As first-team baptisms go, Euan Henderson can’t say he’s had it easy.
The highly-regarded attacker made his Hearts debut in front of 60,000 people as a 16-year-old when he came on for the last 12 minutes away to a Celtic side 2-0 up and basking in the glory of completing an entire league campaign unbeaten in May. Almost five months on, and having turned 17 in the intervening period, Henderson was given his second appearance – and his first for a genuinely meaningful period of a match – when he came on at the start of the second half away to Ross County on Saturday.
The match was poised at 1-1 at the time and the teenager was initially charged with filling the boots of the injured Don Cowie – a former Scotland internationalist and a man twice his age – on the right side of Hearts’ attack in a 4-2-3-1 formation. After playing a prominent role in helping the Tynecastle side make a strong start to the second half and reclaim the lead through Jamie Walker, Henderson was handed even more responsibility when asked by Craig Levein to become the lone striker in a 4-4-1 formation following Connor Randall’s 64th minute red card. Hearts, braced for a late County onslaught, needed their centre-forward to give them some respite, hold the ball in, win free-kicks, try to get in behind and generally keep the home defenders occupied whenever possible. Henderson duly obliged and at one point during the second half, the 1400 travelling supporters were singing his name in appreciation.
“It was great,” he told the Evening News while reflecting on the most significant moment of his fledgling career to date. “I’ve got to thank the gaffer for giving me the opportunity. He’s the one that makes the decisions and it’s a big decision to put on someone like myself, who’s only 17. Jamie Brandon came across at half-time and told me I had five minutes to warm up because me and him were going on. Don had already said when I was about to come out and warm up ‘be ready’ and I was like ‘Jesus!’ I had an idea during the week that I might have been involved because during the week I was in the quite heavily involved in training when we were working on shape. I just prepared as best I could and hopefully I did well.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve been on the bench and involved in the match-day squad, which has given me an idea of what’s involved in being in the first team, and I’m enjoying it. I couldn’t have asked for two harder games to go into than Celtic away and Ross County away with ten men. I just tried my best for the team.”
Any nerves Henderson may have harboured upon being told to prepare for second-half involvement in Dingwall were offset by soaring confidence levels after a burst of six goals in his previous three outings for Hearts’ development team. The former Stewart’s Melville pupil’s unstinting belief in his own ability also helped. “When you come on half-way through a game, you’ve got to get up to match speed very quickly,” he said. “It’s hard for someone like myself when I’ve not had much game time at that level, but you’ve just got to try and relax and trust your ability. That’s what I’ve been doing in the 20s and before Saturday’s game I had scored six goals in three games, so my confidence was high.
“Once you get out there and get going, it’s fine. It’s hard being up front on your own when you’ve only got ten men. I had the gaffer and Austin (MacPhee) shouting at me throughout the game, telling me where to go, because I probably wasn’t prepared for playing up front on my own with only ten men. It was a real vote of confidence for me that the gaffer chose to throw me into a tough game like that away from home, but I know he has great belief in my ability. It wasn’t a great surprise when he told me to go on because I know how much he believes in me. It was a great experience and I was happy to help the team get a good win.”
A sensational four-goal haul for the development team in the second half of a 4-2 win against St Johnstone a fortnight ago played a part in bringing Henderson prominently into Levein’s thoughts for the trip to Dingwall. “I feel like I’ve always had a game like that in my locker,” he said of that remarkable under-20 outing in Perth earlier this month. “I’m always practising my finishing in training and the game against St Johnstone was just one of those where everything clicked.”
Henderson, a versatile attacker, gave the Hearts supporters at the Global Energy Stadium a glimpse of the main aspects of his game. After a promising few weeks, the young forward is intent on maintaining personal momentum and establishing himself in the manager’s match-day plans on a regular basis in the coming weeks, with big games against St Johnstone, Hibs and Rangers next on the first-team horizon. “I can play anywhere across the front,” he said. “I started on the right when I came on against Ross County and then I played up front after the red card. I started on the left in the game when I scored four. Anywhere along the front is perfect for me. I’d say that my main assets are that I’m fast and powerful. If I get the ball into feet, I like to turn and run at defenders. I can also run in behind.
“When I needed to hold the ball in against Ross County and get the team up the pitch or draw a foul, I felt I did it well. I want to build on it now. It’s every youngster’s objective to get in and start games so hopefully after Saturday, the gaffer can see what I can bring to the team and I can force my way into the first eleven. It would be nice to be involved in the games coming up. Being a local lad, it would be great to be involved in the derby because it’ll be a great atmosphere.”
Henderson, from Trinity, joined Hearts at under-15 level shortly after Levein became director of football in 2014 and went on to be named the club’s Under-17 Player of the Year last season. In addition to making headway at Hearts, he is also eyeing international recognition. “I’d be looking to get into the Scotland Under-19 squad,” said Henderson. “Hopefully they see my performances and I get a call-up and a chance to show what I can do at international level.”
Levein described Henderson’s performance on Saturday as “clever” because he worked out for himself how best to play a highly-demanding role. The youngster believes his private school upbringing will stand him in good stead as he bids to make his way as a footballer. “Stewart’s Melville was a great school and helped me a lot,” he said. “I played rugby there as well. It gave me a good stable base and helped build me up strongly.”