Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
Scottish football is dominated by central midfielders. Stuart Armstrong has left Celtic for Southampton, John McGinn may be on his way to Parkhead to replace him and at Rangers, one of the most popular central midfielders in all of modern football over the past 10 or 20 years is now in charge.
Yet far beyond our shores is another central midfielder that is making waves of his own without any, real help at all. I’m of course talking about Liam Henderson, the ex-Celtic youngster that has moved to Bari and is quietly rebuilding his career one game at a time.
As we all know, Henderson left Celtic for the Serie B side in late January for a paltry sum. Yet what you might not know is that the lad from Livingston has forced his way into the Italian side and set about keeping his place.
Despite making his debut in a bitter 4-0 defeat to Empoli just 11 days after joining the club, and then only getting on for 10 minutes in the following 3-1 defeat to Venice, Henderson was given a starting spot against Frosinone and helped his side pick up a 1-0 win. Then they went on to beat Cremonese with the Scot at the heart of their midfield, before a goal and assist against Ternana from the 21-year-old kicked off a run that saw Bari lose just two of their remaining 15 league games. Henderson was absent for just two of those matches through suspensions.
As one Italian football website put it, just seven matches were enough to convince a famously stubborn Bari support that Henderson was worth the minimal fee spent in January. Before long the midfielder had made a name for himself as the “white-blooded Braveheart” patrolling the middle of the pitch at the Stadio San Nicola.
Coached by perennial Scottish villain, Fabio Grosso, Bari marched to sixth place and then entered into the Serie B play-offs against Cittadella. The Biancorossi would lose the match after taking it to extra time, but for Henderson, it was already job done. The young Scot had a point to prove when he opted to leave our shores and over the course of just six months he had done exactly that: he was indispensable to this Bari side.
And when we compare Henderson’s stats to last season’s we can see that he is developing well in the Italian second tier. The midfielder averaged 0.11 goals per 90 for Bari this season, which is identical to his tally last season. And his assists per 90 were 0.13, which was up from 0.09 last season at Celtic. Yet to appreciate his role at Bari we perhaps have to consider his all-around game, rather than just what he offers going forward.
With more attack-minded players such as Aniello Salzano or Franco Brienza in the squad, Henderson’s role has slightly shifted to that of a holding midfielder that can maintain and keep possession ticking along. Over the past six months, Henderson was second in Bari’s midfield for the number of back passes per game, third for the number of passes to his left or right and was second last for high-risk long balls or indeed passes moving forward.
That may come as a surprise to fans that watched Henderson score six goals and notch up 16 assists for Hibs just two seasons ago in the Scottish Championship, but it undoubtedly showcased a degree of maturity from the midfielder. He may still wish to be the swashbuckling no.10 he once was at Easter Road but in Serie B he’s learned to adapt and, ultimately, improve as a more flexible and useful player.
And it has worked. Not only did Henderson finish the season as one of the first names on Grosso’s team sheet each and every week, but this summer off-season has seen the former Hibs and Celtic midfielder linked with a number of bigger clubs in Serie A. According to Sportitalia, Fiorentina were exceptionally interested in the midfielder, while Corriere del Mezzogiorno similarly reported that Parma were willing to test Bari’s resolve for the midfielder. Bologna and Atalanta were also mentioned, before Hearts, of all clubs, were linked with the former Easter Road favourite.
Of course, speculation is nothing more than exactly that – speculation – but as the old cliche goes, players are often flattered to see their names on the back pages, being linked with bigger clubs. Even if it’s all just hearsay or wafer-thin rumours, it’s still an acknowledgement that Henderson has just enjoyed a superb end to the season in Italy. And that hasn’t happened for a Scot in quite some time.
As things stand, Henderson remains a Bari midfielder. And although Grosso has since moved on to Verona, his eventual successor will surely rebuild this side and take another stab at promotion next season with the 22-year-old set to play a pivotal role. While we all squabble over McGinn this and Armstrong that, let’s just remember that on the Southern, Italian coast, looking over the Adriatic Sea is a young Scot quietly but confidently getting stuff done.