Celtic’s Liam Henderson: ‘I’d love to play for Hibs again’

His cup runneth over: Liam Henderson at full-time  after the 3-2 win over Rangers. Picture: Greg Macvean
His cup runneth over: Liam Henderson at full-time after the 3-2 win over Rangers. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Liam Henderson thinks it’s now up to five or six. The number of Hibs fans who’ve had the words of Sky Sports commentator Ian Crocker turned into a tattoo. And that’s just the ones who’ve tweeted him photos. After the Scottish Cup final Henderson went on holiday to Ibiza with Jason Cummings where the pair hooked up with John McGinn.

Bumping into the three young blades was too much excitement for a supporter who told them he was rushing off to the nearest tattooist to have the legend inked on his sunburned ankle. No need to do that on my part, said Hendo, but the fellow returned later to show off his inscription:

Liam Henderson lifts the Scottish Cup.  Picture: Robert Perry

Liam Henderson lifts the Scottish Cup. Picture: Robert Perry

“Liam Henderson to deliverrrr!…”

So, come on then: while Gordon Smith, Willie Ormond and others were undoubtedly responsible for some sweetly struck despatches from the flags – and Patrick Callaghan fired over the ball which led to the cup-winning goal in 1902 – what’s the secret of the two most important corner-kicks in Hibee history?

“I’ve always fancied myself at dead-balls – I like hitting them,’ says Henderson when we meet in a city centre coffee shop. “Every Friday at training the gaffer would say to me: ‘Hendo, go and hit the corners.’ So I’d done that for a full year and against Rangers we knew what we were going to do.

“The main thing was that [James] Tavernier was weak at defending corners – he cannot head the ball – so that’s where the first one was going. I’ve always done something my grandfather read about Jonny Wilkinson: how he used to focus on a speck in the crowd, maybe a red hat, and aim for it. In our final there was the top of a letter on a banner just above Tavernier’s head so that was where the corner was going.”

Aidan Smith's book, "Persevered", chronicles Hibs' historic Scottish Cup win.

Aidan Smith's book, "Persevered", chronicles Hibs' historic Scottish Cup win.

(Now you’re probably thinking of Homeland or a similar US boxset drama where portly general-types sit round an over-polished table in semi-darkness and watch modern warfare play out on a fuzzy black-and-white screen. As often happens, a key target is fixed in the sights and chillingly turned to dust.)

“I looked at my point of focus for about four seconds,” he continues, “chipped the ball into my hands and placed it so I’d strike the valve – that helps me get it up and down. Then I flicked my hair behind my ears. The game was frantic at that stage and I have to relax myself to take a good corner and that’s the way I do it. It always annoyed [John] McGinn. ‘You and your hair,’ he’d say.

“Myself I love reading about dead-ball technique. How did [Andrea] Pirlo do it? That kind of thing. I’m back at Celtic now so I’ve been asking Scott Sinclair from his time at Chelsea how [Didier] Drogba did it. But a good corner needs a good header and Stokesy produced a great header.

“For our winning goal I knew I wasn’t going to hit Stokesy again. Surely Rangers had wised up. So – exactly the same routine although, sorry, I can’t remember what in the crowd I was aiming at – I decided to send the ball two or three yards further back. There’s a stat that 80 per cent of goals from out-swinging corners hit the net at the far post. I managed to get the whip I needed and obviously Dave [David Gray] has shown the desire and the rest is history.”

You have to remind yourself when you meet Henderson that he only turned 20 a few weeks before the final. You have to remind yourself he was a loan player at Hibs, a role others seem to view as downtime or somewhat beneath them. This is a hugely impressive young man, thoughtful and grateful. Grateful for the chance to play football, for the sacrifices, support and mentoring of others, and to Hibs for giving him “absolutely the best year of my life and one day which, if 24 hours was all I was allowed on this earth, I would happily take”.

As you can tell, he speaks well. “It’s weird, this relationship between Hibs and me,” he says. The loanee has returned to his parent club but still hankers after what he had at Easter Road. “It’s like I’ve split up with my girlfriend but am still in love with her.”

Henderson, not getting much game time at Celtic, was desperate to come to Leith previously and disappointed a loan couldn’t be worked out. When the idea was revived, he was “intrigued and excited” about the prospect of working with Alan Stubbs, plus there was a strong Hibee tradition in the family. Three generations including dad Nick, who played for Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies among others, supported the club.

Already knowing Jason Cummings from Scotland Under 21s, he quickly hit it off with the rest of the team. “It was some dressing-room,” he says. “It was a place full of laughs and full of jokes and I went into training every day with a smile on my face. Myself, Jason and John [McGinn] had a joke about how in years to come when the three of us were fighting it out for the Ballon d’Or people would say: ‘And to think these guys all played for Hibs at the same time!’

“I loved being around Paul [Hanlon], Stevo [Lewis Stevenson] and Daz [Darren McGregor] who’re such big Hibs supporters and who wanted this cup so much. And I was also fortunate to have Thommo [Kevin Thomson] as my mentor. The oldest roomed with the youngest and we got on great.”

