'Non-league football was the making of me'
Manchester United's Dean Henderson is in no doubt that a first loan at non-league Stockport County has helped make him the goalkeeper he is today, as he still has elements learnt from that spell within his game.
On Non-League Day, the United man shares how important the stint at Edgeley Park in 2016 was for his education and why it is a path other keepers have travelled in order to make it to the top.
Playing in the National League North was the start of his senior career and part of a structured plan to enable him to accelerate his learning of the trade.
"I think when Jordan Pickford was going out, at the start he went to Carlisle and it was an eye-opener for me," Henderson tells club media. "He was getting involved in the England squad and had the move to Everton. I’d got to follow that sort of pathway.
"He had a lot of games behind him and this was a reason he got the move to Everton and, firstly, in the Sunderland team. He had the games behind him. You don’t just go into the first team as a goalkeeper through the Academy. It doesn’t work like that.
"For me, I followed the pathways so well, I did exactly those steps," he continues. "I played for Stockport in the Conference North, Grimsby in League Two, Shrewsbury in League One and then Championship and Premier League for Sheffield United to come back and create a situation here.
"I think it's massively important to do that. Look at Aaron Ramsdale at Arsenal, he’s done the same. Look at Sam Johnstone, he’s done the same and played a lot of games. Nick Pope. There are ones who actually get through and some will be missed off the thing because they haven’t played enough games at a young age. So I speak really passionately about it. You can see I can go on about it all day. We followed a great pathway."
The spell at Stockport woke Henderson up to the realities of senior football, away from Carrington.
"I remember going there when I was a young kid," he recalls. "To be fair, I absolutely loved it. It was tough, really hard, as a young boy. Going into that division was an eye-opener for me. I’m thankful for the opportunity given to me by the manager at the time, Jim Gannon, for sticking by me because I didn’t play too well.
"Stockport was a great club and a club that should be in the Football League and hopefully will be soon. But I really enjoyed it, getting battered around as a goalkeeper in that league really sort of made me who I am today. I was really getting smashed on crosses, kicking the ball 80 yards on to the striker’s head and, if I didn’t do so, the manager was screaming at me from the touchline. It stood me in good stead and I really appreciate the opportunity they gave me.
“I think that’s what makes you, playing at that level is probably harder than playing in the Premier League, in my opinion, as a goalkeeper, because it’s a completely different game. It’s tough, rough and ready and you've got to take it on the chin. Certain elements are in my game now, that I’ve learnt at that level, and have been brought forward into the Premier League.
“I think my debut, in the first five minutes, their big striker said: ‘Stick it on the goalie, he’s pooping himself’. I thought: ‘Right mate, I’m coming for this’. So I made my mind up I was coming for it and, before I even got there, he flicked it over my head. These are the things you learn and move on. It was great for me.
“I think it’s always hard, your first loan is always difficult to go into a dressing room full of men, real men, you go in there and I’m coming in with the Manchester United badge on my shoulder and probably having yourself more than you should do, at that moment in time, not realising what you’re going into. The next minute, you get hit and make a mistake and it’s like: ‘Oh God, I’ve got to find a way into the group and build relationships’. So, in the end, it was okay but, at the start, it was really difficult.
“It's why I'm sitting here today. If I didn't [go out on loan], I'd probably be in League One now, just going out on my first loan. I fought for it and I stand by it, the best decision of my life.”