"You're not in Scotland now" -- Why Liam Henderson left superpower Celtic for the Italian second division
VERONA, Italy -- Liam Henderson is FaceTiming his parents back in Scotland and still can't believe what just happened to him.
Earlier that evening, the 22-year-old curled in a free kick to start a comeback that ended with Hellas Verona beating Perugia. "I've celebrated," Henderson says. "Done a perfect knee-slide. I looked up, and Alessandro Nesta [one of the all-time great Italian defenders, now in charge of Perugia] is on the bench."
Henderson had a similar feeling when playing in Venice for Bari last season. That was another "great experience to tell people about," he says, not just for the 45-minute boat trip across the lagoon to get to the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo.
"I've got no idea how the boys don't get seasick," the midfielder says. "It's choppy." In the dugout on that occasion was another icon of Italian football and one of the most prolific goal scorers ever: Filippo "Pippo" Inzaghi. For someone who grew up watching Serie A, "it was surreal." Second-division football in Italy certainly does not lack star power.
Henderson's coach at Verona is Inzaghi's former Italy teammate Fabio Grosso, who scored the winning penalty in the 2006 World Cup final. "I remember wanting France to win," Henderson says with a laugh, "but only because of [Zinedine] Zidane. It was his final bow. He played in a similar position to me. I idolised him when I was growing up." Since then, Henderson admits, it's Grosso who has had "a huge, huge influence on my short career so far."
A year ago, Henderson was faced with a decision a number of elite young footballers have to make. He was at a great club in Celtic, winner of seven straight Scottish Premier League titles and 49 overall, and had been since he was a school boy. But he needed to play regular first-team football to go to the next level. Henderson could have stayed in Scotland or moved to the Championship in England, the path most-travelled, but the opportunity to go to Italy captured his imagination. For a keen follower of European football, the romance of it prevailed over all other offers.
It was a risk. Henderson knew he might go unpaid, but as he drains his cappuccino in a bar on the banks of Lake Garda, it's obvious that the Scot did his homework and took a calculated gamble when leaving the comfort of Glasgow for Serie B.
Yet when looking at the talent this league has nurtured and the many pathways to the top, it seems less risky. Lorenzo Insigne, Marco Verratti and Ciro Immobile cut their teeth at Pescara, Federico Bernardeschi and Alessandro Florenzi at Crotone, Franck Kessie and Mattia Caldara at Cesena, Leonardo Spinazzola and Gianluca Mancini at Perugia, Nicolo Zaniolo at Virtus Entella and Sandro Tonali at Brescia. Henderson has relished playing against "the new Pirlo," who was called up to the senior Italy squad despite not playing a single minute of first-division football.
The opportunity to broaden his horizons, take in a new culture and learn under a big name such as Grosso, who began coaching at youth level with Juventus, where he won the prestigious Viareggio Cup, was too big to turn down. Henderson can't speak highly enough of the former full-back. Grosso got the Hellas job last summer and saw an opportunity to take Henderson and four other players with him when Bari went bust and had to start over in the fourth tier. They began their preseason in nearby Trentino after a 12-hour train journey from Puglia.
"On the third day," he says, "there were rumours among the senior players that Bari were going to go under. So that day, they made a decision. 'We're not going to train. We need to look after ourselves. We don't want to get injured if we're going to another team.' On the fourth day, Sean [Sogliano, Bari's sporting director at the time] came to the training camp and said, 'I'm really sorry. We've done everything we can to save the club, but it's not possible.'"
Henderson was aware that this could happen when he arrived in Italy six months earlier. After all, since 2000, no fewer than 107 clubs have either reformed or disappeared completely due to financial issues. Anyone looking at the current Serie B table will notice that it currently has just 19 teams because, in addition to Bari, another two clubs (Avellino and Cesena) were dissolved, sold off and sent to the bottom of the football pyramid in Italy last summer.
"When I signed, they kind of told us, 'We're in a wee bit of bother.' My dad said to my agent, 'We don't really care if he doesn't get paid.'"
Henderson had been at Celtic for almost a decade, rising through the ranks as an intelligent, cultured midfielder. He captained Scotland at Under-17 level and made his Celtic debut at the same age under Neil Lennon, playing in a team featuring Liverpool's current standout player and the most expensive defender in the world, Virgil van Dijk.
From there, Henderson started in a 3-3 draw with Inter in the Europa League, but playing time became more limited in the Brendan Rodgers era, and to that point, the going had been good enough for Henderson to look at Bari and make a simple cost-benefit analysis. In the end, he concluded that the risk of financial insecurity was compensated by the reward of playing week-in, week-out in a league offering a level of tactical and physical education that was completely different from what he was used to in Scotland and had experienced on loan in Norway at Rosenborg.
"I've been fortunate enough to play for Celtic, who are a well-run club, paid every time, on time," he says. "It was perfect. For me, it was more important to go and play for Bari. I thought, 'If I don't get paid, it'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.'
"I thought, I'm just going to go for it. I gave 100 percent in every game for Bari, and even though I wasn't getting paid as regularly, it's the happiest I've been in my career. It's something you appreciate now because in the future, if it happens again, you know how to deal with it and how to deal with it better."
