Last week, Graeme McKay travelled to Italy to interview Liam Henderson exclusively for 90 Minute Cynic. The full interview is available as a podcast on the 90 Minute Channel on your preferred podcast app:
This is an edited version of that interview and in this first part Liam talks about his time in the youth set-up at Celtic, getting his chance in the first team under Neil Lennon, his experiences in Norway when he went on loan to Rosenborg, *that* assist to John Guidetti and his year at Hibs, including *that* corner to find Dave Gray’s bald head. He also talks about the changes he saw when Brendan Rodgers came in at Celtic, what it was like playing with Virgil van Dijk and his other favourite players at Celtic, in addition to why he decided to leave for Italy.
90MC: Liam, we are sitting here at Lake Garda, you are playing for Verona, beautiful city, lots of wine, beautiful sunshine… what made you leave Glasgow?
Liam: I think the opportunity to try something new is why I left probably and also maybe because I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to be and when the opportunity came up to go to Bari with Fabio Grosso, who is a legend of the game in Italy and all over the world, it was great.
90MC: Going back to the beginning when you joined Celtic in 2008. To what extent was Celtic important to your family or was it more a case of thinking rationally about the best possible youth academy for you and Ewan?
Liam: I think it was a case of both. The standard of coaching and stuff at the time at Celtic was the best in the country, with the youth coaches and the youth academy playing in tournaments abroad. I thought it was, along with my family, the best place for my development.
90MC: From 2008 to 2013 what was Celtic’s youth academy like, who were the most important people for you in that time?
Liam: I would first like to mention Willie McNab, he was my coach at my previous club and he went to Celtic and I came a year after, so he was a big influence on my early career. For my youth career someone who was incredible for me and in my opinion one of, if not the best, coaches I have had in my career, was Miodrag Krivokapic (the former Motherwell and Red Star Belgrade defender). He was massive on my career when I was a young player. I can’t put into words how influential he was on my career.
90MC: What was it about Miodrag that inspired you? Was it down to the technical stuff or was it motivational?
Liam: I enjoy playing football and the technical side is maybe one of my strongest points, but Miodrag was technical and the discipline side as well. Growing up in Montenegro it was discipline first and that rubbed off on me, like staying behind and doing extra training, stretching, eating the right food. Even at 15 years old he was telling me ‘you need rest’, ‘you need to eat the right food’, ‘you need to stretch, sit ups, press ups’. He was incredible and what he taught me was phenomenal.
90MC: What was it like growing up in Broxburn, were there lots of chances to play football?
Liam: It was great. Where I grew up there was a big grass area out the back, so me, my brothers, all my pals and that, used to kick a ball, used to be out after school every day. In the summer I mind going out at eight o’clock in the morning til half eleven at night, just playing football constantly.
It helped that I had two younger brothers who are close in age to me, and had my best mate who lived across the road from me who is still my best mate just now. He’s Celtic daft, he’s Celtic home and away. It was great and playing for Broxburn Colts was a great establishment for players to go and play, it had everything.
90MC: How did your dad help you along with your playing career?
Liam: My mum and my dad, I would say, cos the first thing was: ‘you need to stick in at school cos if you don’t stick in at school, you are not playing football’. For me that was a good thing that they were keen on my education cos if you just forget about your education you never know what’s going to happen in football, but my mum and dad kinda drummed it into me that school was really, really important.
They put that working mentality into me from a very young age because they are two very hardworking people. My mum and dad drove me all over the country, also grandparents on occasion. Everything I really do and try to achieve in my football career is for them.
90MC: December 2013 you made your debut off the bench in a 5-0 win over Motherwell. Can you remember what that felt like at the time, do you remember any details from that game?
Liam: We trained in the morning of that game, and for some reason, even though it was only half an hour, I had a really good session, and Garry Parker came to me after and says ‘there’s maybe a wee chance you’ll come on tonight if things are going well’.
Being sent out to warm up it was freezing that night, I think there was sleet, snow, everything, we had all the seasons in the one night, then I just remember the gaffer giving us the call, shouting ‘Hendo, Hendo’ and I ran down the line. I came on for Broony, which was nice, cos when I first went into the team he was one of the first to take me under his wing, like being from the east as well, he took an immediate liking to me. So to come on for him was even better and it was an incredible night. And after that night nobody could take it away from me that I had pulled on the hoops and played for Celtic.
