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The Captain of Everything


LIVERPOOL, England — Jordan Henderson had plenty of things on his mind. First and foremost, there was the wound on his thigh, a legacy of the surgery he had undergone a few weeks earlier, and which was not yet properly healed. Until it had, he could not do much beyond change his bandages, and wait. The problem, he would admit, is that he is not much given to waiting.

He needed it to heal so that he could train again, and he needed to train again so that he could play again. This was his next worry. That night, his Liverpool team was hosting Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinal. It was the sort of occasion that Henderson relishes, but the wound meant he would be absent, as he had been for about six weeks.

Henderson is not much given to absence, either. In the course of several hours of interviews spread over the last three months, as he recuperated from the injury, he acknowledged often that he is a “bad patient.” He finds the stillness difficult, but he finds the lack of agency, the powerlessness, worse.

He had been there over the winter as Liverpool’s season imploded. Ravaged by injury and running on empty, the club lost six home games in a row. It slipped from the Premier League summit to fourth and then sixth and then eighth. It felt, to Henderson, like it was his “responsibility” to help restore the course.

And he knew that if the wound did not heal and he could not play again for Liverpool that his plans for the summer would be derailed. He had spoken to Gareth Southgate, the England manager, who had assured the 30-year-old Henderson that he would be given all the time he could to prove his fitness for this summer’s European Championship. Henderson knew, though, that there was a deadline, and that he would have to meet it.

Yet even with all of that on his plate, with all of that waiting and worrying to do, Henderson had taken on something else, too. He had been thinking a lot, recently, about abuse on social media. Like anyone in the public eye, he had firsthand experience of it: not only the constant, low-key droning of the snipers and the trolls, but the barrage of acid he had endured in his early days at Liverpool.

He was less concerned about that, though, than about his friends and teammates who had been racially abused, about young players being exposed to it before their skins have thickened, about teenagers and children being bullied online. And so he did something that he is given to do: He found out how he could help.

Earlier in the year, he had given testimony to a British government panel on the issue of social media safety. A week earlier, he had handed over control of his accounts to a nonprofit that fights online abuse. And then, as his teammates prepared to face Real Madrid, he held a Zoom meeting with executives at Instagram, peppering them with questions about what measures they were taking to help.

They told him about tombstone folders and muting comments. He pressed them for answers on the mechanisms they have for reporting abuse. He learned about their use of artificial intelligence. He told them where he thought their efforts fell short.

He did not, really, have to do any of it. He had enough on his plate. But that, as his friend and former teammate Nedum Onuoha said, is not really how Henderson works. “Jordan wants to listen, learn and understand,” he said. “He sees a greater perspective than his own.”

Henderson does not put it in quite such glowing terms. He feels a “massive responsibility,” he said, not only to Liverpool, not only to fans, but to anyone who looks up to players. “We have the platform to help,” he said. It comes down, in his mind, to quite a simple equation. “If I can help, why would I not?”

One thing that becomes very clear, very quickly, in the cavernous silence of an empty Premier League stadium is that Jordan Henderson is extremely loud. During a game, he essentially offers play-by-play commentary: chiding and cheerleading, barking orders, directing play. He talks constantly. He stops only to gather breath, and shout.

He does not quite accept that assessment. He will admit only to being “vocal,” and he is aware that not all of his teammates appreciate it. “Some don’t mind,” he said. “Some don’t like it.” He has gotten better, over the years, at working out who falls into which category. If he calls it wrong, he is quick to make amends. “You hug it out,” he said, “and you move on.”

Henderson came of age in an era when English soccer was still dominated by its captains. Roy Keane at Manchester United, John Terry at Chelsea, Steven Gerrard at Liverpool: They were symbols of and synonyms for the clubs they represented, captains in the tradition of Bryan Robson and Roy of the Rovers, figures who dominated games and bent seasons to their will.

He became a captain, though, at a time when all that was starting to seem a little antiquated in the age of the supercoach and the system, when instructions come from the sideline and movements are learned by rote, when the rise of data has relegated the great intangibles — character and hunger and desire — to a sort of ancient superstition.

