Spartans hero on individual v team success, the power of player data and 'mad' promotion rules
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The 28-year-old striker scored the goal that clinched the Lowland League title for Spartans on Saturday and justified his decision two years ago to step down from the SPFL into the fifth tier of Scottish football. Now, he is determined to get back up there and believes the north Edinburgh club have what it takes to get through pyramid play-offs.
“I’ve been at it for 12 years in professional football and I’ve not won a thing,” says Henderson, who started his career at Dunfermline. He went on to score goals for Berwick Rangers, Stirling Albion, Annan Athletic and Edinburgh City in the SPFL before joining Spartans in the summer of 2021. It was carefully calculated move by the chartered accountant.
“Winning the league shows, on reflection, that it was a good decision,” he says. “Hopefully I can get back into League Two with Spartans and go again. I’ve won a lot of individual awards, but nothing as a team. This is the first thing I’ve won as part of a team, so it really means a lot to me. I know there are boys in our squad who may be in their last season, so it is massively important to them as well. But we are only halfway there, which is mad. We still have the play-offs to play.”
Henderson isn’t the only one who thinks it is “mad” that league champions have to get through two more play-off rounds to earn promotion. Having now spent two seasons in the Lowland League and the bulk of his career before that in League Two, the targetman is well placed to judge the merits of the clubs in tiers four and five.
“There is no doubt that there are many teams in the Lowland League, not just us, that are set up for the SPFL,” says Henderson. “It has to be opened up, it really does. This club’s facilities, structure, all the youth teams and community work is amazing. There are a lot of League Two teams who don’t have that in place. I think this club deserves to be up there, but it is going to be difficult.
“Hopefully success in the play-offs comes next, but it can be a lottery. That’s why I think you should go straight up if you win the league. It is so difficult to get through another two play-off rounds. That needs to be looked at, but I know it has been discussed for years and nothing has been done. We will have to do it the hard way.”
Henderson has every reason to be confident given the form and momentum Dougie Samuel’s team have built and established in the second half of the season. Since losing 3-0 away to Stirling University, Spartans have put together an 18-match unbeaten run and have won nine of their last ten matches in the league.
“At the start of the season we had a lot of hard games,” explains Henderson. “We probably played the top six in the first seven or eight games. That made it hard for us to get a good start. But we haven’t really stopped since getting onto a run.
“We lost 3-0 away to Stirling University at the end of November and that was the catalyst for the successful run that followed. We knew that performance wasn’t good enough and that it had to change. Since then we’ve been unbeaten in the league. It just shows how good we can be. I think this group of boys and the strong bond that we have is the real strength of the team.”
Henderson’s goal in the 1-0 title-winning match against Cowdenbeath at Ainslie Park on Saturday was his 18th in the league this season and his 25th overall. “It’s a good tally, of course it is. But I scored 27 league goals last season and this year it is 18, so I was aiming for more,” admits the striker, but he is a pivotal member of a team who have been more potent in front of goal this season than last.
“I may have scored fewer, but the team as a whole have scored more goals in the league this season, which is more important,” he admits. “It is not about me. It is about the team winning the league. I’d much rather have a season like this.”
Henderson is dedicated. In a bid to improve, the accountant from Earlston in the Scottish Borders takes time out each week to analyse the individual player data collated by the club’s GPS vests and cameras and distributed to coaches and players. “I don’t like the running stats,” he jokes. “But the other stats, in terms of passing and winning headers are good to see. The data is all there.”
It’s another example of the professionalism at Spartans and the direction the club is heading. “Everything is counted and analysed,” Henderson explains. “It’s really professional. Some League Two teams don’t do that. Of course, it is not what makes you a good team, but it’s something the club have invested in to make us better.
“I know when I’ve had a good game and when I’ve not, so I don’t need to know everything. But it is good for the coaching staff. It gives them the numbers so we can identify and work on things individually and as a team. They can see which things we need to improve and which things we are doing well.”
All the recent data very much suggest Henderson and Spartans are heading in the right direction.