90MC: Your first start was Kilmarnock in a 3-0 win, again is there anything you can remember about that?
Liam: It was amazing. The manager was Neil Lennon, who was incredible for me, genuinely. I don’t have a bad word to say about the gaffer and honestly I am forever in his debt. He came to me the morning of the game and was like: ‘you’re playing tonight, phone your dad and tell him you’re playing so to make sure he’s here’, but my dad was working in London so he couldn’t make it, but he watched it on the TV.
That was a surreal experience, starting for Celtic at 17-year-old beside the likes of Broony, Commons, van Dijk was suspended I think for that game, but Charlie and big Fraser, Izaguirre, they were all top, top professionals and for me it was really easy to settle in with them cos of how good they were as players, and how good they were as people as well.
90MC: What was it about Lennon that drove you on?
Liam: I don’t know what it was, he took a liking to me, which was great. He took me away on pre-season and I just thought this is my opportunity to impress him, Garry Parker and Johann Mjallby. I think he just liked the fact that I always wanted the ball, was never hiding. He was a huge influence and he’s a top manager and a good person as well.
90MC: Do you think Neil Lennon is the obvious choice for the permanent manager position at Celtic?
Liam: I would so, aye, he’s got Celtic in his DNA, do you know what I mean? He’s a top manager, he’s won already league titles with Celtic and I’m sure he’ll continue to give his best until the end of the season and then obviously that’s the choice to make for the board, but I would say aye, Lennon is a top man.
90MC: Do players notice when a club has a structure than includes the likes of a Director of Football and a Head of Recruitment? As someone that has played abroad do you think Celtic would benefit from such a structure?
Liam: In Italy the DoF is an important role, but I dunno…football in the UK is very unique I would say compared to the rest of the Europe. Maybe… it could be tried.
90MC: We play Brexit football, that’s the difference. A few months after your debut Ronny Deila was appointed. How did things change at the club, how did the culture change? How did things change for you?
Liam: Not that much, to be fair, because I was still only 17/18 so for a young boy it doesn’t really change much. You’re just going in again to try to impress everybody if you can. John Collins was great for me, he’s a guy I still keep in touch with. He was really good, obviously a top class midfielder.
90MC: What did John Collins do for you?
Liam: He did a lot for me. After training, talking about finishing, telling me what the top, top players do at the highest level, to try and reach that. He was great for the young players, the likes of KT.
90MC: Before you went to Norway you had a moment that made Celtic fans fall in love with you: that pass to Guidetti against Inter.
Liam: That was mad… that was madness… that was the best atmosphere I’ve sampled, along with the Scottish Cup final, but that was mental. I was only 18, I was still very, very young. And I mind Ronny saying ‘get on and try to make something happen’ and I remember 30 seconds in Matthews has crossed the ball and its came to me at the back post and I’ve had a shot where I should have scored, I should have put it either side, but I put it straight at the goalkeeper and I’m thinking: ‘right, good start’.
Then I have managed to find John with a nice through ball. It was a great night, genuinely. 60000 packed after the game and even though it was 3-3 and they were in the driving seat, to play a European game at Celtic Park… everyone should strive for that.
90MC: The roof came off when that goal went it.
Liam: Ooft frightening, frightening. Ledge. Great night.
90MC: You had two loan spells during Deila’s reign. Do you think you were getting enough chance to progress at the club or do you think the loan spells more likely allowed you to progress your career?
Liam: The first one was Rosenborg and I was 18, so I spoke to the people close to me like I always do. It was only 3 months and I thought ‘why not?’ It’s something different, different culture, different way of football, different lifestyle and it was great. For me going away as an 18 year old, first time away from home, I would recommend it to any young player if they get the opportunity to go abroad.
Rosenborg was a top club. The people at Rosenborg are incredible, the hospitality when I first arrived, it was a top class club. I have been very fortunate in my career that the clubs I have been at have been top class, but Rosenborg were up there with professionalism. The way they looked after my family when they came to visit was second to none.
90MC: What did you make of Norwegian football in general? How did it compare to Scotland?
Liam: Norwegian football was similar to the Scottish league, it was a mix between Scottish and Dutch. It had the high intensity, the battling, the physical side of the Scottish game, but they also liked to play. The Norwegian’s mentality was hard work. I mean the training was solid. Days after games the boys that played wanted to train.
