At only 19 years of age Liam Henderson already collected a Scottish Cup winner’s medal, played in the Champions League and only this week learned he’ll be picking up another gong after Rosenborg, where he spent three months on loan this summer, clinched the Norwegian title.
But today he claimed a season playing for Hibs in the Championship could well be the making of him, admitting he’s suffered a bit of a culture shock in leaving Celtic, albeit on a temporary basis, for life in the second tier of Scottish football.
“I think it’s what I need, if I’m being totally honest,” he revealed. “You harden yourself up, it makes you mentally stronger because you are going out having to fight for every ball, having to tackle, track every runner. You are having to do the honest side of it and that, for me, was another reason I wanted to come here.
“It’s going to develop me in the long run and obviously the manager has been very good for me, he’s shown a lot of faith playing me and I just want to repay him for that.”
And, Henderson insisted, that will be the only thought in his head on Sunday when Alan Stubbs’ side go head-to-head with Championship leaders Rangers, the Ibrox club intent on clinching the title and with it the one automatic promotion spot which would restore Old Firm derbiesto the football calendar for the first time in four years.
While Henderson can accept the irony of him, along with his Easter Road team-mates, seeking to prevent that happening by ending the season top of the pile themselves, the midfielder said: “I keep in contact with a couple of the boys at Celtic but I am here for a year at Hibs and I am solely 100 per cent focused on doing it for Hibs.
“I’m going in on Sunday as a Hibs player, not thinking about anything to do with Celtic. I want to do the best I can with Hibs.”
The Capital club, of course, go into this weekend’s match trailing their Glasgow rivals by eight points, a situation which makes it very much a “must win” game as far as many are concerned and while he concurs to a certain extent with that view, Henderson pointed to how, with Hearts running away with the title last season, Hibs and Rangers fought out a see-saw battle before Stubbs’ players finally took second place.
Although in Norway as that fight reached a climax, Henderson said: “I paid attention to what was happening because Dylan [McGeouch] was on loan here and I wanted to see how he was doing, and he did very well.
“You never know what can happen in football, that’s why it’s so exciting, why so many people are interested and why so many fans turn out to watch it. We’re playing catch-up, we’ve given ourselves a hard job as Rangers are a very good side with really good players. But we feel confident and if we keep working hard, doing the right things then we can catch them.
“If we don’t think we can do that then what’s the point of playing the rest of the games? You might as well finish the league now. However, we have a very confident team, a young team who are looking forward to the game, looking forward to learning, developing and becoming better players every day we are here.”
While Rangers’ start to the season has been highly impressive, 11 straight wins, Henderson believes the fact Hibs have racked up a run of ten games without defeat, including a League Cup victory over then Premiership leaders Aberdeen, has been largely ignored, certainly by those who have been predicting Mark Warburton’s side will win the title by February – and some have even spoken of what it will take for the Ibrox outfit to compete with Celtic at the top end of the Premiership next season.
He said: “You could say that’s slightly disrespectful to us but we don’t pay any attention to that sort of stuff. Football is played on the pitch, not in the papers and hopefully we are doing our talking on the pitch.”
While all eyes have been on Sunday’s showdown for weeks, Henderson insisted he and his team-mates have focused solely on each game as it has come, Stubbs’ players having travelled to Falkirk and Raith Rovers, both teams sporting unbeaten home records, in the space of a few days to emerge victorious on each occasion.
He said: “We’ve been on a good run of games, including beating Aberdeen, and that’s to do with the strength in depth we have in our squad. I think our squad is brilliant, we could probably put out two teams capable of holding their own. I’m not comparing us with Premiership or Champions League teams, but when you look at them they are exactly the same, there’s near enough two players for every position.
“It keeps everyone on their toes, everyone is chomping at the bit to play, training that bit harder and for young players like myself that can only make you better. We’re also a tight-knit bunch of boys, we all get on really well, the banter is good and we’re enjoying ourselves.”
Having come from Celtic where the supporters expect every game to be won, Henderson has noted a difference in the Championship, saying: “You have to go into every match thinking you are going to win but it’s tough, a lot tighter and teams make it really hard. We want to play nice football, to get the ball down but sometimes we have to mix it up a bit.
“I thought the boys were magnificent away to Falkirk and then Raith where, I was told, Hibs had struggled a wee bit last season. There’s no easy games and none where there’s a certainty you will win.
“Rangers have good players all over the pitch, James Tavernier has been very good for them and up front Martyn Waghorn is a big, strong boy, very good technically. But they have experience everywhere and they are playing for a massive club.
“But you can feel the buzz about our dressing-room, we’re looking to get out, to play our football and enjoy it. We’ve got matchwinners ourselves, Jason Cummings is on fire at the moment but there’s also Dominique Malonga up front. However, it’s not just the strikers who’ve been getting the goals, they also been coming from midfield and the boys at the back.”