Three years, three England vs. Italy fixtures and three very different Jordan Hendersons.
The humidity of the Manaus rainforest will surely bear witness to the Liverpool midfielder taking on an Azzurri side for the third summer running on Saturday evening, and there can be no doubt that in a World Cup fixture such as this one—with England desperate not to get off to a poor start in Brazil—his presence will be crucial for the Three Lions.
Two years ago it was a different story.
Called into the Euro 2012 squad for Poland and Ukraine as a late replacement for the injured Frank Lampard, Henderson was the £16 million Liverpool “flop,” a symbol of how only players from the Premier League’s elite clubs get a chance with England.
You could even have found a few Liverpool fans, sceptical of their new arrival from Sunderland, who could name a player or two who deserved to be in Roy Hodgson’s 23 ahead of him
There were boos in pubs as Henderson came on as a substitute in England’s opening match against France, while Roy Hodgson somewhat desperately turned to him in extra time as his side tried to repel Italy in the quarter-final in Kiev. He was just another body then, replacing Scott Parker when he couldn't tackle any more. He was just another pair of legs to try to hare around the pitch, slumping to the ground when Italy won on penalties.
He’d only turned 21 a week earlier, but you’re never immune from criticism when England bow out of major tournaments, and Henderson returned to the Under-21 side, which he captained.
The next international port of call for him was Israel last summer.
Henderson had begun to win over the majority of Liverpool supporters after he fought for and won his place in the team during Brendan Rodgers’ first season, but from the managerial promise of the Northern Irishman, he went into battle under the tutelage of England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce.
England lost all three of their games in Israel, including the opener to Italy courtesy of a late Lorenzo Insigne winner in Tel-Aviv.
As Pearce looked to the future, Henderson was left out of the team for the final group game against the hosts, his captain’s armband going to Liverpool team-mate Andre Wisdom and no more additions to his 27 Under-21 caps on the horizon. He had become too old to play for them.
It was time to step it up.
Henderson and Liverpool, personally and collectively, did just that in 2013/14. And it’s no coincidence that as the north-easterner lines up for England against Italy again, he’s doing so with so many of his club team-mates alongside him.
The midfielder’s boundless energy and enthusiasm were crucial for Rodgers’ side as they made their unlikely assault on the Premier League title in the season just gone, with Henderson’s displays setting the tone for the likes of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling to cause damage further up the field.
Forward-thinking performances in a 5-0 win at Tottenham, the 5-1 home destruction of Arsenal, a 4-3 win over Swansea in which he scored twice and the 3-0 victory at Old Trafford stand out, but crucially, Hodgson is likely to pick Henderson against Italy primarily for his defensive capabilities.
A player who’ll turn 24 on Tuesday will need to display tactical awareness and maturity alongside his club and country captain, Steven Gerrard—10 years his senior—as England try to gain control of what is sure to be a crucial midfield battle.
As is often the way with Hodgson teams, the talk pre-match has largely been about what England can do to stop their opposition—particularly Andrea Pirlo, who enjoyed the complete freedom of Kiev two years ago.
Henderson will perhaps be asked to do a job that he hasn’t been too familiar with in the past 12 months, but the experiences of the last 24 will at least ensure that he is both physically and mentally ready to attempt to do it.
He’s come a long way from that 21-year-old who seemed in over his head at Liverpool and who probably didn’t deserve to be in the England team two years ago, and he really couldn’t pick a better time to show his nation that he belongs in this company.
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