To Henderson, though, being a captain matters. It is a responsibility he feels intensely, and personally. He thinks, a lot, about what it is to be a captain, about his own needs and those of his team, about the people management side and the Human Resources side and the psychologist side, about what sort of captain he wants to be.

He has wrestled with that balance ever since he was given the job at Liverpool, handed the daunting task of following in Gerrard’s footsteps. In one sense, he was the obvious candidate: He had been a vice captain for a couple of years, and he had Gerrard’s seal of approval. “I always had the confidence that he felt I was the right person,” Henderson said.

In another sense, though, he was a risk. It is hard to imagine, now, but Henderson became captain only a couple of years after Liverpool tried to trade him for the American forward Clint Dempsey. When Jürgen Klopp arrived as manager not long after Henderson was appointed, there was speculation the coach might wish to demote him.

Klopp did the opposite. He offered Henderson his unqualified support. The player had struggled, initially, with the weight of the captaincy. He did not want his teammates to think the honor had changed him, but replacing Gerrard, he said, “probably affected me mentally.”

“I was taking responsibility for a lot of things. I’ve always put the team first, but I was taking too much on for everyone else. That can jeopardize your own performances. Jürgen helped a lot with that side of things. He helped me take a bit of the weight off my back. It felt like it got easier.”

Henderson has not, by any stretch, abdicated responsibility. He still sees it as his job to help young players and new signings settle in to Liverpool’s dressing room. He still feels it falls on him to maintain morale, to gather the team’s leaders when things are going wrong, to act as a bridge with ownership when necessary. He still takes defeat badly, personally.

As he recuperated from his surgery, as he waited for his wound to heal, it was that side of the role he missed most. He wanted to be out on the field, of course, to try to change the rhythm and the course of Liverpool’s season, which can end with the solace of a Champions League place if it wins at home against Crystal Palace on Sunday. But more than that, he wanted to be back in the training facility, urging and exhorting and listening and talking.

He knew, though, that he could not. When teammates were injured, he always made a point of checking in on them, offering to help if he could. He did not want them to feel they had to return the favor.

“They have enough going on with games and everything,” he said. “They can’t be worrying about me.”

Henderson was at home when Liverpool’s team bus pulled up outside Elland Road in Leeds. The injury to his adductor muscle that had forced him out of action for two months was healing nicely; he felt stronger, fitter, better. His mood had improved, too. He had been able to see his teammates a little more. Liverpool’s fortunes were turning, upgraded from disastrous to merely disappointing.

That evening he watched on television as fans surrounded the bus carrying his teammates, venting their fury at the proposals — reported the day earlier — for a European Super League.

Liverpool’s players had found out about the proposals at the same time as everyone else. Initially, Henderson did not pay them too much heed. Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, had been central to the plans, but nobody had informed the players. As he read about the proposal, though, it struck him as inherently “unacceptable.” “Teams not being relegated isn’t right,” he said. “You have to earn your right to be in the Champions League.”

When he realized the Super League was not just paper talk, Henderson’s immediate reaction was to protect not just his team. By then, someone on the trip let him know that, when the players got inside the stadium in Leeds, they had found shirts waiting for them in the dressing room that were emblazoned with the Champions League logo and the slogan: “Earn It.”

“The T-shirts, I felt, were disrespectful,” Henderson said. “The players hadn’t done anything. It wasn’t something we wanted..”

But he worried, too, about his club. He felt loyalty and, to some extent, gratitude to Liverpool’s owners. “If you look at it, they’ve done a good job,” he said. “They’ve grown the club. They’ve put money in. They’ve built a new training ground. They brought the manager in.”

His fear, though, was that the Super League might drive a wedge between the club and its fans, that the unity of purpose that had driven Liverpool to the Champions League title in 2019 and the Premier League trophy in 2020 would be irrevocably fractured. “I was worried it would tarnish it,” he said. “We have all built to this point, and I didn’t want a divide.”

After the game, Henderson and his teammates discussed their next step. They decided, the next day, to post a message to their social media accounts, drawn from comments midfielder James Milner had made to a television reporter after the game. “We don’t like it, and we don’t want it to happen,” he had said.

