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No longer a Steven Gerrard Lite, Jordan Henderson’s won us over

Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Steven Gerrard. Between them, Liverpool’s European champion captains have quite the trophy cabinet.

Nine European Cups, five UEFA Cups, 16 league titles, four FA Cups, eight League Cups and three UEFA Super Cups.

They made 272 international appearances and played 2,211 times for Liverpool.

Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson will lead his side out to face Real Madrid on Saturday

Jordan Henderson won the League Cup in 2012. He was subbed in the 58th minute with Liverpool 1-0 down to Cardiff.

He is closing in on 300 club appearances and has 38 for his country, having at last established a regular place. But even so, there is something rather underwhelming about the man who will lead Liverpool at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium on Saturday night. On the face of it, at least.

And there is the deception. For no player this season has as thoroughly confounded expectations, changed perceptions and won as many new, unimagined admirers as Henderson. He won’t care about that. He doesn’t require endorsements from the press gantry or the hinterlands of social media when he numbers Jurgen Klopp and Gareth Southgate among his biggest fans.

 The England midfielder numbers Jurgen Klopp and Gareth Southgate among his biggest fans

 The England midfielder numbers Jurgen Klopp and Gareth Southgate among his biggest fans

Yet it is a quite remarkable turnaround. In time, Henderson may even become fashionable — just as his colleague James Milner is, now it is too late to pick him for England.

Klopp’s Liverpool feed off energy and no little emotion and it says much for Henderson that the manager chooses him to personify those qualities.

Equally, it shows how far Henderson has come this year that when Southgate named Harry Kane as England captain for the World Cup, there was genuine surprise — not to mention disappointment in some quarters — that Henderson had been overlooked.

If he lifts the trophy in Kiev, Southgate’s haste in making the call may even come in for criticism, when previously he would receive brickbats for daring to name Henderson in the squad, let alone as England’s captain.

So what changed? Henderson changed. Less Steve Gerrard Lite, more David Batty Max.

Harry Kane will lead England at this summer's World Cup as captain at the age of 24

Harry Kane will lead England at this summer’s World Cup as captain at the age of 24

Acceptance of his talents and limitations changed, too. With Liverpool’s superb victory over Manchester City in April came recognition that a midfield can function successfully without a world-class ball player at its heart, if necessary.

Henderson, Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did not bring the passing range of Kevin De Bruyne, but they demonstrated strengths which are just as valuable, certainly collectively. Henderson has identified other milestones in his development — not least being left out of the Europa League final against Sevilla two years ago — but that was the night his wider relationship with those outside the dressing room began to alter.

It will be argued that important voices within the game always recognised Henderson’s worth — even if the fact that in two of his four finals with Liverpool he was withdrawn before the hour and unused suggests they had a strange way of showing it.

Yet Klopp made him captain, succeeding Gerrard in 2015, meaning his gift as a ‘leader of men’ — Southgate’s description — was acknowledged more readily than his strength in central midfield. Henderson was given the armband more enthusiastically than a place in the team. He has had to work harder to convince of his technical gifts. That is the sea change this season.

Henderson took over the Liverpool captaincy after club legend Steven Gerrard left

Henderson took over the Liverpool captaincy after club legend Steven Gerrard left

‘He is a very good footballer, a brilliant player,’ Klopp said. ‘If someone cannot see his value, what can I do?’ Yet plenty couldn’t at first, including one here. Liverpool’s numbers when Henderson started, against when he was rested, were not greatly different. His performances for England were also limited, Henderson’s weaknesses further exposed by a general lack of creation in midfield.

Those flaws remain. If anyone is expecting Henderson to outwit Toni Kroos or Luka Modric in Real Madrid’s centre with his passing on Saturday, they will be disappointed.

The day England find a player of Modric’s calibre, Henderson’s position will be under threat — and the same might even be said at Anfield. Yet in a team missing that spark of invention, he is the next best thing.

Instead of attempting ambitious passes that are not his forte, instead of trying to fill the hole left by match-winning, inspirational Gerrard, he has been reinvented as a destroyer with nuance to his game, as a Batty-type, hard-working, tough-tackling, conservative in his use of the ball, but tidy. It is what Liverpool, and England, need.

