Does Henderson's Euro 2024 omission signal the end of his England career?

It was at the Stadion Rujevica, in Rijeka, that those of us who have followed England’s national team on their foreign excursions got a different perspective on why Jordan Henderson was regarded, back then, as a mandatory first-team pick for Gareth Southgate.

The only England fans in attendance that night were gathered strategically in the hills overlooking the stadium, even scaling the pine trees so they could get a view of the action.

Croatia were being punished for having a swastika cut into their pitch at a previous match and that meant England’s first-ever “ghost game”, with no spectators allowed entry, in 146 years of football.

And, boy, Henderson was loud during it. Put bluntly, he never shut up. He ran the game, his voice carrying across the turf and up to the press box more than any other.

Southgate had talked beforehand about having spent two years “encouraging our players to talk more”. Henderson set the example — a sweary example, if memory serves right — in a slightly surreal goalless draw in the 2018-19 Nations League. For the few of us in the media who were permitted entry, it was easy to see why Southgate valued him so highly.

That was Henderson’s 47th cap in an international career that started, aged 20, in a 2-1 defeat against France in November 2010 — seven of the other 10 members of that England starting XI have now retired.

Henderson playing for England in Croatia in 2018 (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

In total, Henderson has made 81 appearances for his country, 76 of them coming as a Liverpool player and 57 under Southgate’s management. He has featured in the last six major tournaments and, in ordinary circumstances, this would be a time for eulogies.

Ultimately, though, there is also the unmistakable feeling that his absence from England’s squad for this summer’s European Championship is, in part, a self-inflicted blow.

Would it have been different if he had remained at Liverpool last summer and resisted the bags of gold on offer from Saudi Arabia? That is a question we will never be able to answer for certain. Most people, however, could be forgiven for thinking that, yes, we can join the dots and everything is linked.

Instead, Henderson decided to follow the money to Al-Ettifaq — telling The Athletic in September that his playing time at Liverpool would be reduced if he stayed. He must have known his absence from the Premier League might eventually count against him. He took that gamble because, frankly, the money involved was mindboggling and, in football, the rich like to get richer.

And the irony is he hated it, apparently. He lasted just five months in Saudi Arabia before returning to Europe to hook up with an Ajax side uncharacteristically struggling to keep up in the Eredivisie.

Now, though, we heard from an England manager explaining Henderson’s absence from the preliminary squad named today for the looming Euros on his lack of “intensity” since coming back from a recent injury. A lack of intensity? Well, quite. Have you seen the standard of the Dutch league recently? Better than the Saudi Pro League, yes, but a long way back from the Premier League. Nobody should be surprised that he is not the razor-sharp player of old.

His omission feels like a reminder that Southgate, despite what some people think, is willing to make big decisions and, if necessary, cut free some of his old favourites. And, though it is obviously big news, has there been any real outrage? Have you heard many people arguing it is a terrible decision? That Southgate has lost the plot?

Yes, there were questions about whether England’s midfield would have enough leadership and experience without Henderson’s involvement. But nobody challenged Southgate when he sat down at St George’s Park to explain why it was a “difficult call”. Henderson, he said, was “a fantastic professional” who had been “so important and so supportive in my time here”. But it is time, he explained, for other players to flourish.

Unfortunately for Henderson, it was always likely that his England position would become vulnerable.

Henderson with Southgate, who has dropped him from his Euro 2024 squad (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

It is a shock, though, because Southgate, until now, has always given the impression that he was happy to persist with him. He picked him four times as an Al-Ettifaq player and spoke positively about him at media gatherings. The respect between manager and player was clear and Southgate took great offence when a section of England fans booed Henderson during a game against Australia at Wembley last October.

Southgate followed that up by flying to Amsterdam in February to watch Henderson’s debut for Ajax. Others from the Football Association were dispatched to future matches to monitor how he was playing. But this is not a strong Ajax side, having just finished 35 points behind PSV Eindhoven, the champions. The reports landing on Southgate’s desk were a cause for concern. Henderson missed a month through injury before returning for the season’s final three games.

“The determining factor is the injury he (Henderson) picked up around the last (England) camp,” Southgate said. “He missed five weeks and just hasn’t been able to get the intensity in the games since then.”

And so, Henderson has discovered what Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling and a few others have found out over the years: that Southgate will let you go once he is satisfied there is a new generation coming through.

For a bit of context here, Kobbie Mainoo was not even born the last time England went into a European Championship (2004) without Henderson.

Mainoo’s emergence for Manchester United this season has made the decision for Southgate a little easier. Declan Rice is an automatic starter in his midfield. Adam Wharton has been a revelation for Crystal Palace since a February move from Blackburn Rovers of the Championship. Conor Gallagher has had a significant role in Chelsea’s end-of-season resurgence.

On the list distributed by the FA on Tuesday afternoon, England have six central midfielders among Southgate’s 33-man squad. One is Curtis Jones, another Trent Alexander-Arnold (if he really counts as a midfielder), and there is an irony that two of Henderson’s former Liverpool team-mates have been chosen in this party ahead of him.

Henderson has played for a struggling Ajax team during the second half of this season (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The man in question will turn 34 in a few weeks. He is joint-18th, tied with Rio Ferdinand, on the list of all-time England appearance-makers. And he had been “incredibly professional”, Southgate explained, when he took the call from his manager to explain why he had not been selected.

“He’ll be a miss,” Southgate added. And yet, it was difficult not to be left with the impression that what we were witnessing here went beyond Euro 2024 and potentially signalled the end of Henderson’s England career.


Southgate finally gets ruthless – now England’s new generation must step up

England squad in full

Goalkeepers: Dean Henderson, Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale, James Trafford. Defenders: Jarrad Branthwaite, Lewis Dunk, Joe Gomez, Marc Guehi, Ezri Konsa, Harry Maguire, Jarell Quansah, Luke Shaw, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker. Midfielders: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Conor Gallagher, Curtis Jones, Kobbie Mainoo, Adam Wharton, Declan Rice. Forwards: Jude Bellingham, Jarrod Bowen, Eberechi Eze, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Anthony Gordon, Harry Kane, James Maddison, Cole Palmer, Bukayo Saka, Ivan Toney, Ollie Watkins

Key dates

June 4: vs Bosnia and Herzegovina (friendly)
June 7: vs Iceland (friendly)
June 7: Final Euro 2024 squad submitted
June 16: vs Serbia (Euro 2024 Group C)
June 20: vs Denmark (Euro 2024 Group C)
June 25: vs Slovenia (Euro 2024 Group C)

(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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