From our conversation, it's clear that Henderson loved every minute in Bari. "Doing my research, I knew about Antonio Cassano, David Platt, Italia '90," he says. "So when Italy came up [as a career destination], I was like, 100 percent [let's do it], but it was more my dad because he grew up with Italy and Italian things being the top, like [Paul] Gascoigne and all the top, top players playing in Italy. He was like, 'You need to go. You need to go.'"
The move came about through a friend of Henderson's agent who used to be the general manager of Sampdoria. The "romance" of it appealed, and aside from the lift to his high-rise apartment -- "a death trap" -- living in Puglia was like being in a small corner of paradise: the seafood, the focaccia, the panzerotti (small calzones).
"The beaches. My girlfriend absolutely loved it. My family as well. It's sunny all the time there," he says. "Polignano a Mare is 20 minutes on the train. It's one of the nicest places I've ever been to. We went to the restaurant that's in the grotto for my 21st birthday. Puglia's a beautiful part of the world. I'd recommend it to anyone to go on holiday."
But it's the people who undoubtedly left the biggest impression on Henderson. They embraced him and his family and friends as if they were all Barese. Henderson tells a story about a friend and one of his brothers walking around town in one of his shirts while he was away playing in Parma. The pair of them couldn't find anywhere showing the game when a local came up to them, his curiosity aroused by the red and white Henderson jersey. He asked how they'd come across the match-worn shirt and, upon learning one of the two was related to Henderson, said, 'We'll take you and drive you to this house. You can watch it with the family there, then come back and eat at the restaurant for nothing.' They were really, really friendly."
Another example of just how football-crazy Bari is as a city came before the derby against Foggia. Henderson was unlucky to miss it through suspension, but the open training session the day before was unforgettable. The ultras turned up, letting off flares and singing songs while Grosso put the players through their paces.
"Afterwards, the team manager was like, you need to come over, so we walked over, and the head guy of the ultras is on the pitch. All the ultras are on the pitch, and the head guy is standing in front of us, just speaking at us, giving it like, 'If we see you running, if we see you fighting, if we see you battling and playing for the top, then there's not gonna be a problem.'"
The memory brings a smile to Henderson's face. "Everybody was straight-away fired up for that match," he says. Henderson remains in touch with the leader of the Bari curva. "He was a top guy. Quite scary at first, but when you get to know him, he becomes a wee bit more mellow."
Verona is just as intense -- "Hellas' ultras are daft," Henderson says -- and he makes sure to channel it into his performances in blue and yellow.
After a defeat in Lecce a month ago, the Hellas ultras, who'd made the 900-kilometer (550 miles) trip to Puglia, were waiting for the players when the team bus pulled into the airport ahead of Hellas' flight back north.
"They gave us a talking-to," Henderson says. "It worked because we went on a good run, so fair play. We'd just got off the bus, and they were all standing there waiting. It'd never happen in the UK because the police wouldn't allow it. But it wasn't aggressive. It was a conversation between the players and the fans... I know it sounds strange, but I really like it. Of course, sometimes it's taken too far, but I can understand where the fans are coming from. They're travelling everywhere, and football nowadays is not cheap to follow, so I totally get where they're coming from because if I were there and I was seeing players not giving 100 percent, I'd be the same as them. I'd be raging."
Henderson hopes Hellas will be celebrating promotion in June and passing Chievo, who look doomed in the Serie A relegation zone, on the way up. "Fingers crossed," he says with a wink. "Hellas are the main team in Verona. Everybody knows that ..." Third in the table, the Gialloblu find themselves six points off the automatic promotion places. However, any slip-up could cost them big, with seven teams within eight points of one another. "Hopefully this year we can get over the line," he says.
A new Hellas team is coming together, finding the fluidity and cohesion Grosso wants. Henderson did his first interview in Italian after scoring another winner against Perugia a fortnight ago. He's listening to the same Italian hip-hop -- Sfera Ebbasta -- as the other lads in the dressing room. "I know some of the words are not suitable for what I need to learn, but I've picked up on it," he says.
More offensive was the time when Henderson, starving after a workout -- "we train like animals," he says -- decided to mix his primo and secondo, piling chicken onto a plate of pasta. Giampaolo Pazzini, the club captain and top scorer who opened the new Wembley with a hat trick against England's Under-21s, was not impressed. "Pazzini was like, 'What are you playing at?! You're not in Scotland now,'" Henderson says.
Henderson is only too aware of that and would like more Scottish footballers to follow him abroad. "Off the top of my head, I can only think of three," he says, meaning himself, David Bates at Hamburg ("He's done incredible") and Jack Harper at Malaga. It isn't hard to sell the idea as we sit in the sun drinking coffee on the banks of Lake Garda with the snow-capped Dolomite mountains in the distance.
"Going and playing abroad can only improve the national team," Henderson says. "You're going to be on your own, but take the positives. You've only got football to focus on. At home [in Scotland], you can have a lot of distractions. You ask yourself what shall I do after training? Shall I rush home to do something with my friends or my girlfriend? But here I can stay behind. I can go in extremely early like I do, go in early doors and stay all day to try and get better and better.
"Staying out here was always on the cards," he adds. "I want to make it work. I don't want to take the first opportunity to go back to UK. I want to stay here and try and get myself to the highest level."