Jordan Henderson’s last appearance for Al Ettifaq was a 1-1 draw with Al Hazem played in front of barely 5,000 people and more than 20,000 empty seats. A month later, Henderson’s debut for Ajax ended in the same result but was conducted in a remarkably different atmosphere.
Clashes between Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, a rivalry known as De Topper in the Netherlands, are always noteworthy occasions. Yet, there was an extra ripple of excitement coursing through the 50,000 fans stuffed into the Johan Cruyff ArenA on Saturday evening.
Henderson’s controversial move to Saudi Arabia followed by an expensive exit just six months later has inspired widespread derision. But not in Amsterdam. Unverified reports claimed that Henderson’s number six shirt had broken records for its popularity, while everyone associated with the club has stumbled over themselves to praise their new signing.
With England manager Gareth Southgate watching on, here’s how Henderson fared on his return to European club football.
In every walk of life, a successful figure who hangs around long enough starts to become a parody of themselves. They stop searching for the most appropriate solution and simply fall back upon the most characteristic option. Henderson, on a night when he admitted to pre-match nerves, fell into this trap.
Throughout a particularly cautious first half, Henderson scarcely ventured over the halfway line, completing 23 of his 24 passes which were almost exclusively sideways or backwards. As the stadium announcer lingered over his name when reading out the team sheet, a roar rang around the ground. By the interval, the running joke was whether Henderson would eventually make his debut in the second half.
Henderson tentatively eased into the next 45 minutes, peppering the contest with his trademark bellowing and pointing, although when his index finger wasn’t outstretched his hand was constantly hovering over the handbrake.
PSV effectively chiselled their name into the Eredivisie trophy with a staggering sequence of 17 consecutive league wins to begin the campaign. However, a spate of injuries to start the new year has suddenly hampered Peter Bosz’s runaway leaders and Ajax held the Eindhoven outfit to their second draw in as many away games.
To borrow a Dutch expression, Henderson could generously be credited for acting…