Dean Henderson

UTD Unscripted: Back yourself all the way

The funny thing is, goalkeeping was never on the radar for me.

I have two older brothers, so as a kid I’d go and play football in their friendship groups. One of them is five years older than me, the other’s in the year above me and we always used to play together on the estate. There would be probably 30 of us and we’d play knockouts. If you score you go through to the next round. Because I was the youngest, I always got pushed to go in goal. There was no other reason than that, really, for me to do it, because at the time I was a lot better outfield than I was in goal. In my own age group I signed for Carlisle United as an outfielder. I played for them as a right winger and basically our goalkeeper was sick one day – Carlisle away at Blackpool, I still remember it – and I said to the coach: “I’ll go in goal. I’m used to playing there with my mates and my brothers.” I went in goal, saved two penalties and the rest is history, really.

The goalkeeper coach came to me on the Tuesday when we next went to training, and said: “Listen, do you fancy training in goal?” “Yeah. One hundred percent. I love diving in the mud.” It’s just that boyish love and I still get it now when it rains; I love sliding across the pitch. That’s what drew me to it: just having fun, really. I enjoyed just doing the daft things: diving around in the mud when it’s raining, getting filthy, getting hit with the ball – I always used to like getting hit with the ball – and making a world class save, even at a very young age. I just liked trying new things. You could be free in goal. You could do what you wanted to do. From that day onwards I stayed there and ended up signing a five-year contract as a goalkeeper. I always wanted to score the goals and I ended up saving them, but I felt like I got as much joy out of saving as I did out of scoring, in the end, and it’s so appreciated by your team-mates, being the goalkeeper. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

My time at Carlisle was unbelievable. I had an incredible goalkeeping coach called Ben Benson, who I still keep in contact with. He looked after me so well. I used to train twice a week, on a Tuesday and a Thursday, then I’d do one-on-one sessions with him probably every other day, so I’d have an hour a day with him to keep topped up. Ben was always on my side, always working hard, coming out of what he was doing to come and train me for an hour. I was 12, 13 – he didn’t have to do that. He was probably thinking: I’m doing that for a tenner an hour, do I really need to do it this weekend? But he always used to turn up and I owe him a lot these days.

Dean Henderson says

"I said to the coach: “I’ll go in goal. I’m used to playing there with my mates and my brothers.” I went in goal, saved two penalties and the rest is history, really."

I knew I had to work really hard if I had to get to where I wanted to be which, at the time, was playing for Carlisle. That’s all I wanted to do. To be honest, it’s all I could imagine, because I never thought it would ever be possible for me, where I was from, to play for Man United. I just thought that was for people with superpowers or something, I didn’t think it was possible.

Then, as you’re growing up, coming through the system, you work really hard and you start to realise what you can achieve. When I was 13 or 14, Tony Caig, who was the first team goalkeeping coach at Carlisle, took me in with the first team and let me train with the goalies every school holiday and that was unbelievable for me. I loved every single second because, since I wanted to play for Carlisle, they were my idols at that age.

Carlisle looked after me so well and developed me so well that it was great growing up there. I wouldn’t say I was a big fish in a small pond, but I was always playing the year above my age, they gave me a clear pathway to get to the first team there and I think that was massively important for me. When I signed for United at 14, to be honest that was something that I had to come to terms with: not having that clear path to the first team. Playing time was split among the goalkeepers in my age group and I knew that I needed to play games to get better, so I really pushed to get some experience through loan deals. I had the inner self belief to go and do it. It was a risky one, but firstly I went to Stockport in the Conference North.

I was bloomin’ awful. I was terrible.

But then I thought to myself: Right, I’ve got to back myself. You can’t sit in the jacuzzi at Man United and go: ‘Brilliant, I’m on good money, I’m 18, I’m sat here with the Man United badge on my chest.’ No, it’s not about that. It’s about going out there and proving you’re good enough.

