There is an alternate reality where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer starts Dean Henderson in the 2021 Europa League final.
The English goalkeeper had played in 10 of Manchester United’s final 12 Premier League games that season and while he had not comprehensively claimed the No 1 position, he had brought qualities to their defensive work that his rival David de Gea could not provide.
That Henderson of early 2021 was an authoritative figure, constantly barking orders at his back four and encouraging United as a whole to play their football further up the field. Keen to get off his line and command the penalty area – as well as the space beyond it – Henderson allowed United to play offside traps for the final games of that season.
There were some weaknesses to his game, but Henderson’s solid performances from the March onwards first gave manager Solskjaer the space to allow De Gea extended family leave after becoming a father that month and then the “nice problem” of which goalkeeper to start in the Europa League final three days after United’s Premier League campaign ended.
Solskjaer kept his powder dry for as long as possible but opted for De Gea over Henderson for the meeting with Villarreal in the Polish city of Gdansk. De Gea failed to save any of the 12 penalties he faced in the shootout that followed a 1-1 draw before having his own effort saved by Geronimo Rulli to win it for the Spanish side.
At the time, Henderson had a better penalty-saving record than De Gea.
“What if Henderson got to start?” was a question that was on many a United fan’s minds throughout the summer that followed.
There is another alternate reality, where Henderson does not start that Europa League final but remains fit through the month of June after being named in Gareth Southgate’s European Championship squad.
Henderson made the bench for the group opener against Croatia but had to leave England’s camp not long after. On June 15, the Football Association released a statement saying Henderson had “a hip issue that would continue to limit his involvement in training throughout the tournament.” He returned to United for treatment, with Aaron Ramsdale of relegated Sheffield United stepping up from Southgate’s provisional squad to provide cover behind Jordan Pickford and Sam Johnstone.
Ramsdale had a minimal on-field impact at the Euros but his presence in the squad added to the escape velocity that took him from Sheffield United – where he had succeeded the on-loan Henderson – to Arsenal in the summer transfer window.
In the summer of 2021, Ramsdale was viewed as a poorer goalkeeper than Henderson. A year later, their careers are on different trajectories.
There is yet another reality where Henderson does not contract COVID-19 after the Euros.
“Dean Henderson will miss Manchester United’s Scotland training camp while he continues his recovery from prolonged fatigue after contracting a COVID-19 infection three weeks ago,” read a club statement in early August.
Henderson’s window of opportunity for the No 1 spot closed once De Gea returned from his own quiet Euros as Spain’s back-up goalkeeper. He had won back his No 1 position at United by default; Henderson’s recovery saw him not only unavailable for pre-season but also the first three Premier League fixtures.
Away to Wolves in United’s third league fixture, De Gea put in a great shot-stopping performance that made Henderson’s case for a starting spot look increasingly lightweight. Then, shortly after the September internationals, in a 2-1 win at West Ham, De Gea saved a stoppage-time penalty from Mark Noble, securing his position as Solskjaer’s goalkeeper for Premier League and Champions League outings.
Henderson did start his first game of the season in the Carabao Cup, also against West Ham, the week after but United lost 1-0 at Old Trafford, leaving him as a cup keeper with no cup games in which to play over the next three months.
In our current reality, Henderson has gone from quasi-No 1 and England’s possible No 2, to a footballer once again being farmed out on loan to a side newly promoted to the Premier League.
Henderson’s last top-flight appearance was on May 23 last year, in a 4-2 victory over Wolves.
Since then, he has played 278 minutes of senior-level football. Through no real fault of his own, he has lost a year of his playing career.
Henderson had done almost everything right, too.
Two years on loan at Sheffield United had shown him demonstrate his skills in both the Championship and Premier League. He thrived as a cog in Chris Wilder’s unorthodox footballing machine, and then proved he was capable of being a progressive modern keeper when United needed him to be one of those in the second half of that 2020-21 season.
Maybe Henderson still fails in those aforementioned alternate realities.
His performance in United’s FA Cup penalty-shootout defeat to Middlesborough in February suggests he was not guaranteed to defeat Villarreal that night in Gdansk.
He might not have supplanted Pickford, or any other England goalkeeper, at the Euros.
Solskjaer again could have opted for De Gea to be No. 1 at the start of last season, and the fact interim manager Ralf Rangnick felt no need to drop the Spaniard for Henderson after taking over in November could be an indicator as to how good the now 25-year-old is.
It is frustrating. We’ve known since late 2019 that Henderson is good enough to be the first-choice goalkeeper for a Premier League team. What we’ve never learned is how high up the table said team should be.
It is a pity that Henderson worked so hard to earn his chance as Manchester United’s starting goalkeeper, only to find himself injured and otherwise unavailable at key moments when those chances arrived.
There are still weaknesses to his game but Henderson hasn’t had the time on the pitch to show the world if he’s worked on them. We do not know if he still finds it hard to wriggle out of his six-yard box to claim crosses or corners.
They say “luck is when opportunity meets preparation”. In the past 12 months, Henderson has never had both ingredients in sync.
Maybe if he was given a longer run of games by his parent club, he might have proven himself to be top-six quality in a way Ramsdale has (and perhaps even better) for Arsenal.
As we head into the 2022-23 season, Henderson is in a similar position to the one he was in when he returned to Bramall Lane in the summer of 2019 – good enough to be on a recently-promoted team, and possibly good enough to give them a three or four-point boost over 38 games that could be the difference in avoiding instant relegation back to the Championship.
One of the unluckiest players in the Premier League has a chance to reignite his career on loan at Nottingham Forest.
One hopes his luck comes good in the coming season.
(Photo: Martin Rickett / PA Images via Getty Images)