STEPHEN HENDERSON rolls up to Portsmouth’s training ground and is greeted by a Sky Sports camera crew. Not a bad way to start a day for a 23-year-old goalkeeper who was a relative unknown this time last year.
But the TV lads aren’t looking for an exclusive interview with him, or any of his teammates. They’re here to chart the further demise of a 114-year-old footballing institution.
It seems like every time the Sky team are outside it’s to report on the departure of yet another Pompey player – the latest in a long line of talented footballers being offloaded in a desperate attempt to save Portsmouth from financial oblivion.
“It’s not nice coming in and seeing the cameras outside every day,” says Henderson, who played his schoolboy football with Belvedere FC before joining Aston Villa as an apprentice at the age of 17.
“You always wonder why they’re here and if they know something we don’t. I could go in any morning and be told I’m gone, but if that’s what’ll save the club then you’ve got to do it.”
Henderson should be in jubilant mood these days. He’s finally made a name for himself as a ’keeper to be reckoned with and his form was rewarded with a first call-up to the Irish senior squad last month.
Ask him how things are going, however, and he won’t initially paint a rosy picture. Portsmouth are propping up the Championship table and financial woes have the club teetering on the brink of extinction.
Since joining the Hampshire outfit from Bristol City last summer, Henderson has taken the club to heart. The club is quite fond of him too. He was signed as a deputy to Jamie Ashdown but is now their first choice between the posts.
Manager Michael Appleton gave Henderson his opportunity to impress against Leeds United last October and, 28 games later, Ashdown is still sitting on the bench.
Despite Portsmouth’s lowly position at the foot of the table (they should be in 20th instead of 24th but were docked 10 points for entering administration), only eight clubs in the Championship have conceded fewer goals this season.
Henderson has played more games this season than in any other previously in his young career. Portsmouth have given him his big breakthrough and it’s something he won’t forget. However, financial difficulties at Fratton Park have made 2011-12 a memorable season for the wrong reasons.
In November, authorities in Lithuania issued an arrest warrant for Portsmouth FC owner Vladimir Antonov following allegations of asset-stripping at Lithuanian bank Snoras, which is 68% owned by Antonov. He later resigned as chairman and the club has been under the control of an administrator since last month.
“Things aren’t good at all,” Henderson says. “We haven’t been winning games and our best players are being shown the door by the administrator. The squad is deteriorating. The situation is more serious than people think. There’s a massive possibility the club could be liquidated.”
It’s the second time in two years the club has been in administration, having accumulated debts of £135million under previous owners by February 2010. When Henderson sat down for negotiations with Portsmouth last summer, he was convinced by their assurances that financial problems were a thing of the past.
“It was one of the first questions I asked,” he recalls. “I was told that the same mistakes wouldn’t be made again. The Football League had done all the examinations on the owners but obviously they were caught out. We never saw it coming.
“It’s the people above who got us into this mess, the cowboys who had the club previously. When I signed, the new Russian owners had come in and the structure was there for a five-year plan, but it all went belly-up.”
The players were left without their wages in January and payments since have been sporadic and modest.
“We got paid a little bit last week but we didn’t get our January wages so I’ve had to dip into my life savings, but I suppose a time like this is what it’s there for. But it’s definitely hard in any walk of life if you’re not getting paid.”
The severity of the club’s situation really began to sink in when star striker Erik Huseklepp was sent out on loan to Birmingham at the end of February in order to lighten the wage bill. Club captain, Irish international Liam Lawrence, was offloaded to Cardiff City a week later.
Henderson says: “It first started hitting home when Erik went to Birmingham – he was our top striker – but it hit massively when Liam [Lawrence] left. He was our captain and one of our better players, so at that stage we were wondering who was going to be next.”
Henderson is now one of Portsmouth’s prized assets and could be packing his bags soon, albeit reluctantly. There’s been plenty of interest, from West Ham and Ipswich Town in particular. He’s eager to stay on the south coast but it won’t be his decision to make.