Both teams have excellent forwards, vibrant wing-backs; neither need to come through the middle every time. They do require dynamism, however, they do demand tenacity and a high work-rate. Henderson delivers. Shorn of the demand to be the next Gerrard, he is at last playing to his strengths.

Against Roma in the semi-final first leg, one tackle on Cengiz Under midway through the first half appeared to reverse the momentum of the game which, until then, had been with the Italians. In his way, Henderson bossed midfield that night, as he had done against technically superior Manchester City.

Henderson was an integral part of Liverpool's semi-final victory over Roma earlier this month

Henderson was an integral part of Liverpool’s semi-final victory over Roma earlier this month

If Liverpool are to defeat Real Madrid, he will probably have to boss it in Kiev, too — as strange or unlikely as that may seem.

As much as Liverpool were the underdogs in Istanbul in 2005, their midfield were not.

Gerrard and Xabi Alonso were a match for anyone in the world, as was subsequently proved. Nobody would boast that of Henderson, Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool’s likely starters this time.

Yet, can they win? Of course they can win. Henderson is among the footballers of the year this season. If he can turn those perceptions around, anything is possible.

Why assume it’s ALL Wenger’s fault? 

The problem with Arsenal’s expectations for their new manager Unai Emery is that they rely on Arsene Wenger being haplessly responsible for each underachieving player last season.

If Emery has only got a summer kitty of £50million, he will need to improve every senior member of his squad.

Yet what if Wenger wasn’t always to blame?

What if Granit Xhaka would go to sleep on any manager, if Alexandre Lacazette just isn’t a clinical finisher, if Mesut Ozil is incapable of affecting a high press, if Hector Bellerin is fast, but defensively suspect, no matter the coach.

New Arsenal head coach Unai Emery could prove himself to be a genius at the club

New Arsenal head coach Unai Emery could prove himself to be a genius at the club

Arsenal’s reduced budget suggests fresh ideas and guidance will bring out the brilliance in the squad — and, yes, maybe preparation had grown stale under the past regime.

It is quite possible there will be improvement — but enough to catch Manchester City, as envisaged?

Either Emery will prove a genius, or he’s about £150m short.

Khan’s Jaguars facing travel sickness 

Surprisingly, there has been no formal clearance at governance level of the NFL for Shahid Khan to switch Jacksonville Jaguars to Wembley. If the proposal happens, it will go the way of all other major NFL decisions: it will be put to a vote of the 32 franchise owners, requiring 75 per cent support.

If 24 or more back it, the move will go through. The chances are that they will. An afternoon start in London means a breakfast game in America and an entirely new television package to sell. The owners, it is thought, will definitely like that.

Then the complications begin. For while the 32 may support a London-based franchise and the global expansion that represents, the Jaguars need players; and in a country as inherently insular as the United States, that is not straightforward.

Soccer players, for instance, are used to moving and living abroad. They come to countries where they do not speak the language or have great familiarity with the culture and are programmed to adjust. They form little cliques of countrymen — part of the souring of Antonio Conte’s regime at Chelsea, appears to be the deterioration in his relationship with the Brazilian contingent — or just do their best to fit in.

The cosmopolitan nature of not just the Premier League, but leagues throughout Europe in particular, are testament to the adaptability of footballers and their families. Not so in America.

Fulham owner Shahid Khan has launched a £600million bid to buy England's national stadium

Fulham owner Shahid Khan has launched a £600million bid to buy England’s national stadium

Largely, American athletes play American sports. Certainly, those at the elite level of the NFL would not expect to live or work abroad. There may be a shared language and, to some extent, culture and our capital is a great city, but the average NFL player would still rather live in Cleveland than London.

There is fear a London-based franchise may struggle to secure players in the annual draft if the team was to be based here permanently. The likelihood, then, is the Jaguars would reside on America’s east coast and fly into Britain several days in advance for matches.

In effect, every game would be a road game. They would have no great advantage on any of their opponents. Equally, sudden injuries or illness, could cause problems with the team roster. How many would have to travel to counter unforeseen difficulties?

Then there is the weather on the east coast. It is not unknown for severe storms to cause huge disruptions. What if the Jaguars cannot travel or are late? It does not seem a very stable existence.

