FEATURES

A SCOTSMAN IN SERIE A: THE ECCENTRIC CAREER OF LIAM HENDERSON

It's rare to see a Scottish player in Italy's top flight, but next season, Hellas Verona's Liam Henderson could be the first since 1986 to achieve that feat. He has had a unique career thus far, this is the story of it all.

To start your career at Celtic, a club that perfectly intertwines the unrivalled taste of success with the progression of their homegrown youth at such early ages, the appeal of maintaining loyalty and becoming a cult hero as instantly as the mantelpiece becomes caked in winners’ medals, it seems almost impossible to escape. Consequently, the conveyor belt of up-and-coming talent inevitably begins to overflow, leaving some of its most promising assets in the mud.

In one case, that mud could be found on the pitch of the Lerkendal Stadion, home of Norwegian club Rosenborg, and in March 2015, home of 18-year-old Scotsman, Liam Henderson, on his first venture of a simply astounding career thus far.

Having joined Celtic from Hearts at the age of 12, the midfielder spent the next five years building his way through the ranks, pushing himself closer and closer to his first team debut, the moment every young player dreams of. Whilst Celtic’s prominence in Scottish football is always exciting to be a part of, the urge to be involved must have been unbearable following their league and cup double in the 2012-13 season. This was particularly the case for Henderson, who at 17, continued to thrive in the UEFA Youth League and at under-20 level.

However, Henderson’s ascent into the first-team was overwhelmed as Celtic skyrocketed to the summit of the SPL once more in 2013-14. Features few and far between were enough to showcase glimpses of his ability, but not enough to imprint his importance on the unrelenting Celtic faithful.

His debut came in a 5-0 win over Motherwell on 6 December 2013, but he had to wait over four months for his first competitive start which came in the middle of March. This was the first of five consecutive starts as he went on to win the league’s Young Player of the Month award in his first full month of senior football having scored his first goal in a 5-1 victory that clinched the league title later that month.

This was a stage in the youngster’s career that deemed such significance, not for the expected outcome of his seemingly inevitable rise, but that initial flavour of first-team football outweighed the taste of trifling contributions to trophies from then on.

Liam Henderson Celtic
HENDERSON STRUGGLED TO NAIL DOWN A FIRST-TEAM PLACE WHILE AT CELTIC

The opening half of the following season played out in the same vein as the previous, with Henderson slipping further down the pecking order. The highlight of his season came in the first leg of Celtic’s round of 32 Europa League tie, where he showed sublime composure to assist an injury-time equaliser in a 3-3 draw with Inter Milan. By this point, however, he was well and truly out of favour and his moments of magic served as a shop window supplement for other clubs more so than a push for a place in Celtic’s starting eleven.

Henderson went on to feature in the last eight minutes of Celtic’s League Cup final win over Dundee United and was sent out on loan little over two weeks later. Whilst the game time had seemingly dried up for Henderson at Celtic Park, he was 18, only in exceptional circumstances would a player his age find himself featuring as often as he was, never mind as a first team regular.

This move to Norway was huge for the teen’s career and a testament to his willingness and fearlessness to take on such a challenge at such an early stage of his progression. But as time goes on, it soon becomes apparent that his bravery and determination knows no bounds on his mission to succeed at all costs, no matter where he ends up.

After setting sail to Norway in March 2015, his three-month spell at Rosenborg was largely successful, during which he netted four times in 13 appearances, playing a massive part in their 23rd league title. The pinnacle of his time at the club was his spectacular ten-minute birthday brace after coming on as a substitute in a 4-1 away win against Viking, but it wasn’t just in front of goal where the newly turned 19-year-old was impressive.

Henderson’s hunger and passion for the game was exemplary, partnered with his fine technical ability, he showed all the signs of a personified Celtic midfield player, and in a challenge not many would have given second thought, Henderson thrived upon, and if not for the abrupt end to his time playing in the Eliteserien, he could have further proved his worth.

Nevertheless, on his return to Scotland, an Evening Times article at the time (July 2015), titled: ‘Celtic starlet Liam Henderson hails Rosenborg loan spell even though it cost him league winner’s medal’ has epitomised his mentality up until now.

Although Henderson did go on to collect Norwegian League and Cup winner’s medals in October having played a part in the earlier stages of the season, his priorities, despite not being able to escape success, still lied on his pursuit of permanent first-team football. Not a bad position to be in aged 19. By then, the Scotsman was already enduring his best season to date elsewhere as his Celtic career already looked to be in doubt.

With home comforts restored down the road and down a division at Hibernian, Henderson continued where he left off at the start of the 2015/16 season, playing frequently, consistently, and most importantly, with the class many knew he possessed.

