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England duty still excites Jordan Henderson despite advancing years

Back in the early days of his career, Jordan Henderson felt he was the exception. His rule was simple – no alcohol during the season – and it is one he has always stuck to. The Liverpool and England midfielder was acutely aware of the correlation between sacrifice and achievement.

“Whereas now when I look, I’d say the exception is to drink,” he says. “A lot of top players don’t drink in general. A lot of the Liverpool squad don’t drink.”

Which inspires the obvious question – who are the boozers in the squad? “I can’t throw them under the bus,” he says, laughing.

It is easy to say professional footballers ought to be teetotal; they are essentially paid to stay fit and so abstention must be a part of the bargain. Their fitness regimes and clean-living choices are therefore dismissed, at times; there is the failure to acknowledge them, to respect them. Which is a little harsh.

But to listen to Henderson, now 32 and a senior statesman for club and country, is to have a run-through of why it is all worthwhile. And why he hopes it will continue to be so for a number of years.

Henderson carried an injury into the European Championship in the summer of 2021, which restricted him to substitute appearances, and he carried one out of it, too. But when Liverpool played in every game that was possible for them last season – 63 in total – Henderson featured in 57. “I think I played more games than anyone else in Europe,” he says.

This time, Henderson picked up a hamstring problem against Newcastle on 31 August and has missed Liverpool’s past three matches. But he says he knew since the beginning of last week that he would be fit for England and their Nations League ties against Italy on Friday and Germany on Monday, the rehabilitation having quickly come to look good. And if his thoughts are fixed on the World Cup in Qatar that kicks off on 20 November, the finals are not the limit of his international ambitions.

“I look at some players still playing internationals at 36 and 37,” he says. “So it just depends on how you feel physically and I feel very good. Physically, it’s not an issue and I’m still excited being here with England. If that wasn’t the case then I would maybe think about that [retiring from internationals] but I’m always excited about being called up.

“My biggest dream as a kid was to play for England and that will never change. I want to do it as long as possible and play my part. Is Qatar the last chance to win something? I hope not. I still feel good.”

Henderson is asked whether he feels fitter than he did when he was 20 and making his way in the game at his hometown club, Sunderland. “I don’t know about that because I was pretty fit then but I know what you mean,” he says. “Physically, I feel like I’m in such a good spot – it’s a big part of how I play the game and it’s a reflection of how seriously I take the game off the pitch, as well.

“Everything has developed so much from when I was younger like nutrition and recovery, although I’ve always done those sort of things anyway. I’ve never done that [drunk alcohol during the season] and I’ve always eaten the right things. It was always in me. I never wanted to go out drinking or doing anything like that. It was always football, football, football.”

Henderson no longer feels like a first-choice selection for Gareth Southgate, even though he retains the England manager’s faith. Southgate has come to prefer Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips in the middle of his team as he also tries to manage the urgent claims of Jude Bellingham. Henderson has started three times for England since before the Euros; in light of his exertions for Liverpool he was rested from the squad that struggled in the opening quartet of Nations League fixtures last June.

Southgate said there was no point in pushing Henderson through those games because he already knew what he could do. Now, with Phillips injured, Henderson could have the opportunity to show it again.

For him and everyone in the England setup, Italy will always be synonymous with the Euro final at Wembley and the agony of the penalty shootout defeat. “You never get over bad defeats properly,” he says. “It will always stay inside, although that can be a good thing. You can use it as extra motivation, a bit of burning desire to put things right.”

The World Cup looms large. After the Germany tie, the next time England get together will be for the finals and the opening group match against Iran on 21 November. So how does Henderson see it all?

“I always feel with England that we have a chance to win – right from the first time I came into the setup at 20 years old,” he says. “There’s always been that dreaming and wanting to achieve something with England. Actually getting it over the line and being part of that … I keep striving for that.

“Hopefully, the quality we’ve got and our experiences of the last few years will put us in good stead.”