So then I took the next step and went to Grimsby Town. The club captain there was James McKeown, he was a great goalkeeper and he was playing really well. I thought: Well, I’m going to have to get him out of the team. It’s my only option. So I went there, I was there for three months and I was devastated because I was training really well every single day, working hard, knowing I was good enough to play but I kept getting knocked back. He was playing well, there was no reason for them to change. He was the captain. And then a new manager came in, Marcus Bignot, probably about three weeks before my loan was due to end in the January, and I went in and played. He put me in and from then on I was first choice until United recalled me for an FA Cup tie.

Going from there, it came to the summer of 2017 and Shrewsbury Town came in for me. They were favourites to be relegated from League One. My United contract was running down, it was yet again a big risk. I’d only played seven games at Grimsby, nine games at Stockport, I had one year to go on my contract, so the easiest thing was to sit in the Under-23s, go: Yeah, I’m good. I’ve played. Made my league debut, I can sit here happy and content, I’m at Man United. No. You can’t do that. You can’t afford to sit there and think and feed your own ego. It doesn’t work.
Paul Hurst, the Shrewsbury manager rang me up. “Deano, come here. You’ll have loads to do.”

“Ok, I’ll come. We’re gonna get promoted.”

“Yeah, yeah. Good one.”

He put the phone down, I went to Shrewsbury. I had a great season there, met some great people, had a great goalkeeping coach again in Danny Coyne. Unbelievable. I learnt so much and grew into a man because you learn off the pitch as well as on it. You’re surrounded by men. You've got to win. You've got to get the win bonus because it pays the bills and that's the bottom line. It means so much more to them. So I go out there and I put everything into the game that I can to help all my team-mates. We had a great group there, all pushing in the same direction. We were favourites for relegation and we ended up playing all the way through to the play-off final, so that was a great season for us and I took some good memories of that year because that was when I really turned from a boy into a man, I think. That was the step. I was 19, 20 and that was a big year for me.

Dean Henderson says

"You can’t afford to sit there and think and feed your own ego. It doesn’t work."

Going from there I went to Sheffield United on loan in the Championship, and then that was big because you go from playing in front of 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 to then playing in 30,000-seater stadiums. But it's got to be done. You've got to back yourself. Yet again. No-one's gonna hand it to you; you have to go and do it yourself. Chris Wilder phoned me up, he was brilliant on the phone, persuaded me to go, though I didn't need much persuading. I was already there. I was ready to go, ready to play. We had an unbelievable season that year, we had some top lads and we achieved stuff we never thought we'd achieve and we obviously got promoted to the Premier League. As everyone knows, I went back there for the following season in the Premier League and I owe that club a lot because they stood by me, they gave me that opportunity to show people that I was serious. I was wanting to come back here to United and play one day because that's all I've ever wanted, all I've ever worked for, since the day I left my family at 14 to come and live in Manchester, in Sale, to go to Ashton-on-Mersey where the MANUSS scheme is. I didn't do it just to take part; I did it so I could eventually make it into the first team and achieve my dreams.

There’s a long way to go and I haven’t made it yet, but I’ve already learnt so many lessons along the way. Even going back to my early years at Carlisle, from those days I only really remember the mistakes, rather than the saves I made. I know that sounds silly, but you remember the mistakes you’ve made, and you try not to make the same mistake twice. I might have made an error at 12 years old which is something I haven’t made since, and it’s maybe 12 years down the line. It’s weird because you remember those things and you’re just learning all the time and you just get better and better.

Dean Henderson says

"You've got to back yourself. Yet again. No-one's gonna hand it to you; you have to go and do it yourself."

Listen, I’ve made so many mistakes. I used to make hundreds and as a goalkeeper unfortunately you do. Every goalkeeper’s done it throughout the years. The best, the worst, everyone, but I think it comes down to how much you push it to the side, brush it off and go again. At the end of the day, you’re in a job in an industry where it’s highly scrutinised but you’ve just got to enjoy the rough with the smooth. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low and you’ve just got to stay level-headed. From being a young boy, you build up that resilience for when it’s needed.

