Sheffield United: The story of how Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson swapped Whitehaven fields for Premier League football and England senior squad

The year was 2009 and Burnley had just hammered Carlisle United by a score well into double figures. But Ben Benson was convinced from that moment that Dean Henderson, the young goalkeeper who'd been beaten around 15 times that afternoon was going to be a star.

Thursday, 10th October 2019, 3:07 pm
Updated Saturday, 12th October 2019, 12:40 am
Dean Henderson at Shrewsbury Town: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“Dean wasn’t at fault for any of them, but when me and Eric Kinder [Carlisle’s head of youth] walked over at the end, he came to us in floods of tears," Benson, then Carlisle's academy goalkeeping coach, said recently in an interview with the Whitehaven News.

“‘Dean, what’s the matter?’ we asked. He said, ‘I should have done better with the third goal.’

“We started laughing and were saying it would have been 24-0 but for him. It’s interesting, though. Straight away his reaction was, ‘This is what I should have done better’.

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

"He then explained that he should have gone with his longest arm and tipped that shot around the post.“The next part of the story is that, before going home, he asked if we could stay at Frenchfield and do some more work. So we did. Everyone else has left and we’re there for another 20 minutes, working on something he’d perceived he should have done better.

"He’s probably tired but he desperately wants to do it. That trait – that intensity, that desire, is unbelievably powerful.”

Those sessions proved useful, for more than one reason. They set Henderson on the path to the Premier League and the full England squad and cemented a bond between the goalkeeper and Benson which remains to this day.

In the summer, after Henderson had helped Sheffield United win promotion to the Premier League, the Manchester United goalkeeper returned to his native Whitehaven for his mum and dad's 25th wedding anniversary. Amidst the celebrations for Yvonne and Dougie Henderson, their son met up with Benson and went to Whitehaven Miners, his old club, for a goalkeeping session.

Henderson's meteoric rise was checked a few weeks later, when he endured a tournament to forget as England's U21s crashed out of their European Championships in Italy and San Marino. But the 22-year-old has a knack of responding positively to setbacks and found himself earlier this week called up to Gareth Southgate's senior squad after Tom Heaton, his rival at Aston Villa, picked up an injury.

Henderson described the call-up as "a dream come true" on his Twitter account but in truth, he has been confident that the day would eventually come for some time now. Henderson has an unwavering self-belief that, to some on the outside, can come across almost as an arrogance, but even a few minutes in his company will prove otherwise.

Henderson has bought into life at Bramall Lane far more than any other loanee in living memory; possibly more than any in the club's long history. He has formed a heart-warming bond with young fan Harri Parker, who has a heart condition and calls Henderson his best friend. The day after United won at Everton, and Henderson made a superb save to deny £30m man Moise Kean, he could be seen in Meadowhall waiting for a new mobile phone, blending almost completely into the crowd.

It hasn't always been the case. As a youngster in Manchester United's academy, which he joined at 14, he demanded loan moves away to accelerate his development and was often singled out for special attention for seasoned strikers during spells at Stockport County and Grimsby Town.

Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson: Robin Parker/Sportimage

"The lower I've been, the harder it's been for me," Henderson said, in the 'We're not going to Wembley' book which charted United's promotion to the Premier League.

"Stockport was the hardest time of them all. Teams kept lumping balls in the box and at 17, I just kept getting smashed. I actually found it easier as I moved up the levels. There was more football than long-ball stuff, smashing it a million miles and seeing what happens. But those experiences have made me a better player.

"Put it this way, could you put Hugo Lloris in Grimsby's team and expect him to do well? Questions would be asked, whether he's strong enough to deal with this, that and the other. Could you stick him in Stockport’s net, or Shrewsbury's?

"I've been through all the leagues and proved that you can chuck me anywhere, and I can do it."

Henderson after signing for the original United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

After bit-part spells at Stockport and Grimsby, Henderson's real breakthrough season came at Shrewsbury Town under Paul Hurst, where he helped the Shrews to the final of both the EFL Trophy and League One play-offs.

Hurst had called Henderson at the beginning of the season with the aim of keeping Shrewsbury in League One. He came within 90 minutes of getting them out of it, only for Rotherham United to triumph in extra-time under the famous Wembley arch.

"He was confident in his own ability but he had the work ethic too," Hurst told Sky Sports.

"We had a dressing room full of characters - Dean was certainly one of them - but he backed up what he did. I think some of the lads looked at him initially and thought, 'Who's this?' - people can get the wrong impression of him at times - but he was popular because he could back it up.

"He was a great trainer; always worked hard, wanted to get better. He wanted to be the best at everything. If we were in the gym, he wanted to be the strongest, jump the highest. We had a lot of good athletes then but he usually did jump the highest."

One man who had seen enough that season was Chris Wilder, who beat off competition from a number of other clubs to land Henderson's services on loan for the 2018/19 promotion season. In their first conversation, Wilder told Henderson that he wanted a goalkeeper who could make match-winning saves. "When he said that, I was thinking 'that's me all over'," said Henderson. "I thought 'he'll love me, this guy!'"

The goalkeeper bounced back from disappointment at this summer's U21 Euros: Jonathan Moscrop/Sportimage

Again, Henderson slotted right in in the dressing room at Bramall Lane because he certainly talked the talk, but was capable of walking the walk. George Baldock, who sits next to him in the changing room, admits he didn't know how to take Henderson at first but bonds were soon forged; even when the goalkeeper made a couple of high-profile mistakes, costing key points against Leeds United and Aston Villa.

Each time he fronted up, apologised to supporters and teammates alike and, most importantly, bounced back. After the Villa debacle, which saw United concede three times in less than ten minutes to sacrifice a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3, Henderson kept seven clean sheets on the bounce and ended the season with 21, picking up the Championship's golden glove award to go with his Championship promotion medal and a season packed with memories.

“I'm a passionate lad and I wear my heart on my sleeve for any football club that gives me an opportunity,” he added.

“I just love playing football and I'm just like a young kid really, enjoying my life. I back myself, I'm not scared of anything and I wouldn't want to go into a game with anyone else's ability than my own. I've got to go out there and enjoy it, at the end of the day, because it doesn't last forever.

After signing a new deal at Old Trafford in the summer, Henderson gladly returned to Bramall Lane and made his Premier League debut on the first day of the season. Consistent displays followed until the champions of Europe, Liverpool, came to town and Henderson let Gini Wijnaldum's volley slip through his fingers to cruelly deny United what would have been a thoroughly-deserved point.

All eyes were on him, especially when Wilder's post-match comments attracted a laughable amount of media attention. Henderson responded in the best way he could; with two huge saves away at Watford, to earn the Blades a point and keep their unbeaten away run going.

Next up on the road is the pursuit of a full England cap, which could come on Monday when England face Bulgaria - a long, long way from Frenchfield in more ways than one.

Henderson in action for Manchester United - Picture David Klein/Sportimage
Henderson helped United into the Premier League: James Wilson/Sportimage