The teenager soon became a mainstay in Alan Stubbs’ starting eleven, surpassing double figures for appearances in the league for the first time and in some style. With 36 appearances, six goals and 11 assists in the Scottish Championship, it was clear that Henderson’s ability stood superior to the second tier of Scotland. However, his time at Easter Road will be remembered for much more.

Following a disappointing third-place finish in the league, you would suspect little else than a trophyless season for a side below the top tier, and without a Scottish Cup in 114 years, it would be a sensible guess, to say the least. But as we now know, wherever Henderson goes, trophies are never far behind.

Hibernian
THE MOVE TO HIBERNIAN WAS GREATLY BENEFICIAL FOR HENDERSON’S CAREER

Hibs made history on a season of such little expectation beyond the league and the youngster played a massive role en route to not one, but two cup finals, only a 90th minute Alex Schalk goal leading to a defeat at the hands of Ross County prevented them from achieving an unfathomable double. In the Scottish Cup final, the one they did reign victorious, Henderson came on as a 70th-minute substitute with his side 2-1 down and in desperate need of some inspiration, and boy, did he deliver.

Two pinpoint corner assists later and it was written in the stars, who else would you bring on other than a Celtic loanee to snatch the trophy from Rangers’ grasp? Henderson made all the difference for Hibs and the biggest impact he had made for the Celtic faithful to date, if there was ever a time for him to make a push for a first-team position, surely it was now.

His qualities were there for all to see, but after 18 months of building himself up in preparation for a return to Celtic Park, the step up proved too much once more as Celtic romped to unprecedented domestic success under new boss Brendan Rodgers. Umpteen records were broken at all ends of the Scottish footballing spectrum. Forty-seven matches, 43 wins, four draws, three trophies, zero losses and zero chance of Henderson breaking into the first team.

Even if he doubled his goals and assists for Hibernian, he would have struggled for game time as Rodgers’ side simply blew the league away and subsequently, the impression Henderson made the previous season and his potential of becoming a starter was all but forgotten as the possibility of his long-awaited search for frequent football at Celtic headed closer than ever towards its conclusion.

Five years and 29 appearances on from his highly anticipated debut, Henderson’s anticlimactic Celtic career was over; six months down the line, and the existence of his new club was as well. In January 2018, he traded white and green for white and red, sunny Scotland for Stadio San Nicola and SPL for Serie B when he joined Bari for a startling reported fee of £108,000.

The tenacious midfielder soon found his rhythm in Italy, playing 18 times throughout the second half of the season, helping Fabio Grosso’s men to an impressive seventh-place finish. However, the club went into bankruptcy less than two months after, leaving the Scotsman without a club, but not without a hope of continuing his career in Italy after making an instant impression at Bari.

Manager Grosso joined newly-relegated Hellas Verona in their pursuit of an instant return to the top flight and decided to bring along the midfielder to help them achieve promotion.

Now at 22-years-old, Henderson looks to have finally found a more permanent settlement, or at least less impermanent than his previous outings. Working under a man who knows a thing or two about winning trophies, Henderson has been nurtured and adapted to suit the Italian game and was instrumental in a promotion-winning midfield three at Verona as his wildly vast and eccentric experience continues to grow.

The Scotsman featured in 30 matches throughout the campaign including all five play-off matches on the road to an immediate rebound into Serie A and has become a stalwart at the heart of Grosso’s game plan.

Hellas gained promotion in extraordinary fashion, overturning a two-goal deficit from the first leg to beat AS Cittadella 3-2 on aggregate. Henderson started both legs and played 150 minutes altogether to cap off an already successful season in style throughout which he has looked more composed, defensively and offensively switched on in an effective, cohesive manner; and consequently, age has seen a drastic improvement in his on and off the ball intelligence.

Liam Henderson Hellas
IN VERONA, HENDERSON HAS FOUND A HOME AND ACHIEVED SUCCESS

Time is most definitely on his side, and whilst we may never be certain of what the future holds for this well-travelled Livingston boy, he is an asset to any club, not just because of his magnetisation to trophies, but also because of his technical ability, work ethic and resilience despite his repeated failure to find a home. For a man with bags of talent, regular football over multiple seasons at one club is all he may require to make it to the highest level.

Will Celtic, one day, look back on his departure with regret? It certainly remains a possibility, but only time will tell as Henderson’s emerges on the Serie A scene as the first Scottish player to face Italy’s elite since Graeme Souness in 1986 and this, a monumental challenge, his toughest test yet stands ahead of himself and the rest of his team.

BY BRAD JONES