Charlton Athletic’s 4-0 win over non-league Havant & Waterlooville may have lacked FA Cup sparkle, but it was still a very special moment for Stephen Henderson.
It was the Irish goalkeeper’s first competitive match since featuring in Wycombe’s 2-1 home loss to AFC Wimbledon in December 2018.
Henderson is back in SE7 for a second spell. Older and wiser. One of his key goals is to ensure that the next generation of footballers maximise their potential.
The 33-year-old has regrets about the potential he failed to tap into. And he places the blame firmly at his own door.
“You can only be unlucky so many times with injuries,” Henderson told the South London Press. “I had to look at myself in the mirror. I wasn’t doing things right. I was probably having my cake and eating it. That caught up with me – I paid the price, massively. It’s something I have to live with. But that’s why I want to share my bad experiences with the young pups coming up.
“I’m so desperate for people not to make the same mistakes that I made – both mentally and physically. I try to drill that into goalkeepers now and the younger lads. You can’t be enjoying stuff outside of football and expect to turn it on on a Saturday or Tuesday, it’s just not going to happen.
“Was I as good as I could’ve been physically? Probably not, so therefore you pick up injuries.
“I managed to get in the Forest team and then my Achilles went two games in. I injured my thigh on my debut for Portsmouth. After that was when the penny dropped. I changed everything in my life to stay fit.”
Henderson spent the last two seasons as third choice stopper at Crystal Palace following his release by Forest.
A chance encounter on holiday with former Charlton number one Dean Kiely, the Eagles’ goalkeeping coach, led to the offer of employment by a Premier League club.
“I was really close with Deano and I owe him a lot,” said Henderson. “I knew where I stood and the role I was given – he made that crystal clear before I signed. It was just an honour to work with the calibre of goalkeeper that was there at the time. And I picked up a lot of coaching material from Deano.
“From the playing side at Palace, it wasn’t good. But everything else, working under one of the best managers and men I’ve ever come across, in Roy Hodgson, it was brilliant. Just watching him on a daily basis – he was so respectful. He had his ways and no-one ever crossed him. When he had to dig people out it was never personal, it was always to help.
“Things like my diet and sleeping patterns had to change.
“When I was at Palace I saw the level of professionalism – how high the bar is. It’s really disappointing to think I could have had it all [as a young player].”
Henderson played 54 matches spread across two seasons at Charlton.
His contract was ripped up following the club’s relegation from the Championship in 2016 – on-pitch turmoil being matched by the fans uniting in a series of high-profile protests aimed at forcing Roland Duchatelet to sell up.
Again, the Dubliner makes no attempt to sugarcoat the situation.
“When I signed for Charlton I didn’t really know what was going on, in terms of the Duchatelet era,” said Henderson. “Ben Roberts was the goalie coach and my only real reason for leaving West Ham at the time. I held Ben in high regard and wanted to work with him.
“As time went on I started to realise there was certain stuff happening on top which wasn’t healthy. What probably really reeled me was that I got too emotionally invested with everything but football.
“Looking back now, and it’s a big regret, I probably got sucked into that negativity. There was a massive dark cloud over the club at that time.
“I picked up a couple of injuries which I never really recovered from. I came back a bit too soon and I was probably left in the team longer than I deserved. Unfortunately for me that was the rise of Nick Pope. He got in the side and it was fully merited, because I wasn’t performing.
“Popey kicked on and went to Burnley. I had another year left but it was kind of made clear that I needed to go. That’s when the Nottingham Forest thing came up.”
Henderson and his family, he has two daughters aged four and two, are settled in Bromley. It narrowed the options he was ready to consider last summer after his time at Palace concluded.
His friendship with Johnnie Jackson meant he was able to initially train with Charlton to keep fit. When Ashley Maynard-Brewer was loaned to Ross County, it opened up a slot in the Addicks squad.
Henderson gained a diploma in sports psychology during lockdown and is about to complete his UEFA A license. He has obtained the UEFA goalkeeping A licence.
It’s another reason why playing back at The Valley – albeit against National League South opposition – meant so much.
“It was very emotional for me because I didn’t think I’d be back in the game post-Palace,” said Henderson. “I was thinking about going back to Ireland, because the phone wasn’t ringing.”
Henderson should get another match in the FA Cup in a week’s time – with Charlton heading to Gateshead in round two.
“I know people will look at my last game and think it was against Havant and that not many fans were there – but it was huge,” he said. “My wife and kids were there watching for the first time. It was a big occasion for me.
“I’d had a few offers at home. I had one or two coaching offers as well. I felt I owed it to myself to keep waiting it out, ticking over at the gym and training with Charlton.
“I knew if I went back that was football in England done for me, because I wouldn’t be coming back. And I wasn’t ready for that.
“My wife is from Ireland and my kids are in school here. The question was do we stay here and risk it, or go back and be in our comfort zones?
“I was looking at Ash’s situation and hoping we could hit two birds with one stone. Thankfully, for Ash as well, that slot became available and the criteria matched myself.
“I’ve always kept in touch with Jacko. He is one of my closest friends. I’ve probably come across a thousand players in my career and I probably keep in touch with five – Jacko has been one of them. I knew he was destined to go to the top, so I’ve always tried to keep him sweet!
“I want to stay fit and be ready, when called upon. I’m not banging doors down. Craig [MacGillivray] has done a really good job, particularly since Johnnie came in.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to hold your hands up and say the keeper is deservedly in there.”
PICTURES: PAUL EDWARDS
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