What Joey Barton is REALLY like and rubbing shoulders with 'outrageous' Ben Arfa: Meet the ex-Newcastle United defender rebuilding his career in non-league

It was a goal described as “Sergio Ramos-esque” by Morpeth manager Nicky Gray.

Sunday, 9th February 2020, 12:08 pm
Ex-Newcastle United man Jeff Henderson in action.

The Craik Park pitch had been lashed by rain and sleet in the build-up to the Highwaymen’s game against Warrington Town, but it couldn’t prevent a moment of quality from the boot of Jeff Henderson.

The Morpeth centre-back raced on to a cross from the left-hand side and casually flicked the ball with the outside of his right foot into the far corner of the net, leaving the Yellows keeper grasping at thin air.

The goalscorer may not have reached the heights of Real Madrid and Spain legend Ramos – but he has had an insight into how life can be amongst the elite of the English football.

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Jeff Henderson. Pictures by George Davidson.

A decade before his unique strike on a boggy Craik Park pitch, Henderson had been a team-mate of the likes of Paul Dummett, Sammy Ameobi and Tim Krul as he made his way through the academy at Newcastle United to become captain of the Under-23s side.

Henderson rubbed shoulders with senior players like Kevin Nolan, Yohan Cabaye, Joey Barton and Demba Ba throughout his time with the Magpies. He came so close to joining them in the first team, but has no regrets.

“It was a privilege to be at the club from the age of 14 and I loved every minute of it,” explained the defender.

“I got a two-year professional deal when I was 18 and we knew we had a strong age group from the age of 15.

Jeff Henderson. Pictures by George Davidson.

“In your first year as a pro, certain managers would bring you up from the reserves to help the first- team work on shape and set-pieces.

“There were players like Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, Ba, Nolan, Barton.

“Cabaye was the most impressive. Technically he was the best I have seen and for being so slight, the presence he had was incredible.

“When Papiss Cisse signed, he trained alongside Ba for the first time and you could see that they had clicked as a partnership.

“Ben Arfa was frighteningly good, and in training you just didn’t know how to cope with him at times because his skill level was outrageous.

“People forget he was still young at Newcastle and I think he could have been one of the world’s

best if he had stayed fit and things had been different.”

Henderson, highly-rated by the Academy staff, had been in and around the first team since the infamous relegation of 2009. Now a leader at Morpeth, he was able to learn from one of the best captains the Magpies have had in the last 15 years - and another player who was one of the most controversial

“Kevin Nolan was a real leader at the club and he would pop his head into the reserve team dressing room every morning,” said Henderson.

“He would give you advice on something, a little bit of motivation or he would make you do

something to add to your game.

“He was first-class for the younger players at the club.

“With Joey Barton, a lot of people just see the bad in him, but I remember doing a pre-season tour to Holland.

“Joey was meant to go to America with the first-team, but he couldn’t go with them. He was with us for a week in Holland, playing games and mixing with us. He was unbelievable and we all looked up to him.

“He was so motivated but even he was struggling at times and he said that he needed help to get up to speed in the game.

“He was a really nice bloke, and so driven and determined to do anything to keep his place in the team.”

That determination saw the Scouse midfielder issue a serious challenge towards his temporary

team-mates in United’s second-string.

“He stood up in the dressing room and asked the other midfielders ‘who is good enough and strong enough in here to take my place in the first-team?’

“Nobody stood up to him, nobody said a word, there was silence and I think some people thought he was joking, but the way Joey was, I think he would wish that somebody had shown that desire and stood up to him.

“He challenged players.”

Henderson’s first-team opportunity would arrive in September 2011 when he was named in the

squad to travel to Nottingham Forest for a Carling Cup Third Round tie.

Club captain Fabricio Coloccini and former Forest defender James Perch were handed starts by United boss Alan Pardew as Henderson took his place as a substitute alongside the Ameobi brothers, Krul, Gabriel Obertan, Leon Best and Dummett.

But even with senior centre-backs Mike Williamson and Steven Taylor unavailable, there had been little hint that his maiden first-team call-up was to arrive.

“It was a couple of days before the game, when the team shape was being done in training.

“If you aren’t going to be involved, you get sent back to where you have been but I got given a bib and I thought I might have a chance here.

“There was no talk from Alan Pardew or his coaches – just a list went up on the board after training and my name was on it.

“As a young player, you look, but it’s just a glance because you don’t think you’ll be there.

“I looked that day and I was on – it was an incredible feeling.”

The Magpies squad arrived at the City Ground looking to continue their surprisingly impressive start to the season that had seen them sat in the Champions League places after going unbeaten in their opening five league games of the season.

United finally came out on top in a seven-goal thriller as captain Coloccini headed a dramatic late winner in the last minute of extra-time.

Henderson’s chance of first-team minutes never arrived – but the experience has never left him.

“It was a different atmosphere in the dressing room and on matchday as a whole,” admitted Henderson.

“That level, going from under-23s to first-team, it’s a world apart.

“I sat on the bench looking around the place and it was a lot to take in.

“You try and focus on the game, wondering if you’ll get a chance, hoping that you can even get one minute but the game was tight.

“Coloccini got booked and there was a chance he was going to get sent-off.

“You never really know, and it didn’t happen in the end, but it was just such a good experience for me being a young lad in a dressing room full of the senior professionals.”

With that, Henderson’s first-team involvement was over.

The dream of walking out at St James Park amongst United’s elite was ended less than nine months after that night at the City Ground.

But the 28-year-old is realistic about his departure from his boyhood club.

“They pulled me into the office, and it was Pardew that said I needed first-team football.

“He listed the players in front of me for a first-team place and he said at my age – 20 – I needed to be playing senior football.

“Maybe they could have done a little bit more to help me find somewhere. I had trials at Bradford City and Notts County, but they were scrapping in League Two at the time and I was 20 years old and would have been eaten alive in that level.

“I ended up going to Sligo Rovers in Ireland and loved it.

“We won the league and the cup, and I played in the Europa League and the Champions League early rounds. We went to Slovakia to play Spartak Trnava (they were crackers), Molde – when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge, FK Banga in Lithuania and Rosenberg during my time at the club.

“It was an unbelievable three years. I didn’t want to come back from Ireland because I loved it that much.

“I got a bad foot injury, but Sligo said they would give me a contract if I could prove my fitness. It ended up where I wasn’t fit for 18 months, so I got a cracking job at Northumbrian Water, trained and played at Stobswood and then I ended up signing for Morpeth.

“I am here for another two years after this season and it’s all about how far I can go now.

“There have been big changes over my time here and I love it.

“The ship has sailed for me in terms of a professional career, but I am loving where I am at right now.”