For me growing up, even in reserves, the day after games was recovery, to look after your body, which is sensible, but obviously these boys were wanting to train. For me it was an eye opener and a few of these boys have gone on to play for AZ Alkmar, St Etienne and in the Russian League. It was a great experience and a great learning curve for me.
90MC: As dominant clubs in their leagues, how does the infrastructure of Rosenborg and Celtic compare?
Liam: I would say they are very, very similar. They are both extremely well-run clubs, but obviously Celtic’s scale with fan base, stadium, etc. is huge. They are both attacking clubs, Rosenborg are 4:3:3 attacking and like to entertain, so very similar, but Celtic are one of the top ten biggest clubs in world football.
90MC: Were you disappointed not to finish the season at Rosenborg?
Liam: Not really, because I had in my mind that I was going there to learn for three months and then coming back and I was young and did miss home. There were times where I was… not crying… but looking forward to getting home cos it was a hard place to get to. I had visitors, but not as often as I would have liked. But the three months were great, I came back in and I was buzzing to get back in.
90MC: What happened in the pre-season between your loan moves?
Liam: I came back in for pre-season and I was thinking ‘right, I’m 19 years old now’. Celtic is a huge club and it’s not easy for young players to come through, even though in my opinion there’s a lot of quality in the academy, but it’s just getting the opportunities that’s the difficult part. You’re coming from the academy and you’re competing against internationals, it’s difficult. But I thought ‘I’m 19 and I need a full season of man’s football’ and If I was going to get it at Celtic, great, but if I had to go elsewhere and get that, just to then become a professional…
90MC: I think you played 48 games in that season (for Hibs) – what did that change for you?
Liam: It was great because the Championship is not an easy league, going away to places like Dumbarton and Alloa was difficult. In my opinion, the Scottish leagues don’t get enough credit for the standard it is. It was man’s football and it was playing at Hibs, I’ve got a lot of family that are Hibs fans, so it was great.
90MC: How did Alan Stubbs compare with Deila or Lennon when it came to coaching you or managing you?
Liam: He was very similar. I have been very fortunate in that I have had quite a lot of ex-players as my managers. They give you points and tips where they think you can improve and stuff like that, but the main thing is they let you go and express yourself, and whatever you see, do. At Hibs I was playing number 10. They were an SPFL side, we had the players for the SPFL, a really, really good side. I loved Hibs. I love Hibs as a club. Along with Celtic, I love them both. But 48 games, as you say, man’s football is what I needed.
90MC: Another massive reason why Celtic fans love you is the 70th minute in the cup final (in 2016). What were you thinking as you were standing on the side-lines waiting to come on?
Liam: Before the game I thought I was going to be on the bench because we had played Rangers in the league maybe two or three weeks before the actual cup final and we played a 3:5:2 and we won the game. We had gone a bit more defensive and it had worked. So I thought ‘I might be on the bench for the cup final’, but I just had to be ready. I was ready to come on.
As soon as Andy Halliday scored to make it 2-1, Stubbs straight away ‘Liam, get warmed up’. So I was like: right, I need to come on and make an impact here. One of the good things with Stubbs was he always told me: ‘work on your freekicks, work on your corners, because if you can get that in your locker, then it’s a serious weapon, managers will be like ‘look he can deliver a great ball, let’s play him’’ along with what else I can do. I was ready. What a day that was. What a week. What a week.
90MC: The first corner comes in and I think it’s Stokes..
Liam: Stokesy, aye.
90MC: And then you’re stepping up again, in injury time when you are standing ready to take that corner are you thinking ‘I’m going to put this on Gray’s head’ or are you just thinking ‘I’m going to get this into a danger zone’?
Liam: The day before a game we would do set-plays and the gaffer would be like ‘Hendo, you go whip them in,’ so I must have taken 350 corners or more in training that season, because it was always ‘Liam, you go and hit them in.’ I knew I was well-prepared and I knew we had players that wanted to attack the ball and if I got it into a good area then somebody at least would manage to get their head on it. Dave got his baldy napper on to it and it was a great header.
90MC: Did you assault Lee Wallace afterwards?
Liam: Nooo, no, none of that, none of that. Andy Holden, Taf, the assistant at Hibs, he’s a big guy, he gave me a big bear hug. I was crying my eyes out, crying my eyes out.
90MC: The fans came on and you went down the tunnel. What was the talk in the dressing room at this point?
Liam: We were like ‘come on, let’s get back out’ we were desperate to get back out and lift the trophy and that. When we eventually got back out the lifting the trophy and singing ‘Sunshine on Leith’ with the Hibs fans was frightening. It was honestly frightening. I have goosebumps even just now talking about it.
