December 14th: The latest piece in the TBT Advent Calander series sees The Guardian’s Sachin Nakrani discuss two men who’ve worn the number 14 for Liverpool; Xabi Alonso & Jordan Henderson.
Football’s clichés tell us that ‘players come and go’ and ‘no individual is bigger than the club’, both of which are based in truth, yet Xabi Alonso’s departure from Liverpool in August 2009 is a moment which proves that occasionally a single transfer can shape as well as define a club’s destiny. It is no exaggeration to say the Spaniard’s £30m move to Real Madrid was the beginning of the end of a brilliant period in Anfield’s recent history.
Having arrived from Real Sociedad for £10.5m right at the start of Rafael Benitez’s tenure as Liverpool manager, Alonso played a crucial part in re-establising the club as a significant force in domestic and European football, with his blast past Dida sealing that oh-so-incredible comeback in Istanbul. Through it all, Alonso was also a pure joy to watch; a midfield maestro of the highest order who could dictate the tempo of a match with a range of passing that had not been witnessed in L4 since the days when Jan Molby was at his peak. Quick short passes, long pin-point deliveries, even the odd goal from the halfway line; Alonso had them all and was not afraid to use them. In turn, Kopites drooled with glee – here, in front of their eyes, was a world-class footballer doing world-class things.
He could have gone on to become Liverpool captain but instead, aged 27 and having made 210 appearances for the club over the course of five seasons, Alonso was on his way back to Spain, leaving on a high having arguably been Benitez’s consistently best performer during the 2008/09 season, when Liverpool came agonisingly close to winning a 19th league championship. His departure was tough to take and ultimately proved to be a turning point – the first heavy blow to a great side that crumbled into dust amidst a war over ownership and control that threatened the future of the club as a whole.
Alonso was unique in temperament as well as talent and from the very early stages of the 2009/10 campaign, with Alberto Aquilani having been signed as the Spaniard’s replacement, it was obvious Liverpool were not going to be able to simply move on from the midfielder’s departure. Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, et al were suddenly an orchestra with no composer.
Benitez deserves some blame for the loss of such a stellar talent – it was he, after all, who publicly criticised Alonso for not wanting to travel with the squad to Milan for a Champions League tie in 2008 so he could be at the birth of his first child, and then tried to sell the player that summer so he could bring in Gareth Barry from Aston Villa. In hindsight, that adjustment in player resources seems absurd, but in fairness to Benitez it should be remembered that the 2007/08 season was not a great one for Alonso (it was probably his worst at Liverpool) and Barry, at that stage, was a player of growing standing. Few, then, could have predicted that in 12 months time Alonso would be hailed in most quarters as one of Europe’s very best midfielders and some levels above the Villa midfielder.
Alonso was eventually followed out of Anfield’s exit door by Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Benitez himself, bringing a joyous era to a sudden and sad end. It has taken a few years (which has included a change of ownership as well as a brief return of the King), but Liverpool at last appear to be returning to a position of strength and, once again, the man in the number 14 shirt is playing a prominent role.
Jordan Henderson had started every one of Liverpool’s opening 15 Premier League matches of the season, as well as their Capital One Cup third-round defeat at Old Trafford in September. Indeed, the only match Henderson had not started this campaign is the second-round victory over Notts County but the 23-year-old still made his presence felt by scoring an important and finely-taken goal in extra-time having come on as a 65th minute substitute.
Henderson is no Alonso, both in terms of style and panache at similar stages of their career (Alonso was 22 when he arrived at Anfield and, having been capped by Spain, was already regarded as one of the country’s best midfield talents), but he too is having an influence on Liverpool, with his dynamism, stamina and link-up play giving the team a sense of purpose and drive lacking since the days when supporters sung lustily about having “the best midfield in the world”.
Crucially, Henderson is displaying the temperament required to make it at a club with Liverpool’s demanding expectations. He found it hard upon his arrival from Sunderland in June 2011 for a fee reported to be around £16m, with the player openly admitting that he struggled initially to cope with the need to deliver top-notch displays week in, week out, and there came the opportunity to escape it all and move to Fulham 12 months later. But Henderson remained in situ and has subsequently flourished, so much so that few if any fans now question Brendan Rodgers’ decision to consistently select the former England Under-21 captain.
That Henderson should battle from the brink and establish himself at Liverpool should not come as a great surprise to anyone who has studied his backstory. This, after all, is a player who was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful condition that affects the upper part of the shin bone, aged 16 and having come to terms with that, he then had to recover from a fractured bone in his foot to stand any chance of making it in Sunderland’s first team. He eventually did, however, and at Anfield has shown further evidence of an ability to conquer adversity, which has even included criticism of his gait by a certain retired Scot.
For all his progress, Henderson is unlikely to ever thrill Anfield in the way Alonso did – he is simply a different animal; less sleek panther and more enthusiastic terrier. But a little over four years after having their hearts broken, there is another number 14 for Kopites to be proud off. Best of all, this one could be here for the long haul.