Speaking to former colleagues and coaches of Dean Henderson, one word comes up over and over again: confidence. Throughout his loan spells, from Stockport County to Sheffield United, he never doubted he was destined to play at the highest level.
“He fitted in really well. He came across as a confident goalkeeper without being arrogant. He fully believed in his own ability,” remembers John Marsden, who was a forward at Stockport at the time. “From very early on, he was always saying he would one day be Manchester United’s first-choice goalkeeper.”
Telling a dressing room full of established players he would follow in the footsteps of legends like Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar was a bold strategy. Henderson’s irrepressible ambition risked alienating his new team-mates, but they admired him for it.
“It showed the desire he had to progress and achieve his dream,” adds Marsden. “We liked the attitude on him. He didn’t come across as cocky with it. He just had whole-hearted belief in himself.”
Five years on and Henderson’s prophecy has come true. After waiting on the bench behind David de Gea, a Spanish international boasting more than 300 Premier League appearances, he recently replaced him as United’s number one and will be heading to the European Championship with England this summer.
It’s a far cry from his early days at Edgeley Park. Expected to challenge for promotion, poor form culminated in Neil Young, the manager who had signed Henderson, resigning later that day. The returning Jim Gannon put him straight in the team.
“Coming to us when he did was perfect for him because he had to learn, and it was all about pressure,” says Marsden. “We were challenging to make the play-offs and he had to adapt to that. It’s a different ball game to playing for Manchester United’s Under-18s or Under-23s. He improved his game and his mentality along the way.”
Henderson embraced the physicality of non-league. He never shirked a challenge and enjoyed having a battle of wills with a striker, even in training.
“He was infuriating at times,” says Marsden. “You’d always think you had more time, then you’d turn and he’d be out at you straightaway. You’d strike one – a pearler that looked like it was on its way in – and he’d somehow get his hand to it.”
Although Stockport fell short of the play-offs, Henderson showcased his distribution skills when claiming an assist for Marsden’s second goal in a 3-0 win over Alfreton Town.
“Dean put one over the top and I ran onto it and stuck it in,” he recalls. “He always fancied himself as a bit of a player anyway. That’s the modern-day goalkeeper, isn’t it? He believed he was good with his feet and good with his hands, and he’s gone on to prove that.”
Grimsby Town was the next step later that year. Eager for games, it was Henderson’s agent who offered his services to the club. Bold and assertive, he wasn’t prepared to just wait and hope, as they soon discovered.
Originally signed as back-up to James McKeown, he was determined to steal his spot. It took a few months of pestering Paul Hurst and then his replacement, Marcus Bignot, but Henderson’s chance finally arrived.
“It’s always a difficult decision to bring in a young keeper who is untested at that level, to replace a very senior, well-respected figure at the club,” explains Bignot. “But the way he trained, the way he applied himself and, above all, his ability, meant he deserved the opportunity.”
After telling everyone how good he was, Henderson had to deliver. He kept a clean sheet on his Football League debut, as Grimsby beat Accrington Stanley on Boxing Day, and conceded just once in his first four games. He was the complete package.
“He could cover across the goal line quickly,” says Bignot. “He could cover top angles very well. His agility, his plyometrics, his ability on the ball. He’d probably tell you he was one of the best outfield players as well! He had the organisation, he had the communication skills, he commanded his box.
“He backed up everything he said. He’s very much an extrovert. As well as his performances, his character and personality really stood out. He just went in and took the reins straightaway. He kicked us on to another level.”
However, an injury to one of United’s back-up keepers, Joel Pereira, cut Henderson’s spell at Grimsby short. The Mariners had taken 13 points from his seven appearances and their form suffered in his absence.
“He wasn’t happy because he wanted to play. A lot of young players just fall in line with what their club want from them, but he knew exactly what he wanted for his development and he wasn’t going to settle for anything less,” says Bignot.
“He was an absolute pleasure to work with. I loved his personality. He had a lot of leadership qualities. He was able to listen, take on information and learn. He’s not frightened of telling people what he thinks of himself, but he backs it up.
“It was just about managing his expectations, because he wanted everything yesterday. There’s nothing wrong with that. As a manager, I quite like it. He’s high maintenance. When he wasn’t playing for me, every day he was telling me he should be.”
In July 2017, Henderson’s hunger for games took him to Shrewsbury Town in League One. Club captain Mat Sadler instantly recognised he was something special.
