On Saturday, Liverpool’s Andy Robertson was crowned European champion with Liverpool, capping off a remarkable career journey from the lower reaches of Scottish football to Champions League glory.
Five years ago, the left-sided full-back was playing in Scotland’s third-tier at Queen’s Park, having been released by Celtic at the age of 15 as he was deemed too small for top-flight football. Following Liverpool’s 2-0 Champions League Final win over Tottenham Hostpur, in which Robertson played the full ninety minutes, the Glasgow side may live to regret that decision.
However, Robertson is not the only Celtic reject to have achieved success this weekend in European football.
Livingston-born Liam Henderson, 23, was deemed surplus to requirements at Celtic Park by managers Neil Lennon and Brendan Rodgers, amassing only 29 league appearances in five seasons for the Scottish Premiership champions.
Yet the midfielder has managed to reinvigorate his career in Italy, and has just achieved promotion to Serie A with Hellas Verona, thanks to a dramatic 3-2 aggregate win over Cittadella in the Serie B play-off final. Hellas were two goals down after the first-leg, but a convincing home win has ensured that the side from northern Italy will play top-flight football next season after one season away.
A remarkable career which shows that money isn’t everything in football, Henderson’s rise to Italy’s top-flight is certainly one to look at…
Comfortable Celtic to Bankrupt Bari
In 2016, Henderson’s career at Celtic was meant to kick on to the next stage following a promising loan spell at Hibernian.
The midfielder had been ever-present for the Edinburgh side, which saw them finish third in the Scottish Championship and champions of the Scottish Cup. Henderson contributed two crucial assists for the Hibees in their 3-2 Cup Final win over Rangers, which saw them secure Europa League football.
Yet on his return to Celtic, new manager Brendan Rodgers used the midfielder sporadically over the next two seasons. While he managed to achieve ten league appearances in the 2016-17 season, which earned him a league winner’s medal at the club he had been at since the age of twelve, Rodgers only granted him 23 minutes of league football the following season, in what was the last year of his Celtic contract.
Desperate to move away for first-team football, Henderson made the unexpected move to Italy, signing for second division side Bari, managed by Italy World Cup winner Fabio Grosso. The 6ft tall midfielder had offers in Scotland at England’s second-tier, but made the bold move to travel abroad and play for a side plagued with money difficulties.
An Italian club in financial ruin is not exactly a bizarre phenomenon. Since the turn of the millennium, over 100 teams in Italy have either folded or reformed themselves as a different club due to financial issues. Henderson, however, was well aware of the risks that came with joining Bari, but the way in which he was placed as an outcast at Celtic, meant that the guarantee of first-team football was more important than any financial package at all.
When Bari informed Henderson and his representatives of the off-the-field issues at the club, his father Nicky, a former professional player for the likes of Partick Thistle and Hamilton Academicals, said that “it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t get paid”.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play for Celtic, who are a well-run club, paid every time, on time”, the midfielder told ESPN in April of this year. “For me, it was more important to play for Bari.
“I thought, ‘If I don’t get paid, that’s life’. It’s maybe going to do me a bit of good to get a bit of the real world in my career, because since joining Celtic as a 12-year old, I’ve had everything”.
It just goes to show that footballers might not be always motivated by money.
Making an Impression
Henderson was an instant hit in southern Italy, with manager Grosso – former teammates of Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Francesco Totti – rating the Scottish midfielder very highly.
“He has great quality” said Grosso back in February 2018. “In training he acts like he’s been with us a long time. He has great commitment and quality”.
And Bari were performing well on the pitch too. They qualified for the play-offs in sixth place, but then the financial issues began to affect matters on the pitch.
The club suffered a two-point deduction for failing to pay their players – something Henderson valued less important than playing on a regular basis – which put them down to seventh place behind Cittadella. That was still enough for a play-off spot, but would have catastrophic consequences for Bari as a club.
In Italian football, play-off matches do not go to extra-time and penalties in the event of a draw, with the club finishing higher up in the table advancing through to the next stage of the play-offs.
That meant that Bari’s 2-2 play-off semi-final draw against Cittadella was not enough to progress to the final round of play-off matches. The Bari owners had relied heavily on promotion to Serie A to resolve their financial difficulties, and the club went under a few months later.
After Bari’s monetary turmoil last summer, Grosso landed the job at Hellas Verona, who had just been relegated from Italy’s top-flight the season before. The coach brought Henderson with him, despite only knowing the player for six months, in order to return the club back to where it had just come from.
Just like at Bari, the Scottish midfielder has been a regular feature for Hellas in their successful season. Described as ‘Braveheart but with Brazilian feet’ by the Verona faithful, Henderson has certainly endeared himself to the fans of the Serie B side.
On the pitch, the 23-year old has formed an unlikely togetherness with veteran striker Giampaolo Pazzini, who played for Rafa Benitez’s Inter Milan back in 2010, and this link has been compared to the Steven Gerrard-Fernando Torres combination at Liverpool which tormented Premier League defences in the late 2000s.
In fact, comparisons between Henderson and Gerrard have been made by Italian journalists over the past two seasons. One of the country’s most popular sports news outlets, La Gazzetta dello Sport, says that Henderson is “inspired by Gerrard, but many see a lot of Gary McAllister in him. Weighty comparisons but, who knows…Henderson could one day reach the level of these great champions”.
Although Verona were well and truly in the hunt for a play-off spot at the start of May, Grosso was sacked by the Hellas board for not achieving automatic promotion with the club.
Despite losing the influence of the man who embraced him into Italian football, Henderson has continued to start under new boss Alfredo Aglietti, and looks set to play a big part for the club when they embark on their top-flight campaign next season.
After a couple of hectic years in this young man’s career, who knows, maybe a first senior Scotland call-up is not so far away for Liam Henderson?