Football Features

Jordan Henderson named Footballer of the Year, but spare a thought for history-chasing Kevin De Bruyne

By Harry Edwards

Published: 13:14, 24 July 2020

Two days after finally lifting the Premier League title as Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson was named as the Football Writers’ Association’s (FWA) Footballer of the Year.

Not to be confused with the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the Footballer of the Year has been awarded to players since the 1947/48 season by members of the FWA (around 400 football journalists) and is football’s oldest individual award.

Although Liverpool stormed to the Premier League title, it wasn’t a guarantee that a Reds player would go home with the Football of the Year award. Henderson was joined among the favourites by teammates Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane, and there was also competition from Marcus Rashford and Kevin De Bruyne.

It was the latter that many expected to be Henderson’s biggest competition for the award. Many even predicted the Belgian would take home the gold despite Liverpool’s successes.

“This award is always for Liverpool.”

The FWA’s Footballer of the Year award has not always gone to a player from the title-winning side. In fact, during the Premier League-era, a non-title winner has been named Footballer of the Year on 14 occasions. As recently as 2018 when Mohamed Salah won it after setting a new Premier League record for goals scored in a single season (32).

And it seemed De Bruyne would mirror Salah’s achievement this season. The Belgian playmaker, a key member of Man City’s Premier League-winning sides in 2018 and 2019, has continued to provide goals with frightening frequency. His passing ability and eye for space on the pitch is borderline supernatural at times and he is the brightest among Man City’s squad of stars.

With one game remaining in the 2019/20 Premier League season, De Bruyne is once again unrivalled as the division’s top creator, having recorded 19 assists so far. He is just one away from equalling Thierry Henry’s Premier League record for most assists in a single campaign and may fancy his chances of breaking it with two when Manchester City close the season against Norwich City on Sunday.

De Bruyne would actually have already broken Henry’s record had it not been for two cases where the Premier League decided to deny him assists home and away against Arsenal this season.

De Bruyne has created the most chances in the Premier League this season, with 126. That is 36 more than his closest challenger. Jack Grealish, on 90. De Bruyne has also created the most big chances, at 32. The 11 shots he put away himself should not be forgotten, too, because no Premier League player being directly involved in more goals this season.

Even ahead of Friday’s confirmation that De Bruyne has missed out, Guardiola made a coded criticism of the media’s appreciation of Liverpool (albeit not a very cryptic one).

“No, no, [it] will be won by a Liverpool player,” said Guardiola when asked who he felt would win the FWA award earlier in the week.

“When we won the Premier Leagues, it was won by Liverpool players. When they win the Premier League, I’m pretty sure they are going to win player of the season. So this award is always for Liverpool.”

As some pointed out, though, Raheem Sterling received the most votes last year.

It’s important to note, too, that if there’s one thing the media love more than anything (perhaps even more than Guardiola thinks they love Liverpool), it’s a story. And Henderson has one hell of a redemption arc.

A worthy winner?

When Henderson first signed for Liverpool from Sunderland in June 2011, much doubt surrounded his ability and whether he would be good enough to play for the Reds.

Unaided by the comparisons with Steven Gerrard, Henderson’s Liverpool career was almost over just a year after his signing when Brendan Rodgers offered him to Fulham in a part-exchange transfer for Clint Dempsey.

But Henderson overcame that and, eventually being named captain in June 2015, started his journey to becoming arguably the most important player in Liverpool’s title-winning side.

The impact made by the likes of Van Dijk, Mane and Salah are supported by various top-line statistics. Conversely, Henderson’s importance has been somewhat illustrated by his absence.

When Henderson is on the pitch, Liverpool look a more complete team. Yes, they’ve still managed to find the ways to win without him, such is the quality of their squad, but they have done so at a less frequent rate.

Injured for the final game of the season, Henderson will end the 2019/20 Premier League campaign with 30 appearances, 26 of which have been starts. Of those 30 games, Liverpool have won 27, only drawing with Manchester United and Everton, and losing to Manchester City after the title was confirmed. That’s 90% of games won with Henderson on the pitch, and 83 points from a possible 90 gained.

And when Henderson has not played, Liverpool’s win rate is nowhere near as special. Of the seven games Liverpool have played without Henderson so far this season, they have won four. That may still be just three games, and it is the same number as they have failed to win with Henderson in the side across his 30 appearances, but percentage-wise it drops to 57.1%.

Two of the three games Liverpool failed to win without Henderson have been defeats. The first was that 3-0 humbling by Watford at the end of February, in which Liverpool watched their hopes of an ‘Invincible’ campaign fade away while being completely played off the pitch by a team who could be relegated this Sunday. Then there was the defeat to Arsenal. Here, Liverpool were let down by individual errors caused, potentially, by complacency.

Henderson may not have the individual numbers of De Bruyne, scoring just four goals and recording five assists, but once again the importance of his contributions cannot be understated. His first Premier League goal of the season was an equaliser in Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur in October, starting the comeback as the Reds looked to bounce back from their draw with Manchester United.