“Of course it’s flattering to have other clubs interested in you, especially considering I was probably a nobody two years ago. Yeah, there’s this supposed interest from West Ham and the likes, but it’s up to the club. If they have to sell me then so be it. If not, I’ll be here to try to keep them up without a doubt.”
Two weeks ago – a day before Ireland played the Czech Republic in a friendly – Henderson was cooking dinner at home when his phone rang. His agent’s name flashed up. Upon answering the call Henderson discovered that Keiren Westwood had withdrawn from the squad because of injury and Giovanni Trapattoni wanted the Portsmouth keeper to step in.
Henderson thought it was a wind-up until goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly was in touch to confirm the good news.
“It was a very emotional day for me. I was just over the moon,” says Henderson, who comes from a family of goalkeepers with a rich history in Irish football.
Paddy, his grandfather, was part of a successful Shamrock Rovers side in the 1960s. His father, also Stephen, played for the likes of Shelbourne and Dundalk before going on to manage Cobh Ramblers and Waterford United.
His uncle Dave was a League of Ireland winner with St Patrick’s Athletic in 1990, while uncle Wayne won six Irish senior caps between 2006 and ’07. There’s goalkeeping pedigree in the Henderson clan.
“It’s something you dream of, especially to train with the likes of Shay Given. Having grown up watching him, he was a massive influence on my career. To go from sitting down on my couch to training with Shay Given and Robbie Keane the next day was out of this world.
“It’s funny, because the day I went over everything seemed to be happening. They were doing their photo shoot and the song for the Euros and I was part of it all. It was a bit embarrassing really because I hadn’t been involved before. But being around that sort of environment really makes you want it more.”
Henderson, capped eight times at U-21 level, didn’t see any action against the Czechs but his first appearance at senior level is imminent. The authentic enthusiasm with which he discusses the prospect of representing his country is refreshing in the modern game, as an increasing number of players treat international football with apathy and disdain.
“Words can’t explain what it would mean to me if I got called up to the squad for the Euros. It’s probably a long shot but if I can keep doing well, it might leave Mr Trapattoni with that question and hopefully give him a difficult decision.”
There’s a certain stipulation attached to being a newcomer in the Irish senior squad, however, which Henderson describes as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.
“Jesus Christ, I had to sing a bloody song. I went for a safe option with ‘Dublin’s Fair City’ so a few of the Dublin lads sang along with me, thank God.
“But Shane Duffy was much worse than me. He nearly fainted on his chair. I just got up and blasted it out to get it over with, but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was terrible.”
Henderson is now on Giovanni Trapattoni’s radar, but his performances at club level will determine whether he’ll still be in the Italian’s thoughts by the time the squad for Euro 2012 is named at the end of May. That’ll simply add to Henderson’s motivation to do everything he can to keep Portsmouth in the Championship.
There’s clearly more to the Pompey goalkeeper’s expression of loyalty to the club than merely lip service. He was a reserve for long enough, but Portsmouth changed that. The club owe Henderson money, yet he talks of repaying them.
“This club will always be in my heart,” he says. “It’s the club I’ve enjoyed playing at most and I have a bit of a connection with the fans too. They’re really what gets the best out of me in a way.
“It’s just great to know you’re playing every week. That’s all I’ve been asking for, just to be given a chance. Portsmouth have done that for me and I owe them a great deal.
“For a long time people would have said I was too young and that I still have plenty of years ahead of me, but I really don’t believe in that. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
Things haven’t been easy for Portsmouth this season, but the biggest challenges are still ahead. They’re eight points adrift of safety in the Championship but have 11 games left to pull themselves out of the drop zone.
Off the field, a cash injection of £800,000 from the Football League in the form of ‘Basic Award’ monies, which is usually withheld from clubs in administration, will allow them to finish the season. But beyond that, liquidation looms.
Henderson: “I just feel that if I stay here and help to keep the club up, it would be better than winning any FA Cup or anything like that. After all the crap we’ve had to take it would be a massive achievement if we did it. I just hope I can stay here now to turn things around.”