I'll be honest with you: when I went to Stockport, it slapped me in the face and I thought: I don't think I'm going to be able to make it in professional football. I don't think I am. But then it was like... You need to man up, son. There's no-one that's going to help you at this stage. It's all between the ears. Anyone can say what they want to say, but it's got to come from yourself, from within. Deep down, I knew it was probably too early after an injury to go out there and play for Stockport, I’d had a week’s training after coming back from an operation on my knee. I realised: You've got to man up. I've made a couple of mistakes. I’m young, I've come back from an injury but there are no excuses. No-one cares, do they

I had to find a way within myself to believe and I think the six months there, plus probably the three or four months when I was at Grimsby on the bench, I think that's when I started to believe. I don't know where it came from, I don't know whether a switch flicked, I don't know what it was, I just felt like when I got my opportunity, I was going to take it and I was more ready for it. Maybe the Stockport one came too soon, but when I was at Grimsby, that was when it clicked, all my belief came and I started being able to jump higher, move quicker and I think that comes from maybe development of my body as well. I was always a late developer. When I was 14 years old and signed here, everybody was going: “He's gonna be too small,” so I think that was where my mentality got to the stage where it's at now. It's just grown over the years as things have gone better and better.

If I think back and try to trace where my mentality really comes from, I think it’s my eldest brother. He was always so competitive. He's five years above me but I always wanted to beat him at everything, whether it was fighting in the living room, whether it was football, whether it was golf... whatever it was, I wanted to beat him. My middle brother is brilliant. He gives up more. He didn't have that competitive edge so much. I've always had it. Even at school I'd always be the annoying one that would be fuming if I lost. I always wanted to win. I'd always try to find a way to win – even if it was a little bit of cheating here and there! – because winning's important.

Dean Henderson says

"I'd always try to find a way to win – even if it was a little bit of cheating here and there! – because winning's important."

I’ve had a long journey to this point in my career, and while the loans I’ve been on have been a massive part of it, I’ve also had a lot of help from some important people at United. Les Parry always supported me when I was out on loan, Alan Fettis as well used to come and watch me, plus Kevin Wolfe, our other goalkeeping coach. I had to believe in myself when I was younger and with help from Les, Fetts and Kevin, we made it possible.

It's also fantastic to have grown up with some other lads who have made it into the first team now. Growing up with them, going to the same school as them, spending a lot of time with them as youngsters, it's phenomenal to play with the likes of Marcus and Scotty. When Marcus scored on his debut against Midtjylland, that was a special moment. I celebrated with him in the crowd, but I wanted to be involved in that. I wanted to be there on the pitch with him. That's the sort of hunger that you get and you drive for. You see that and it makes you want it even more, makes you believe that it can happen to you as well. You need a lot of luck in the game; whether it's injuries or this, that and the other, you need that to work for you. Marcus got his opportunity through a bit of luck, took it with both hands and I knew he would because he's a top player. Then Scotty... Scotty works harder than anyone I've ever known. Me and him were always so competitive. From as soon as I got to the club until I left on loan, we were so competitive in the gym, who could bench press more, who could squat more and so on. I can squat miles more than him – twice as much – but, to be fair, Scotty's good on his upper body. I used to be, but you can't get your hands up, can't dive as well, so I'm more legs, more power-based. Ask Scotty and he’ll agree with all of that.

I'm proud of those boys, who’ve worked so hard on their own individual journeys. Everyone's journey is different but for us they’ve taken us to where we are now and I think the competitive spirit between us breeds only good things. It took a lot of hard work to get this far and it still takes a lot of hard work every single day. We’ve got some good lads in the team now and hopefully we can push and get some success soon. We're not there yet but we've just got to keep working hard and hopefully we can start bringing trophies to this football club.

From the moment I joined United, I always said it was a dream to play for the first team and it genuinely has been a dream come true to do that this season. It’s an absolutely huge buzz every time I pull on the shirt and I know the dedication and effort it takes to be able to wear that badge on your chest. I’ve got new goals and new dreams now and I’m going to be working hard every day to make sure I can turn them into reality as well.

More from UTD Unscripted: