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When Saturday doesn't come: 'Let's face it, I'm lucky to still be in the game'

A tough spell at Nottingham Forest left Stephen Henderson wondering if football still had a place for him.

PAUSING THE SHORT journey from Crystal Palace’s training ground to his home in Beckenham, Stephen Henderson pulls the car into the side of the road and takes his phone off loudspeaker.

Recounting the most challenging period of his career demands the undivided attention of the goalkeeper from Dublin.

“I’m okay talking about it now with the benefit of experience,” he says. “But if we were having this conversation then, I wouldn’t have been able to speak about it so openly. That’s how tough I found it at the time.”

afc-wimbledon-v-crystal-palace-pre-season-friendly-kingsmeadow Crystal Palace's Stephen Henderson pictured during a pre-season friendly against AFC Wimbledon last July. Source: PA

Being back in training during a global pandemic has been “a surreal experience”, according to Henderson, who spent lockdown in the company of his wife Lisa and their two daughters – three-year-old Elsie and four-month-old Riley.

Owing to the time he spent at Nottingham Forest, he could already claim to be conditioned to a sense of disengagement from normality. His spell there officially ended 12 months ago, but by then he hadn’t played a competitive game for the club in two years.

The final season at the City Ground represents the nadir in a football career which had already thrown plenty of adversity in Henderson’s direction before he joined Forest from Charlton Athletic in 2016.

He has endured relegation, pay cuts and a frustrating frequency of injuries that impeded the early progress of a player who became a professional at Aston Villa.

His form during the 2011-12 season was recognised with an Ireland call-up just four months out from the European Championships, but Portsmouth’s financial plight scuppered his plans to retain his place in Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad for the tournament.

The Championship club, having been issued with a winding-up order over unpaid taxes, couldn’t afford to ignore West Ham United’s undisclosed offer for Henderson, irrespective of his reluctance to leave.

Instead of strengthening his claims to be taken to Poland by continuing to perform at club level, he spent the remainder of the season watching from the bench while England international Rob Green punched his own ticket to Euro 2012.

Yet there have been many good days too, such as his debut in professional football as a 19-year-old in the Championship with Bristol City.

At 22, his performances in League One earned him the Player of the Season award while on loan at Yeovil Town.

Henderson’s time at Portsmouth, despite the abrupt ending, also evokes fond memories. His contribution there earned the reverence of supporters who appreciated his efforts to put the brakes on the club’s rapid decline.

Even at Nottingham Forest, there were some encouraging signs at first – from a personal perspective at least – when he dislodged Serbian international Vladimir Stojkovic as the club aimed to avoid relegation.

soccer-sky-bet-championship-millwall-v-charlton-athletic-the-den Henderson making a save to deny Millwall's Lee Gregory during his time at Charlton Athletic. Source: EMPICS Sport

In February 2017, during his eighth consecutive start, a compatriot sought to beat him with an audacious long-range effort as Forest were being hosted by Norwich City.

In attempting to deny Wes Hoolahan with a despairing dive, Henderson sustained an injury that prevented him from playing for seven months. However, the impact of the setback was still being felt long after his ruptured achilles had healed.

“I knew when I was lying on the pitch that my season was over. Even though I still had two years left on my contract, it turned out to be the end of my Forest career too – and for a while I thought it might be the end of my career completely.”

When he was available for selection again in the early stages of the following season, Nottingham Forest was under new ownership and management.

“There was a bit of a transition going on there at the time,” he explains. “A Greek consortium had taken over and the new manager was Mark Warburton, who was a great man and a good manager.

“Unfortunately for me, there was a young lad [Jordan Smith] playing in goal when I got back – and rightly so, because he played a massive part in keeping the club up at the end of the previous season.

“I ended up staying on the bench, which is obviously frustrating when you feel you can do a job, but at the same time I couldn’t back that up because Warburton had only really seen me in training.”

A solution to Henderson’s predicament emanated from a familiar source after the opening of the January transfer window. Within 48 hours of completing a loan move back to the club, he was named in the Portsmouth team to take on Doncaster Rovers

The game fell almost a year to the day since he damaged his achilles tendon at Carrow Road in his last outing in a Football League fixture.

“I was thrilled to be back down in Portsmouth, a place that myself and my missus really enjoyed when I was there before. I got a nice reception from the fans and it just felt really good to be back out playing again.”

When the full-time whistle sounded in the 2-2 draw at Fratton Park, however, he was already back in the dressing room, inconsolable as he came to terms with having another season halted prematurely. This time, a ruptured thigh muscle was to blame.

soccer-fa-cup-third-round-chelsea-v-portsmouth-stamford-bridge Both of Henderson's spells at Portsmouth ended sooner than he would have liked. Source: PA

Of his second spell at Portsmouth, which was over and done with in little more than an hour, Henderson recalls: “I had been on the bench for Forest on the Wednesday night, drove the four hours down to Portsmouth on the Thursday and then trained on the Friday.

“I probably did a bit too much kicking considering how long I hadn’t played for. I felt quite fatigued but I didn’t think anything of it. I felt okay for the game on the Saturday, played 70 minutes, but then I felt a pain shooting down from my hip when I went to take a kick-out.

“I collapsed to the floor and that was me finished with Portsmouth after one game back. There was supposed to be a permanent deal to cover the next three years of my career at the end of the loan, but that was obviously gone now.

“I had left my wife and baby behind in Nottingham for something that only ended up setting me back even further. I just felt embarrassed, like I had let them down.

“I was so, so low that night after the game, especially because what I had to go back to at Forest wasn’t in any way appealing. I had to go back up there with my tail between my legs.”

The solitary slog of rehabilitation was a form of purgatory still fresh in Henderson’s memory. The prospect of several more months back in the Nottingham Forest gym was something he struggled to conjure the enthusiasm for.

As he prepared to negotiate the road to recovery once more, he presented an alternative proposal to his employers. His hometown, he suggested, would be the setting most conducive to getting him back to full fitness.

“I spoke to the physios and told them that mentally I didn’t think I’d be able to do the rehab again in Nottingham. The gym there is tiny and it faces out onto the pitch, so you’re in there on your own looking out at everyone else training.

“After what I had just gone through with the achilles, I didn’t think I could manage it all again there so soon. Thankfully they agreed to let me do my rehab back in Dublin, where I’d have my family around me to help me get through it.”

While at home, he followed the guidance of Eoin Lacey – who has previously worked with former UFC champion Conor McGregor – at the Irish Strength Institute in Malahide.

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“To be honest, my heart had gone out of football at that stage so the change of scenery really helped to keep me going. I kind of wasn’t even thinking about football or being a footballer. I was rehabbing and then enjoying my family time at home, which suited me just fine.”

stephen-henderson Henderson featured in the Ireland squad on several occasions without being capped. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

By the summer of 2018, Henderson was entering the final year on his Forest contract. Although his future lacked certainty, the objective was still to play his way back into contention once his body allowed for it.

Nottingham Forest then provided some clarity over what lay ahead. New manager Aitor Karanka had signed Romanian international Costel Pantilimon and Luke Steele, leaving the club top-heavy with goalkeepers. Given his injury troubles, Henderson was the collateral damage. No longer part of Forest’s plans, he was free to pursue a move elsewhere.

The opportunity to start afresh was appealing. He was pragmatic enough to recognise that his chances of succeeding in Nottingham were irretrievable. However, there was a paucity of interest in a player afflicted by two major injuries within the previous 15 months.

Ultimately, Henderson’s only option was to discuss a severance deal for what remained of his contract. Finding a compromise prior to the closing of the summer transfer window would allow his search for a new club to continue beyond the deadline.

“The clock was ticking because I really didn’t want to be still stuck at the club after the window closed. But I was also in the last year of my deal and it was a decent contract. I had a family to think about, so I had to make the right decision for financial reasons as much as I did for football.”

The August deadline passed without an agreement, leaving Henderson in situ until at least January. A few outings as an overage player in the obscurity of U23 football had to suffice as the 30-year-old completed his comeback from injury.

“It wouldn’t have made any sense for me to walk away and lose money, because the reality was that I had come to a stage in my career where I didn’t know if I’d get a good contract anywhere ever again.”

