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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 7 March 2021

'I normally don't take notice of fans' faces but he was constantly calling me a c**t'

Nottingham Forest’s Irish goalkeeper Stephen Henderson on setbacks, social media and settling down.

Brentford v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship - Griffin Park Source: EMPICS Sport

STEPHEN HENDERSON ISN’T on Twitter any longer so when news broke last month regarding an injury that had ruled him out for the remainder of the season, he was oblivious to the disappointment being expressed by Nottingham Forest fans.

Their views were a reflection of how well the Irish goalkeeper had been performing for the club, but Henderson pays little heed when they’re brought to his attention. Just a few months earlier, Twitter feedback of a different variety had caused him to quit the social media platform in the first place.

“The thing with fans is — as good as they can be — I’ve had that treatment at every club I’ve played for; being booed by my own fans or jeered off. I’ve been on Twitter four or five times but I’ve come off it due to that criticism.

“I just take everything with a pinch of salt now, whether they’re jeering me or singing my name on a Saturday. As long as I’m doing my stuff, I don’t really care whether they love me or hate me,” Henderson admits.

After joining Nottingham Forest from Charlton Athletic last summer, Henderson played in the club’s first seven games of the season. Forest conceded 13 goals during that period and the Dubliner had to contend with criticism — from the stands and online. Losing his place following the arrival of Serbian international Vladimir Stojkovic dented his confidence.

Henderson was restored to the starting line-up at the turn of the year but this time the fans were impressed by what they saw. The 28-year-old capitalised on the opportunity and kept three clean sheets in January, as Forest embarked on a run that included wins against Bristol City, Rotherham United and Aston Villa.

Nottingham Forest v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - City Ground Source: Rui Vieira

Against the backdrop of fan protests aimed at the club’s owner, Fawaz Al Hasawi, those results provided a much-needed injection of optimism for Nottingham Forest in their bid to avoid relegation to League One. Henderson was lauded for his contribution, but he wasn’t getting carried away.

“When things are going well, fans are always great,” he says. “But times are low at the minute at this club — not necessarily just because of what’s going on out on the pitch — and the fans are taking their frustration out on the lads. It’s very difficult for the lads to find that inner confidence and form when they’re getting 20,000 people on their backs. But that separates the men from the boys for me as well.”

The fickle nature of some football fans was illustrated to Henderson earlier this season when he was having lunch with his partner in Nottingham the day after a defeat.

Henderson: “There was a particular home fan abusing me in the game. I normally don’t take notice of fans’ faces but he was constantly calling me a C U N T and all that stuff. The next day I was in Nando’s with my missus and he was sitting beside me. Nottingham is like a goldfish bowl that way.

“I stared at him and he was so sheepish. He walked out, didn’t look at me twice. That just summed it up for me. I wouldn’t have confronted him or anything but I just wanted to let him know. He didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye. If that’s what gets them off on a Saturday, leave them to it.”

When things were looking up for Henderson, a piece of Wes Hoolahan magic at Carrow Road on a Saturday afternoon in February halted his progress: “I was on my six-yard box and Weso’s just struck the sweetest ball. I kind of knew it was in but I gave it a token dive anyway just to make it look better than it was. There was no chance of me getting it.”

Posted by on Sunday, 7 March 2021

He’s endured his fair share of injuries by now, but this was a pain like no other. Henderson’s “token dive” proved costly, resulting in a 90% tear in his achilles tendon. Two days later he underwent surgery which ruled him out for the rest of the season.

“It was the worst pain,” he says. “I’ve had quite a few now, including dislocating my shoulder, but this was definitely the worst. I actually didn’t know what it was at the start so I kind of jumped up to try and walk it off, which wasn’t the best of ideas. I felt like I had stood on something sharp on the ground. It wasn’t good at all. I was on the gas and air because of the pain. I knew it was a bad one.”

He adds: “After that I went back to Dublin to spend two weeks with my family. I’m also due my first child in a couple of months so I’ve had other things to keep me right mentally. The first two weeks was just me lying in bed and trying to come to terms with it. I did that pretty quickly.