90MC: What happened in the week following the final?
Liam: The Saturday night we were out to all hours of the morning in Edinburgh, it was quality and then on Sunday we had the parade with like a quarter of a million folk in Edinburgh, lining the streets. It was tremendous and having all my family there, my grandparents, my brothers, my mum, my dad, it was amazing, just something they will remember forever along with me.
90MC: After the loan spell you spent a season and a half under Rodgers. Did you see the club changing in any way at that point? What was the infrastructure like, what was the background like at that point?
Liam: He changed quite a lot, he took it to another level. He is top, top quality manager and you can see that in the improvement of everybody and all the players will say the same that they improved under Brendan. Top, top coach.
90MC: Do you think you were given enough opportunities by him?
Liam: I was given opportunities, aye. And every time I pulled on the Celtic top I felt I did myself justice and made my family and that proud. I always gave 100 per cent and didn’t pull out of any tackles. Sometimes it’s like this at big clubs, you need to go away to try to get back to that level, back to a club that’s in the Champions League. I got opportunities and I’m very, very grateful cos not many people can say that they have actually played for Celtic and I played maybe 38, 40 games and I’m grateful for every time I managed to pull on the hoops.
90MC: When you consider a player like Ryan Christie getting his chance because of injuries, how much do you think luck plays a part in being able to break through?
Liam: If you look at Ryan, it’s not easy to be out for so long and then come on against Hearts. You need to be ready and he’s working his balls off every day in training. I know Ryan and I know all the boys and that’s the mentality at Celtic, if you’re not playing, everybody is at it 100 per cent, training matches sometimes feel more important than league matches cos you have 25 winners. Ryan is a great example cos he wasn’t playing, came on against Hearts and you could see how much hard work he had been putting in off the pitch and in the gym. Credit to Ryan, he’s been tremendous.
90MC: What was it like playing alongside Virgil van Dijk?
Liam: Ledge. Ledge. What a guy, first and foremost, what a guy. When he signed for Celtic it was my first pre-season away and all the young boys all sat at the same table with the new signings cos they never really knew anybody. Virgil was amazing for me. Top class.
90MC: I was showing my girlfriend THAT goal against St Johnstone…
Liam: Aye and he’s doing the exact same in the EPL and in the Champions League… How easy does it look? Even the boys here talk about van Dijk. And he was doing that in Scotland, playing with a cigar in his mouth, and he is also doing it in one of the top leagues in the world.
90MC: Apart from Virgil van Dijk, who were the best Celtic players you played alongside?
Liam: Ledley. Ledley was a joke. In training he never, ever gave the ball away. Broony and Charlie were on it every single day. But for me Ledley was class. Matthews was a joke as well. Jamesie is the best guy, most down to earth guy. What a player.
90MC: What a last couple of seasons he has been having as well…
Liam: Tremendous. For me he has always been at that level, he’s just now managed to find… he has had a lot of injuries… for me he has always been at that level. Now he is getting a good run of games.
90MC: My favourite player at the moment is Rogic…
Liam: Oh Tom, sorry I need to give a mention to Tom. Tom is a genius. If you are in a situation and you don’t know what to do with the ball or you’re struggling, just give it to Tom cos you know he’s going to keep it. I’m close with Tom and I was really close with Jamesie, KT, Mika, Broony. All top players. But Tom’s a genius. Touch like velvet.
90MC: How did Lennon, Deila and Rodgers compare. Was there something one did better than the others?
Liam: When you are manager of Celtic first and foremost you need to win, but the three of them were great. Good people as well. They all played a part in my career.
90MC: After being there for so long, how hard was it for you to leave Celtic?
Liam: The option of Italy came up and I was like ‘right, I’m going for this, it might not come again’, do you know what I mean? I can always come back home. Not being big-headed, I’m not saying come back to Celtic, I’m just saying back home in general to whoever it may be. But I had to give this a chance. My dad growing up said that the Italian leagues were where all the top players played so he was like ‘come on Liam, let’s do it’.
The second part of the interview with Liam Henderson will cover his time in Italy, including playing under Fabio Grosso, the difference in playing style and living within a new culture. He also talks about his relationship with his two brothers, what it would be like to play together with wee brother Ewan and his Scotland ambitions. Oh, and the Irn Bru sugar reduction.