As the weeks and months went by, the temptation to quit was often difficult to resist. Only a stubborn defiance sustained him when the psychological strain of the dilemma threatened to become overbearing.

“I had a choice of going either way: I could cry about it and call it a day, or I could stay fit and do something about it. I was very fortunate too with the coaches in the U23s, because they looked after me brilliantly.

“I actually ended up going down the coaching route myself during those months, getting my badges and coaching some of the young lads. I was doing whatever I could to keep my attention on the positives.

“Don’t get me wrong, though – I hit rock bottom. There were times when I really wanted to walk away. I just didn’t want to be back in Dublin a few months later regretting that I didn’t stick it out.

chelsea-v-nottingham-forest-carabao-cup-third-round-stamford-bridge Playing for Nottingham Forest in 2017. Source: EMPICS Sport

“What made it worse was that I still believed I was the best goalkeeper at the club. That added salt to the wounds. When I looked around – and this is no disrespect to Costel Pantilimon and Luke Steele, who are both great lads – I felt I was better than the other goalies.

“Watching someone else playing on a Saturday when you believe you’re a better player, but you’re training with lads who are 16 and 17, it was difficult to process.”

There was some brief respite just before Christmas when League One side Wycombe Wanderers were given permission to sign a goalkeeper on an emergency loan.

Being involved in competitive football for the first time in 10 months confirmed to Henderson that he wasn’t yet ready to throw in the towel.

“I only played three games there but, to be honest, it probably saved my career. When I went there I didn’t know if I still even enjoyed football. 

“I went into a club where there was a good dressing room, with a good manager and a good goalie coach. I played the first game, kept a clean sheet and it was quite emotional afterwards, just to have that feeling of experiencing something as simple as a clean sheet. It had been a long time and I probably doubted if I’d ever have that again. That emotion let me know that the love of the game was still there. It gave me the appetite to hang in there.”

By January, Henderson was back in Nottingham, the transfer window was open again, and Forest were about to appoint a new manager for the fifth time since he had been with the club.

It was suggested locally that Martin O’Neill’s arrival might be good news for the out-of-favour goalkeeper, but Henderson knew that he’d be unaffected by the appointment of the Derry native.

When O’Neill summoned him to the Ireland squad for the Euro 2016 play-off against Bosnia & Herzegovina, he did so out of necessity. Shay Given, Keiren Westwood and Rob Elliot were all ruled out with injuries before the Irish manager sent for Henderson, who was then Charlton Athletic’s first-choice goalkeeper.

“Martin O’Neill was at Villa when I was there and he wasn’t keen on me then. It was the same with Ireland,” Henderson insists. “He just didn’t rate me. Given the situation I was in at Forest, that obviously wasn’t going to change.”

He adds: “The January transfer window was open at that stage but I still didn’t have options. As much as I wanted and needed to leave, I couldn’t do it. It would have been financial suicide. I had stuck it out for that long and I knew I’d have only another few months before I could get away.”

andy-reid-ciaran-clark-and-stephen-henderson Alongside Andy Reid and Ciaran Clark during an Ireland training session in 2013. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The sense of relief that came with Henderson’s long-awaited exit from Nottingham Forest that summer was tempered somewhat by the lack of possibilities for the next chapter in his career.

While some clubs were enticed by the credentials he accumulated previously, that Henderson had played only five games of competitive football in two years couldn’t be overlooked.

“I was just hoping to get something at a League One or League Two team. All I wanted was to get my foot in the door somewhere to make a fresh start, but I knew I had no bargaining tool because of how the last couple of years had gone for me. My phone was quiet, as you can imagine. It got to a point where I thought I could be finished entirely.”

Thanks to a pair of former Ireland goalkeepers, the forecast suddenly became much brighter. Dean Kiely had previously been made aware of Stephen Henderson’s availability by Wayne Henderson – his agent and uncle – but nothing had come of it until a chance encounter in Dubai.

“I was on holiday with my missus and my little girl. I don’t know how things work when it comes to fate and stuff like that, but it’s funny how things turn out.

