DEAN HENDERSON is standing at an unexpected crossroads as he looks to advance his career for club and country with worldly advice ringing in his ears from Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder.
The 22-year-old walked off the pitch with Blades fans chanting his name having 24 minutes earlier gifted Liverpool a 1-0 victory and consigned his team to their third consecutive Premier League home defeat.
That is how much the 22-year-old goalkeeper, in his second season on loan from Manchester United, is adored at his adopted home. Rightly so. He’s done more than enough at Bramall Lane to prove his worth and a positive, whole-hearted attitude quickly endeared him to Blades fans.
If his introduction was a triumph – 21 clean sheets and some spectacular saves on the way to automatic promotion – Henderson’s second season and first taste of Premier League football has not been plain sailing. A schoolboy handling error presented Chelsea with their opening goal at Stamford Bridge last month when the Blades fought back from two down to draw. Now this.
He has form having handed Leeds United victory at Bramall Lane in the Championship last season and featured in a horror show as United let slip a three-goal lead at Aston Villa to draw 3-3. Three months separated those matches; four weeks in this case.
For some such experiences would damage confidence. Not Henderson. If anything an indefatigable strength of character made him better for it last season. But the stakes are higher now, the public glare greater and that will be tested like never before.
Henderson’s makes much of his ambition to become Manchester United’s chosen one and England’s first choice. He’s not short of confidence. “I genuinely believe, if I reach my potential, I’ve the best chance to be England and Manchester United’s No1,” he said after first arriving at the Lane in the summer of 2018.
“To do that, I have to play as many games as possible. People might like to sit with the Manchester United shirt on, play once every couple of weeks in the Under-23s, travel around with the first-team. But, actually, it’s irrelevant because they’re never going to play regular football. You need to go out there and get your shirt dirty.”
Two months into the new season and the chances of those aspirations bearing fruit have significantly diminished. At Old Trafford, David de Gea recently signed a new four-year contract with an option for a further 12 months. The 28-year-old Spanish international goalkeeper, believed to be earning about £360,000-a-week, said: “Now my future is fixed, all I want is to help this team achieve what I believe we can and win trophies again together.”
Manchester United are reported to be preparing to sell Henderson, valued at a minimum of £20million, when his loan expires next May. A product of the club’s academy, he agreed a new three-year deal in the summer.
Meanwhile, England manager Gareth Southgate watched him twice at the Lane earlier this season but hopes of a full international call-up for European Championship qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo at Wembley were in vain.
Southgate, preparing for further qualifiers against Czech Republic and a return against Bulgaria, was back on Saturday and must have left distinctly unimpressed with the former England Under-21 keeper.
Blades boss Chris Wilder was and didn’t try to hide his disappointment. “I'm certainly not going to put my arm around him and rub his head,” he said. “We set a high bar. It always amazes me when pundits talk about not criticising players in the Press. This game has been beamed around the world. There's no hiding place.”
Wilder added: “This is a big season for him individually. It is up to him how he develops. He has got first-class coaching from our point of view. He has got team-mates that think a lot about him and as a manager, I do as well. He is an outstanding young goalkeeper but a lot will be down to how he takes it on to the next level.”
Henderson’s dream of playing for Manchester United, where he began as an eight-year-old, may be fading fast. But a prolonged Premier League future and international aspirations remain on track. Typically he posted on his Instagram account: “Got my head held high. Can’t wait to get back out there!! I always come back stronger, thanks for your support bladesmen.”
It is inconceivable that he will lose his place for the trip to bottom club Watford on Saturday, which offers a good opportunity for United to extend their unbeaten away run since returning to the top flight. But for a variety of reasons he cannot afford another big mistake anytime soon.