Henderson was an instant hit with the fans who loved his passion and what seemed like unalloyed joy at simply being selected for the team. “I’ve had a bit of stick about the way I celebrate goals. Scoring for Celtic against Partick when I was 17 I went off my head. I don’t know what it is, maybe the feeling that my next goal might be my last. I’m very fortunate being able to play football for a living and at Hibs I wanted to show it means something to be out there on the pitch. Fans want their team to win and I’m the same. I’ve hated losing since I was five. Back then I used to cry.”

Henderson didn’t start in the fourth round at Raith Rovers but appeared in the second half and, he feels, made a difference. “The next day at our recovery sessions Raith mentioned on Twitter that the last two teams who’d put them out of the cup had gone on to win the trophy so we were all joking: ‘It’s in the bag’.”

One of the wonderful mysteries of the cup run is how Henderson managed to eke out the cross for Cummings to spark the comeback against Hearts. “Jason and I have always kidded on that we’re telepathic and don’t even need to speak on the pitch. We just clicked right away. I put that ball up to him without looking and it was some header he made.”

A key staging-post on the journey, he says, was the away dressing-room at Tynecastle when the team revved up the Proclaimers on the docking-station, albeit that Sunshine of Leith ended abruptly.

“Did Hearts cut the electricity? That’s what someone said.”

After the replay victory Henderson was convinced Hibs would go on and lift the cup, though he never told anyone about his premonition.

He was devastated by defeat in the League Cup final. “Not for myself because I thought I might be lucky enough to get to play in more finals but for the older guys like Dave, Daz and Fonz [Liam Fontaine]. I was crying my eyes out for them. I couldn’t stop thinking that I’d let them down for two whole weeks.”

Back in the Scottish Cup he might ordinarily have been left out of the replay at Inverness, as often happened in “the more physical games”, but injuries to others meant he had to start. “I thought I needed to show the gaffer I could do the dirty side of the game as well. It’s something I lack so I tried to wind up their guys and kicked a few of the bigger ones. But I knew Big Marv [Marvin Bartley] and McGinn would have my back.”

When the penalty was awarded in the semi-final Henderson was convinced Cummings would attempt a Panenka. “But I wasn’t annoyed at him [when he missed] because I knew how many games Jason had won us.”

Defeat in the league play-offs was a shattering blow but Henderson rode it out. “The way I look at life, some things just aren’t meant to happen and for some bizarre reason we weren’t supposed to beat Falkirk although obviously we should have done. I’m quite good at coping when bad stuff happens. There was a plan in place for us and I took it to mean the Scottish Cup. And here’s the thing: I don’t think we’d have won it if we’d managed to get promoted.”

Henderson knew he wasn’t going to start the final when four weeks before he’d been left out of the final league game against Rangers as Stubbs stuck to his preferred back-three to combat the Ibrox side. “I was disappointed but I spoke to my dad who told me to stay positive and be a good team-mate. I think I was that because earlier in the season when I wasn’t picked a couple of times I went in the huff.

“The final was nerve-racking to watch although Stokesy scoring so early was brilliant. I think he’s an incredible footballer. At 1-0 maybe I wasn’t going to get a chance but warming up at half-time when it was all-square I was thinking: ‘I’m going to come on, I’m going to change the game.’ Hopefully that doesn’t sound big-headed but I always think I can influence matches, be it against Rangers, Alloa or Barcelona.”

Influence it he did, and after the first brilliant corner followed by the second diamond-studded delivery, there was still time for another

Hendo cameo, much cherished and revisited. “There was a free-kick right at the end should have been awarded to Rangers, 100 per cent. But something I learned from an under-14s final: when you know there might be a question-mark over a decision, be decisive. That’s why I purposefully grabbed the ball and rolled it along the grass back to big Conrad [Logan]. Some folk don’t reckon I’m a thinker!”

So what about the last remaining seconds when he seemed to position himself as close as possible to the referee to receive first intimation of full-time with the blast of the whistle before beginning his mad gallop across the park – was that deliberate?

“To be honest, those seconds are a beautiful blur. I was running in the direction of my mum and dad because without them I wouldn’t have had the chance to play in a final. Hibs had won the cup and I was crying. I’m not scared to admit that I was in floods of tears and couldn’t stop. I ran to Taff [coach Andy Holden]. He was wearing his big jacket and he kept me in there for a good few minutes.”

Henderson thinks the post-final party lasted six days although it might have been even longer. “I remember Fonz saying: ‘That’s us meeting up pretty much every year around this time for ever now.’ It’s a bond for life and that’s a great, great thing.

“I think about the final a lot. It’s brilliant to watch back if you’re sad about something and even better if you’re happy. I’ve returned to Celtic because I want to try and make a go of it with them but I love Hibs and want the fans to know that and how much I love them. Would I want to play for them again one day? You bet – a hundred per cent.”