet some of the staff and to hear what they have been going through. It has been a very humbling experience. I have huge admiration for what they do, and what they have done over the last few years, and if I can help in a small way then I will. Hopefully as many people as possible up and down the country can do the same by signing up for the Big Tea.”

Henderson remains in regular contact with NHS Charities Together’s chief executive, Ellie Orton, over how proceeds from #PlayersTogether are allocated. “Ellie knows better than me where it needs to go. But she does update me and when I go to hospitals she’ll tell me what’s been done to help, whether it’s quiet rooms, spaces, bringing staff in to help with the mental health aspect, packages for families of staff during Covid, communities; lots of different areas. I’ve been pleased to see it’s had a huge impact over the pandemic.

“That is down to the players who got involved, not only on the money side – and I know the money has helped and will help – but the emotional element of the support we gave staff in that period was important too. A lot of people love football in this country and I’m sure a lot of the staff look up to different players at different teams, so for them to come together and support the NHS staff in a time of need made the biggest impact. We didn’t want PlayersTogether to be public. We knew it would probably end up getting out but we wanted to do it privately and we wanted to do it because we wanted to help.”

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Klopp has tried to help his players through the intensity of a 63-game season with no margin for error by repeating the mantra: enjoy the journey. Henderson has no doubt Liverpool will recover from the deflation of the Premier League finale before reaching the final destination in Paris.

“I try [to enjoy the journey],” he says. “It is difficult with all the pressure and all the games but I’ve got to give so much credit to the lads for how they deal with it, for the mentality, the focus in every single game every three days, it’s incredible. We’ve got one last big push in a Champions League final and we’ve got to give it absolutely everything. Hopefully we can bring the trophy back to Anfield. It will be a pretty good season if that’s the case. The lads and the fans deserve it no matter what.”

Anyone can host or take part in an NHS Big Tea throughout July. To find out more, sign up or enter your school in the prize draw for a visit from Jordan Henderson visit www.nhscharitiestogether.co.uk.

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