Saying farewell to a Rochdale legend
Friday, 19th Jun 2020 12:28 by AtThePeake
When Ian Henderson came to Rochdale on a free transfer in February of 2013, few could have envisaged just how big an impact he would go on to have at the club.
With Keith Hill looking to mould the squad in his vision following John Coleman's attritional spell in charge, the creative if inconsistent Henderson was brought in on a short-term deal for the remainder of the campaign having had his contract cancelled by Colchester the month before.
Starting his career with boyhood club Norwich, Henderson had looked for some time like nailing down a first-team spot at Carrow Road and ended up with over 60 league appearances over his five years at the club, but spent the majority of his final season on loan at Rotherham United. He was eventually released by the Canaries in the summer of 2007, just as Dale were gearing up for their first ever trip to Wembley Stadium under the management of Hill.
Uninspiring spells with Northampton Town (26 games, 0 goals) and Luton Town (18 games, 1 goal) followed, then Henderson would then spend six months in Turkey with Ankaragücü but make just two appearances and return to England in the January to sign for Colchester United.
He appeared to find a home in Essex and would go on to be one of the star men for the U's over the next three years, racking up an eventual tally of 26 goals in 130 appearances in all competitions and being recognised as one of the better creative players in the third tier, with his versatility and clear technical ability making him one of the most recognisable players in the division for a time. So much so in fact, that to those that followed the lower leagues closely, it came as something of a shock when his contract was cancelled at what was then known as the Weston Homes Community Stadium in January of 2013 having made 22 appearances in that campaign.
A month later, he would be handed a lifeline by Dale with a six month deal running to the end of the season. Any genuine threat of relegation had subsided by this point of the campaign, whilst a late run for the play-offs was nothing but a pipe dream and so boss Keith Hill was able to use these weeks and months to begin to imprint his footballing philosophy on the squad. This was no easy task with a group of players that had largely been at the mercy of Coleman and his assistant manager Jimmy Bell who had favoured an altogether different approach.
Henderson's impact was immediate. In the 12 games he played in the remainder of that campaign, he started all 12 and scored three times, his first goal coming for the club in a thumping 4-1 win over Wycombe as he pounced to side-foot home on the rebound following Andrew Tutte's saved free-kick.
Dale ended the campaign with some fine form and lost only two of those 12 matches, prompting the new recruit to be offered a two year deal that summer - a deal which would surely end up being one of Hill's best decisions as Rochdale manager and indeed he would reportedly go on to say that the signing of Henderson was the best he ever made at Spotland.
Having shown glimpses of his capabilities in those 12 games, Henderson was incredible in the 2013/2014 campaign, operating on the left hand side of a three-pronged attack that was usually completed by the effervescent Scott Hogan through the middle and the reliable Peter Vincenti on the right. Hogan's goals, speed and potential were obvious, whilst Vincenti often did the dirty work for his more talented attacking team-mates - but it was Henderson who got supporters on the edge of their seats most often.
From the opening day, when he raced onto a magnificent Hogan through-ball to finish with aplomb in a 3-0 victory over Hartlepool United, the Dale no.40 was brimming with confidence. Clearly given the freedom to play by Hill, time and again he would beat the full-backs with ease, drift inside to feed off Hogan and perhaps less noticeably but equally important, sprint back with no second thought to help out left-back Michael Rose with his defensive duties.
Henderson and Dale were fantastic in that campaign and looked like promotion candidates from the word go, but it was with his delicate, inspired finish in the last minute of a 1-2 victory at Cheltenham that really showed what Dale's star man was really capable. With the ball pinging around the edge of the box in the final seconds of the game at Whaddon Road the ball fell to the boy from Bury St. Edmunds who produced one of the most stunning finishes you're ever likely to see from a Dale player, the ball hanging in the air, floating over the keeper and bouncing perfectly into the bottom corner. A moment of sublime elegance amid the frantic nature of injury time in a League Two fixture. We had a player on our hands.
He would finish that campaign with 11 league goals, scoring again in the reverse fixture against the Robins that would secure Dale's promotion in late April. The most memorable of these aside from the two goals against Cheltenham was a stunning strike in a 3-0 home win over Plymouth, blasted in from an acute angle in front of the TDS, but winning goals against Morecambe and Torquay were among the most important as he rightly earned his place in the League Two Team of the Year for his influential displays
For all of his league exploits though, it is an FA Cup memory from that season that perhaps will define Henderson's whole Dale career more than any other. With the mighty Leeds finding themselves 1-0 down at Spotland to a first-half Hogan header, Dale continues to look dangerous throughout and set out to finish off their Championship opponents on the break when Graham Cummins raced into space down the right hand side in the 84th minute.
A deep cross from the Irishman was met by Hendo, whose cushioned volley again showed a calmness and elegance hardly befitting of a fourth-tier footballer. The ball seemed suspended in time as it rose, inch-by-inch, over Paddy Kenny before nestling into the net. Cue delirium in the Spotland stands as Hendo ran towards the dugouts sporting a knowing smirk as if to say: "What? This is just what I do..."
Following promotion to League One, the 2014/2015 campaign would be Hendo's most prolific in a Dale shirt. Carrying the full extent of the goalscoring burden following Hogan's summer move to Brentford, he would operate alongside his close friend Matt Done in the first months of the season in a front two that was bursting with energy, pressing every defence in the league into a frenzy and racking up the goals in the process.