And if all of these difficulties make the Jaguars an ordinary team, how long will the fascination for NFL last? Once the novelty of occasional visits wear off and NFL in the capital becomes just another fixture, will Wembley sell out each week for an unsuccessful team?

Khan has big ambitions, but this remains a complex project, with no guarantee of success.

Vieira rumpus shows problem with Rooney rule

Ian Wright’s insinuation that Arsenal gave Patrick Vieira a token interview and wasted his time shows the problems with implication of the Rooney Rule.

It does not follow that Vieira was a nominal, black candidate, because Arsenal are under no pressure to tick such a box.

Yet if the Rooney Rule was ever enshrined it would be hard to escape similar accusations, particularly if the name of a favoured candidate had leaked in advance.

Take the Stoke job that has predictably — and deservedly — gone to Gary Rowett.

If Paul Ince, say, had been summoned by Stoke chairman Peter Coates at the last minute, only to be told soon after that Rowett had filled the position, how could charges of tokenism be avoided?

Unai Emery, Arsenal’s choice, is considerably better qualified than Vieira, who is more likely to have got through the door because of his revered status at the club, rather than the colour of his skin.

Yet by meeting Arsenal he will still have reduced the strength of his bond with the City Football Group, even if they understand his motivations. And, at the end of it, Arsenal do not have a black manager.

So, what has been gained?

There has been an insinuation that Patrick Vieira was offered 'a token interview' at Arsenal

There has been an insinuation that Patrick Vieira was offered ‘a token interview’ at Arsenal

Strange beast, patriotism. NFL franchise owners voted 31-0, with a single abstention, to outlaw kneeling in protest during the national anthem next season.

Players will be able to decide whether to join team-mates on the field but, once there, must stand. This ruling has been received enthusiastically by all those who think wars were fought for the freedom to have black folks told what to do by rich, old white men. 

The order, for those who choose to be visible during this time, is that they ‘stand and show respect’. The owners stopped short of adding the word ‘boy’ to the end of that sentence.

Jed York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was the sole voice of dissent. He didn’t vote against but he wasn’t for, either. He said he wanted to hear more from the players and did not feel comfortable without consultation. Then he went further. York said he would make a decision about concession sales at the 49ers Levi’s Stadium and whether they should remain open during the anthem.

For while it is now regarded as unseemly to engage in a legitimate act of protest, to raise issues around the freedom of the individual and notions of equality and race in modern America, it is possible to honour the anthem with the simultaneous purchase of 20 bucks of nachos. York would not be alone in finding this inconsistent. Or maybe denying the right to chronic indigestion is un-American, too.

Forwards get the attention, obviously, but these days teams do not win a World Cup without a top-class goalkeeper.

Manuel Neuer, Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon are the last three — Marcos of Brazil is not as famous in Europe, but that is because he spent his 533-game career with Palmeiras, winning just about every major competition in Brazil and South America. 

Even Fabien Barthez — widely derided before the 1998 World Cup — came to Manchester United and proved he was no clown. 

He could easily have been Footballer of the Year in his first season, 2000-01. With Sergio Romero injured, it appears increasingly likely that Argentina’s first-choice in Russia will be Willy Caballero.

Coach Jorge Sampaoli may have such riches outfield that he can afford to ignore Mauro Icardi, scorer of 29 Serie A goals this season and captain of Inter Milan, but Caballero represents a serious weak link. He would not have been first choice for any World Cup winner this century.

It seems all too convenient Coventry have been reduced to wearing a ‘special’ kit for their League Two play-off with Exeter. The shirt, with blue and white stripes, is reminiscent of that worn for the club’s last big Wembley encounter, the 1987 FA Cup final. 

Coventry say demand means they have run out of their current first strip, after players gave their shirts to fans following the play-off semi-final win over Notts County. How dodgy does that sound? 

If Nike can make a sufficient number of this one-off special edition — enough to now be on sale to the public for £45 — why not 40 or so of the original shirts for everybody who might play, plus spares? Coventry will no doubt come up with several plausible reasons. And you shouldn’t believe a word of them. 

This is the specially-commissioned Coventry shirt the players will wear in the play-off final

This is the specially-commissioned Coventry shirt the players will wear in the play-off final

The Sky Blues will be wearing blue and white stripes rather than their usual strip

The Sky Blues will be wearing blue and white stripes rather than their usual strip