“I was walking through the hotel lobby and I bumped into Dean, who’s the goalie coach at Crystal Palace. We got chatting and eventually he just said ‘do you fancy it next season?’ I was like, ‘sorry, what do you mean?’ – I thought he was having a laugh.

“He told me that it wouldn’t be to play and it probably wouldn’t even be to go in as a number two, but he needed a number three with experience to come in at Palace.

“Even though I knew I wasn’t going to play, it was still something that was going to keep me in the game and at a Premier League club too. So he said ‘leave it with me’ and I did, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

“But two weeks later it was done. I was signing for Crystal Palace. Absolutely crazy. If I didn’t bump into Dean Kiely on holiday, God only knows where I’d be now.”

With former Getafe goalkeeper Vicente Guaita and veteran Welsh international Wayne Hennessey ahead of him in the pecking order, Henderson has yet to feature for Palace. Nevertheless, the impression he has made at the club was recently acknowledged with an extension to the one-year contract he signed last summer.

Opportunities to play may be as scarce as they were at Nottingham Forest, but being part of a first-team set-up again has convinced him that the move to Roy Hodgson’s side was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Large Signing for Crystal Palace in July 2019. Source: Crystal Palace FC

“I’m just really glad to have moved on from such a tough stage in my career. This has been a pure detox year, working under a world-class manager and a world-class goalie coach in a really positive environment.

“Sure, it’s frustrating at times when you know you’re not going to play, but you try and focus on the bigger picture. I’ve been on the bench five or six times and you just never know what can happen. The way things change so quickly in football, I could be playing out of my skin in the first-team in six months. That’s the way I have to look at it.”

At 32, Henderson is adamant that he hasn’t settled for playing the role of a reserve purely for the sake of his livelihood. In fact, he’s certain that his experiences in the game will stand to him when he’s called upon again.

“It still kills me every Saturday when I’m not involved,” he says. “I’ve just had to weigh everything up in terms of what I’ve gone through. Let’s face it, I’m lucky to still be in the game.

“I don’t like using the term ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ because I think it’s a bit harsh on myself, but considering where I was last summer – jobless – I’ve got to keep looking at the bigger picture and just take it as a blessing that I’m still in the game in any capacity.

“I’m not sitting at home watching Loose Women at 12 o’clock. I’m still a footballer, I’m still learning and I’m still working towards coaching. Hopefully what I’ve experienced will help to make me the kind of coach I want to be somewhere down the line.”

Henderson, who recently enrolled in a sports psychology course to augment his post-retirement options, adds: “Have I been unlucky in the game? Yes, but I wish I applied myself earlier in my career like I do now. I should have been more professional at times. There were times when I wasn’t doing the right things and I wasn’t living the right life.

“Those unlucky moments, I put them down to me not doing things the right way when I needed to. I could probably have worked harder in the gym with certain injuries, I could have been slimmer, I could have been better with things like that.

“Some of the injuries were very unlucky, don’t get me wrong, but what would make all the stuff I’ve gone through worthwhile is if I can help someone going forward to learn from the mistakes I’ve made.

“I know now that if I’m given an opportunity to play, I’ll do everything leading up to the game to make sure that I’m 100% confident because I’ve given everything in my preparation. That’s something I couldn’t always say about myself in the past. Because of that, I still think my best years are ahead of me.

“When I’m 40, and please God I’ll be sitting at home back in Dublin, I want to be able to look back and say that in the latter stages of my career I gave it absolutely everything and I stuck in there.

barnet-v-crystal-palace-pre-season-friendly-the-hive 'It still kills me every Saturday when I’m not involved.' Source: Steven Paston

“I see the Forest experience as a positive now because it has made me stronger mentally, not just in football terms but in life. I’m actually thankful now for the way things happened there.

“My career has taken me to places mentally that I can’t even explain. I don’t want to get too soppy, but when I consider the life that I’ve been able to provide for my wife and kids, it definitely makes it worth it.

“Even though it sounds a bit clichéd, the fact that I’ve been able to make a living from the game is the main thing – but I know I’ve still got a lot to offer the game too.”

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Paul Dollery

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