Even when Done would leave for Sheffield United in January, it didn't slow Henderson down and he ended the season with an astonishing 22 goals in the league alone second only - to Joe Garner of Preston in the race for the golden boot. He once again played his part in some memorable cup exploits too, keeping the Nottingham Forest defence occupied as Peter Vincenti's penalty handed Dale another memorable FA Cup victory, with the former European Cup winners embarrassed at Spotland just one year after Leeds had been.
Braces against Crawley Town, Yeovil Town and particularly Crewe Alexandra would stand out but despite his best efforts, a drop in form at the end of the season would see the club miss out on the play-off positions by a six point margin. By this point however, the no.40 was captaining the side in most games and had become the talisman in one of the more talented Dale outfits that we'll ever see.
And indeed, this would be the way of the world for Ian Henderson and Rochdale for the coming campaigns. The next two seasons would see more of Dale fighting for a play-off spot but eventually coming up just short and although talented players such as Stephen Dawson, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Steven Davies would link up well with Henderson before leaving the club or seeing their game time diminish, it was the captain's longevity that made him stand out. Reliable to the very end, he never stopped scoring.
Year upon year, you'd find yourself wondering if this was the season that his effect on the team would begin to wane but year upon year, his commitment to his own physical condition would pay dividends and he would continue to be the main goal threat at the club by some distance. In fact, since Scott Hogan in that 2013/2014 campaign, no other player has won the club's top scorer award with Hendo picking up the gong six years on the trot along with a raft of Player of the Season awards in their various guises from fellow players, managers and supporters.
At times, Hendo's will to win has driven him to moments of madness on the field. A red card in the derby day draw with Bury in the promotion season was a sign of things to come and the forward would find himself sent off a few times during his Dale career, memorably in another derby fixture against Oldham Athletic as well as in an unfortunate, narrow defeat at Wigan Athletic and in a goalless FA cup draw against his former club Northampton.
But as he has progressed towards the latter stages of his career, even this negative trait appears to have disappeared from his game and unusually for a player with a relatively poor disciplinary record, he appears to have been a major influence on the younger players in the dressing room. At times, he could be described as a model professional and he has certainly spoken glowingly about the club and his team-mates at times and in particular Joe Thompson, who he often appeared alongside in the media followed the interest in his relegation-saving goal against Charlton at the end of the 2017/2018 campaign.
Even as Dale struggled towards the foot of the table in that season and the following two campaigns, Hendo's reliability in front of goal never wavered. He continued to score the most inventive and predatory goals, without which Dale would surely have been relegated. In 2017/2018 he ended with another 20 in all competitions. They included the opener in the magnificent 2-2 draw against Premier League giants Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup and one of my favourite goals of his in a pivotal victory at Peterborough United late in the season when he used all of his speed of thought and skill to force the ball in and hand Dale all three points.
The season after, he managed his second most prolific season for the club with no fewer than 20 goals in League One alone, a feat made even more impressive when you consider that Dale spent the majority of that campaign in the relegation zone. Controlled, calm strikes, poachers finishes on the rebound, instinctive and inventive goals that no other player in the squad was capable of scoring and indeed a raft of penalties - no matter what, Dale always had a striker they could rely on to find the net in testing times.
Almost as if to reaffirm his importance to the squad, it was in the final weeks of the campaign during the great escape masterminded by Brian Barry-Murphy that Hendo really came into his own, scoring the only goal in wins against Southend United and Wycombe Wanderers that in a very real sense kept Dale in League One for one more season... a season that it turns out, would be his final one at the club.
Another 15 goals in a campaign that's been cut short show just how influential Henderson has still been for this team right to the very end and with trips to St James' Park and Old Trafford to mark his final season, it's certainly been a memorable one. There have been yet more stunning goals too - his curling chip against Tranmere Rovers on the opening day of the season being the perfect example of the kind of skill and ingenuity that he has been capable of since making his debut for the club all the way back in 2013.
After finishing off a wonderful passing move in the victory down at Southend United earlier in the campaign, Hendo chalked up his 100th league goal for the club and since then will have had his mind set on the goalscoring records set by the great Reg Jenkins way back in the 1970's. Instead of chasing down those records, he'll leave the club in second place on the list with an incredible 112 league goals, seven short of the record and 126 goals in all competitions - just three away from Jenkins' 129.
Having spoken before about the importance of this record and his connection to the club, make no mistake that Henderson will be leaving Rochdale with the heaviest of hearts. Unfortunately however, the career of a footballer is a short one and in these strange times, at the age of 35, he can hardly be blamed for looking elsewhere to earn one last money-spinning contract before he hangs up his boots.
One thing is for sure. Regardless of records, regardless of him leaving the club on a free transfer, regardless of the silly moments of madness that earned him red cards over the years, he has given his all for this football club and owes us nothing.
I remember a cautious but palpable sense of excitement when Ian Henderson joined Rochdale way back in 2013. Seven years, 127 goals, one promotion, countless individual accolades and unforgettable memories later, he leaves as one of the biggest legends in the history of our magnificent little club. Simple as that.
Photo: Action Images
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