“I looked into the injury and read up about other people who have done it. David Haye did it a few weeks later, which did me no favours because he was still jumping about. I was just trying to relate to other people who have done it — David Beckham, Kobe Bryant, other people who have done it and come back, so that was encouraging. In this job injuries happen all the time so you’ve just got to get on with it.”

The injury has understandably frustrated Henderson, and while he certainly doesn’t expect sympathy for his plight, he has grown accustomed to untimely setbacks by now. Injuries, relegation and seeing his employers beset by financial problems are among the issues that Henderson has faced while playing for 12 different clubs in England since he made the move to Aston Villa at the age of 17.

Turning 29 in May and with fatherhood imminent, he’s keen on the prospect of settling down at a club and taking ownership of the number one shirt. He’d like that to happen at Nottingham Forest, but at this stage he won’t allow himself to get too attached to the idea.

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Third Round - West Ham United v Wigan Athletic - Upton Park Source: EMPICS Sport

“It’s frustrating, but for the last four or five years I’ve gotten used to this stuff being taken away from me,” says Henderson, who has also had spells at Portsmouth, West Ham United, Ipswich Town and Bournemouth.

“It seems that every time I climb the ladder it’s swept away from under me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not feeling sorry for myself at all. I just try to emotionally detach myself now because in the past I’ve always thought ‘What if?’, but this is obviously the path I’ve been given so I’ve just got to get on with it. I always try to come back stronger and I always have done. I’m well able for it.

“All I’m thinking to myself now, especially with a family on the way, is that I’m just here to make a living and whatever path opens up for me I’m going to follow it. I’m not going to start setting goals about staying at a club for a long time. If I’m here as the number one for the next five years, great, but if I’m not playing next season and I move on again, so be it.

“I’ll take it how it comes because at any club where I’ve said to myself, ‘This is the place’, something has happened to throw it up in the air. I don’t really think like that anymore now.”

While he bides his time before returning to full fitness, Henderson can reflect with satisfaction on how he recovered from his inauspicious start at the City Ground when he was recalled to the side in January. Confident in his ability as a goalkeeper, his performances didn’t surprise him. But his mental strength had been put to the test and he responded.

“Last season at Charlton, conceding goals and getting beaten every week, that really got to me psychologically. I’m pretty hard on myself that way. When Charlton were relegated and I went to Forest, I didn’t really have a pre-season but I got my chance in the very first game. And it was happening again,” Henderson explains.

Charlton Athletic v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - The Valley Source: EMPICS Sport

“The goals were going in and we were losing games. The goals weren’t necessarily my fault but it was like a continuation from Charlton to Forest. That led me to thinking that maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Little things like that were getting to me and that was very difficult.

“As any athlete will tell you, the worst thing you can do is doubt yourself. The fact that I overcame that difficult time and then got back to the way I knew I could play was very satisfying. The performances were good, they were solid, but they were no more than what I expect of myself.

“What I was most happy with was how I came through stuff mentally, because 80% of goalkeeping I feel is mental. To overcome that is harder than the physical side, if that makes sense.”

For Henderson, who’s been capped by the Republic of Ireland at U21 level, following in the footsteps of his uncle Wayne by earning full international recognition isn’t high on his immediate list of priorities, despite featuring in the senior squad previously.

“That’s a dream I don’t really have in my sights at the moment. I’m only concentrating on making a living in England and whatever else happens is not up to me,” says Henderson, whose father and namesake is currently in his second stint as manager at Cobh Ramblers.

Nottingham Forest’s relegation worries have deepened in Henderson’s absence. They’ve won just one of their eight games since his injury and only a point separates them from the drop zone. Last week, former Rangers boss Mark Warburton was tasked with keeping the former European champions in England’s second tier.

Stephen Henderson Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Henderson: “There’s a new manager who has come in, he looks really good and I genuinely think he’ll get us out of the mess. This is my eighth manager in 18 months. It’s just been a rollercoaster. You adapt to one manager’s way of playing and then he’s gone the next week. You start again from scratch and so on. But this current one seems to be one of the better ones I’ve had so fingers crossed we can turn it around.”

For now, all Henderson can do is continue his rehabilitation and hope that when he returns to action next season, it’s for a club in the Championship instead of League One. Either way, he’s ready to follow the path that’s laid for him.

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Paul Dollery

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