And in January, Henderson was involved in both goals of Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Wolves, first opening the scoring before setting up Roberto Firmino for a late winner, maintaining the Reds’ lead at the top.

Naturally, in accepting the award, Henderson spoke of the accomplishments of the rest of his teammates, and no one can say the English midfielder was not a graceful winner.

“I’d like to say how appreciative I am of the support of those who voted for me and the Football Writers’ Association in general,” he told the FWA.

“You only have to look at the past winners of it, a number of whom I’ve been blessed to play with here at Liverpool, like Stevie (Gerrard), Luis (Suarez) and Mo (Salah) to know how prestigious it is.

“But as grateful as I am I don’t feel like I can accept this on my own. I don’t feel like anything I’ve achieved this season or in fact during my whole career has been done on my own. I owe a lot to so many different people – but none more so than my current teammates – who have just been incredible and deserve this every bit as much as I do.

“We’ve only achieved what we’ve achieved because every single member of our squad has been brilliant. And not just in matches. Not just in producing the moments that make the headlines and the back pages but every day in training.

“The players who’ve started the most games for us this season have been as good as they have been because of our culture and our environment at Melwood. No one individual is responsible for that – it’s a collective effort and that’s how I view accepting this honour.

Jordan Henderson

“I accept it on behalf of this whole squad, because without them I’m not in a position to be receiving this honour. These lads have made me a better player – a better leader and a better person. If anything I hope those who voted for me did so partly to recognise the entire team’s contribution.

“Individual awards are nice and they are special and I will cherish this one. But an individual award without the collective achievement wouldn’t mean anywhere as much to me – if anything at all.”

Who else received votes?

Although the FWA have not provided a list confirming who every journalist voted for, as France Football do when it comes to the Ballon d’Or, The Times journalist Henry Winter revealed the 10 other players who received votes. Outside of Henderson, they were De Bruyne, Rashford, Van Dijk and Mane.

Two more Liverpool players joined Henderson, Van Dijk and Mane on the list (Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alisson) while Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling added to the Man City contingent.

There were also votes for Danny Ings and Jack Grealish for their fine seasons for Southampton and Aston Villa respectively and Adama Traore was also backed. But perhaps three surprising names to receive votes were Leicester City pair James Maddison and Jonny Evans – despite the Foxes’ Champions League push – and Manchester United full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Premier League-era FWA Football of the Year winners:

  • 2018/19: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
  • 2017/18: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
  • 2016/17: N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
  • 2015/16: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
  • 2014/15: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
  • 2013/14: Luis Suarez (Liverpool)
  • 2012/13: Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • 2011/12: Robin van Persie (Arsenal)
  • 2010/11: Scott Parker (West Ham United)
  • 2009/10: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
  • 2008/09: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
  • 2007/08: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
  • 2006/07: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
  • 2005/06: Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
  • 2004/05: Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
  • 2003/04: Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
  • 2002/03: Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
  • 2001/02: Robert Pires (Arsenal)
  • 2000/01: Teddy Sheringham (Manchester United)
  • 1999/00: Roy Keane (Manchester United)
  • 1998/99: David Ginola (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • 1997/98: Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal)
  • 1996/97: Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea)
  • 1995/96: Eric Cantona (Manchester United)
  • 1994/95: Jurgen Klinsmann (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • 1993/94: Alan Shearer (Blackburn Rovers)
  • 1992/93: Chris Waddle (Sheffield Wednesday)

The best Premier League players never to win the award?

Of course football started before 1992. But since the Premier League arrived, a number of big stars have played their part in England’s top flight. Not all of them have had the honour of being named Footballer of the Year, and you can put together a pretty special combined XI using 11 of those names.

  • GK: Petr Cech – Holds the Premier League record for the most clean sheets (202) and worn four Golden Gloves.
  • RB: Gary Neville – Won eight Premier League titles and recorded 35 Premier League assists during his esteemed career.
  • CB: Rio Ferdinand – Helped Man Utd win six Premier League titles across 10 seasons.
  • CB: John Terry – The five-time Premier League-winning captain picked up the PFA Player of the Year in 2004/05, but not the FWA award.
  • LB: Ashley Cole – Won the Premier League with two clubs (Arsenal and Chelsea) and recorded 31 assists, widely regarded as the one of the best left-backs.
  • DM: Patrick Vieira – Captained the Gunners as they became the first and only Premier League side to go an entire season without tasting defeat.
  • CM: Yaya Toure – Scored 20 goals in 35 games as Manchester City won the 2013/14 title.
  • CM: Paul Scholes – A key cog of 11 Man Utd title-winning sides under Sir Alex Ferguson.
  • AM: David Silva – Only five players have created more Premier League goals (93) than City’s four-time Premier League winner.
  • ST: Sergio Aguero – Most prolific foreign-born goalscorer in Premier League history and fourth on the all-time standings.
  • ST: Harry Kane – Has reached 20+ goals in four of his last six Premier League seasons.