“Dean stood out straightaway, probably more so than any of the loan players I’ve come across. I’ve never quite seen a person have such confidence in their own ability, which was a fantastic trait. I was blown away,” says the experienced defender. “He’s got an aura about him, which people gravitate towards.”
Henderson made 48 appearances in all competitions, conceding just 39 goals as Shrewsbury reached the play-off and EFL Trophy finals, narrowly losing both at Wembley. He was also named in the PFA League One Team of the Year.
“He had a fantastic passing range. He commanded his area very well. He was on the front foot coming for crosses. If he missed any, as all goalkeepers inevitably will, it didn’t seem to dampen his confidence,” says Sadler.
“If there was a long, high ball coming into the penalty area, he’d take off. He’s not one of those who’ll stand and wait on his goal line, he wants to get involved. He’s proactive and wants to help the defence out.”
When Manchester United were negotiating with Henderson about a long-term contract, Sadler remembers him seeking certain assurances before committing because he wasn’t content with a supporting role at Old Trafford.
“He was quite steadfast in his desire to only sign if it meant he could go out on loan and continue his development. Ultimately, he was desperate to become United’s number one,” he recalls.
“In this world of the under-23s and a pampered stage in some academies, Dean was certainly not that. He knew that to make his mark on the world, he needed to prove himself, which takes a real strength of mind.”
Henderson’s progress continued in the Championship with Sheffield United. Impressed by what he’d seen and heard of his previous loan spells, goalkeeping coach Darren Ward had no hesitation in recommending him to Chris Wilder.
“He sticks his chest out and looks like he’s walking around with a couple of tyres under his armpits,” says Ward.
“He bowled into that dressing room as though he’d been there all his career. He settled in really quickly. When you produce the goods out on the grass, you get instant respect. He hit the ground running and backed up his antics with outstanding displays.”
One in particular, at home to Norwich City, stands out, setting the tone for a remarkable season. “There was a breakaway and Dean was the one versus their three. He made an incredible spread and block. Then, within moments, we were down the other end to wrap the game up.”
Again, Henderson quickly became a fans’ favourite because of his passion, commitment and quality. He eagerly celebrated with supporters after big goals, while consistently keeping them out at the other end.
He was ever present in the league, registering 21 clean sheets, the most in the Championship, as the Blades clinched automatic promotion.
“He drives training – he certainly did with our group of goalkeepers,” says Ward. “The interactions and the banter he has, the competitiveness of shooting drills and digging centre-forwards out. He has that edge. It’s absolutely brilliant. People thrived off it.”
After reaching the Premier League, Ward and Wilder were desperate to bring Henderson back to the club. They eventually got their man and he started well, before making a high-profile mistake, fumbling Georginio Wijnaldum’s shot through his legs to give Liverpool all three points.
Wilder pulled no punches, saying Henderson needed to improve if he wanted to play for Manchester United and England. His words took many by surprise, but reflected their close relationship. The manager knew what buttons to press.
“He’s always been that way – open, direct and forthright with the players,” adds Ward. “You’re looking for Dean to learn and take things on board. To react properly and professionally. Time and time again he did. These are the moments that define people’s careers. It spurred Dean on.”
Henderson stood tall under scrutiny, keeping Watford and Arsenal at bay in his next two games with some fine saves. Last season, he was widely recognised as one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers and a huge factor in Sheffield United’s mid-table finish.
Working closely with him over two years, Ward noticed some significant changes. “Physically, he developed. His power, his strength, his flexibility, his agility, his speed. He was right up there with all the testing. He’s a fantastic specimen.
“He kept a quieter goal. Not as erratic. He became more focused in terms of what was important to him tactically. Where he stood in the goal. That gave him the opportunity to make more of the saves that he’s become renowned for.”
Henderson has clearly been missed at Bramall Lane. His prolonged apprenticeship complete, he signed a five-year contract at Old Trafford, cementing his status as De Gea’s long-term successor, but he’s been pushing to speed up that process ever since.
“He won’t settle for what he’s done so far. He’ll strive for more,” says Bignot, who was recently sent one of Henderson’s shirts as thanks for his support. “He sets goals far beyond what people can envisage.
“I’m sure that he’s striving to be one of the world’s best. That’s the drive he has within him. Nothing will surprise me if he goes on to achieve even bigger things than he’s done already.”