Ian Henderson had reached a crossroads in his life when the invitation came to train with Rochdale five years ago. He had just been released by Colchester United and the realities of life as a professional footballer were not turning out to be what he had envisaged when he was coming through the youth system at Norwich City. Being offered bags of cash by persons unknown to leave the Turkish club Ankaragucu in 2009 had seen to that.
Clubless and careerless, or so he thought, the striker considered turning his back on football to become an orthodontist. Today, as captain of Rochdale in the FA Cup fifth round, it is only the lilywhites of Tottenham Hotspur that concern him. Today he will feel indebted to the manager, Keith Hill, for providing the right direction.
Spotland Stadium, or the Crown Oil Arena to give its sponsored name, was where one Harry Kane made his professional debut as a Leyton Orient loanee in January 2011. It is also where Henderson has enjoyed the most rewarding period of a career that may not have reached the levels of the Spurs and England striker but, at least in terms of the tales to tell, is none the poorer for it.
The 33-year-old will have spent seven years at Rochdale when his latest contract expires in 2020 and, having travelled from Norwich to Rotherham United, Northampton Town, Luton Town, Ankaragucu and Colchester to get here, the stability and today’s spotlight are not taken for granted.
“I was 27, 28 when I left Colchester and I was umming and ahhing about whether to continue playing football or go to university to study dentistry,” Henderson reflects, prompting the inevitable follow-up. Why dentistry? “Because I had braces when I was a kid,” he explains, reasonably enough. “I wanted to be an orthodontist. I didn’t have the most aesthetically pleasing teeth and had braces and I was really intrigued by it. I looked into studying it but never pursued it in the end and stuck with football.
“I was at a crossroads. The security of lower-league football is nowhere near like it is in the Premier League where they sign a five-year contract and are made for the rest of their lives. The boys here are running around for smaller deals, a year perhaps, and they’ve got mortgages, families, all the expenses that we have, and to have the insecurity of thinking that one minute you could be living in London, the next in Manchester; there is no stability in that. A football career is relatively short even at its longest and I wanted something beyond that. But it’s worked out pretty well, although there’s more money in dentistry!”
Henderson admits it was only on the “off-chance” that he persevered with a career that began with Norwich, where he made 79 appearances including three in the Premier League. The off-chance was the intervention and lasting influence of Hill, who has been at pains this week to explain that the newly relaid pitch at Spotland is not for the benefit of Premier League visitors but to protect his own club’s future. Rochdale are bottom of League One, although they have played five fewer games than Northampton in 20th due to several postponements. A new pitch is necessary for a team that has won only five league games all season but four in the FA Cup to reach the fifth round for the third time in their history.
“I’d played against the manager’s teams before and always done well,” says the striker. “I relocated to the north-west but didn’t intend to sign for a club when Michael Rose, my ex-team-mate from Colchester, who had signed at Rochdale, said Keith would like you to come in and train.
“I thought I’d just see where it took me. I wish I’d met the manager earlier in my career because you try to work with people who understand you as a person and let you perform how you want to perform. I’m very grateful to the manager for all the opportunities he has given me, for making me captain, for my career, which has only excelled since I came to the football club. This is the most I’ve ever enjoyed football and I’ve helped the club to have probably the most successful period in their history. To continue leading the team at 33 is amazing.”
The dentistry dream is over for Henderson, who set up a network marketing business when he joined Rochdale and devotes his non-footballing time to that. He also worked as an unqualified lawyer when his two-year contract in Turkey did not prove as watertight as expected.
The forward explains: “No one in this country wanted me for whatever reason so I searched further afield and went over to Ankaragucu. I signed a two-year contract and was back in this country six months later. They do business a little bit differently over there. I didn’t get paid. I was basically acting as a lawyer for myself, having to go to the notary every morning to fill in the events of the day before, while liaising with a lawyer in England and Turkey.
“It was difficult but it taught me an unbelievable lesson. Nothing is ever certain in this life. One day the manager called me in and said ‘You’ve got to go.’ I wasn’t going anywhere. They tried all sorts of tactics. One was like something out of a movie. Some people pulled up in a car with bags of money and tried to give it me. The lawyer was saying, ‘Don’t take it, it could be counterfeit.’ I just went back to my hotel room and I remember looking in the mirror and asking myself: ‘What is happening here?’”
Before confronting Spurs, as before every game he plays, Henderson will spare a thought for his older brother Tommy, who also played for Norwich’s youth teams but died in a car accident shortly before Christmas 2000. “If you lose someone you love there is always a place in your heart and your mind for them,” the Rochdale captain says.
“I always have a thought for my brother and my grandad before a game. He is one of the reasons I have stayed in the game so long but fundamentally it boils down to me as an individual and my love and passion for the game. You don’t play over 500 games and score over 100 goals in professional football as a fluke regardless of what level it is. I use the sad losses in my life as a catalyst to help me keep on going and give me motivation to be the best version of myself.”