The idea was to release the statement simultaneously, a synchronized signal that Liverpool’s players were unified in their opposition, and done in a way that nobody would have to risk public wrath alone. But someone had to go first. The rest of Liverpool’s squad did not post the message until Henderson had pressed the button.

Most of the time, the WhatsApp group containing all 20 current Premier League captains lies dormant. It is updated occasionally, adding or removing members as teams are promoted and relegated, but for the most part, it is silent. Its members might, in some cases, be friends, but in the thick of the season, they are principally rivals.

As soccer grasped at the significance of the Super League proposals, though, it buzzed into life. What had happened at Leeds had convinced Henderson that it was important the players presented a united front. Divisions along tribal lines, he knew, would only undercut the message.

So on the same day as he was coordinating the Liverpool’s players’ response to the idea, he was suggesting a Zoom meeting of all the league’s captains to discuss a broader statement. In the end, it was not required: The Super League collapsed the day before it was scheduled to take place.

But the effort was emblematic of how, over the last year or so, Henderson’s role as a captain has extended beyond Liverpool. Onuoha, only half-joking, calls him the de facto “captain of captains.”

It is not a position Henderson has sought, but there is something about him that draws his peers and fellow professionals to him. The existence of the captains’ WhatsApp group at all, in fact, owes something to him.

Last year, as soccer tried to pick its way back from the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Henderson fielded calls from friends at several other clubs. They were all unsolicited, unexpected, and they were all broadly the same: the players wanted to help, but none of them knew how to do it. Instinctively, they called Henderson.

“There were players doing it privately and players doing it with their clubs, but it struck me that we were more powerful together,” he said. He did his research, and corralled the captains to throw their — and their team’s — efforts behind an organization called N.H.S. Charities Together, which works to support staff members and patients of Britain’s National Health Service. The initiative was only made public because the players wanted staff to know they appreciated their work.

Henderson was similarly engaged as the captains — through the same WhatsApp group — workshopped ideas for how to show support for the Black Lives Matter protests as the Premier League prepared to return to the field. It was Henderson’s idea to affix a Black Lives Matter badge to every player’s sleeve, but he proposed it only after reaching out to Black colleagues.

“He called me during the protests to talk,” said the Nigeria-born, Manchester-reared Onuoha. “He asked me to tell him about my experiences. I love him for that. He didn’t have to make that call, but he wanted to learn, and to understand.”

In the aftermath of the Super League debacle, Henderson still had plenty of things on his mind. His training was ramping up. He would not, most likely, be able to play for Liverpool again this season, as his team sought to salvage a Champions League place, but he hoped to recover to earn his spot for England. This week, Southgate sent two physiotherapists to Liverpool’s training facility to check on his progress.

And he was still thinking about protecting his teammates, still thinking about protecting his club, still thinking about making sure all of the players at all of the other clubs remained united. But he was also thinking, more broadly, about what happens next.

“The Super League wasn’t right,” he said. “But the new Champions League isn’t right, either. There has been no consideration for player welfare. I know it is hard to hear players moaning when people are working nine-to-five, but we are giving everything when we play. You are exhausted when you come off after a game, and then you have no time to recover. It’s unacceptable. It’s screaming for injury.”

He has seen that firsthand. The injury that cost him the last three months of the season, he believes, was a result of soccer’s compressed, overloaded schedule. And he has “no doubt” that the ruptured patellar tendon that ended the season of Joe Gomez, his teammate with Liverpool and England, “was a consequence of what we have been asked to do.”

It has all led him to the conclusion that something has to change. He does not know what that change might look like, not yet. All he knows is that he has a voice, one that carries way beyond the confines of an empty stadium, and that it is his duty to use it: on the N.H.S., on equality, on social media abuse, on whatever he feels strongly about.

He does not do it because he thinks anyone should feel compelled to listen to him, just because he is a soccer player, just because he is a captain. He does it because he feels that status gives him a responsibility to speak, whenever he feels he can help. In his mind, it is quite simple. “If you feel strongly about something,” he said, “then it would be a bit of a sin not to.”

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