Stephen Henderson: I sat in my Southsea hotel room and cried after the football Gods cruelly ended my Portsmouth homecoming

That Saturday evening, Stephen Henderson sat in his Holiday Inn room and cried.

Tuesday, 19th May 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th May 2020, 9:00 pm
An emotional Stephen Henderson has to leave the pitch in the 86th minute against Doncaster after collecting injury. Picture: PinPep Media/Joe Pepler

Those Southsea surroundings were supposed to be temporary, merely a place to rest his head until permanent residency could be arranged.

The goalkeeper had booked himself an emotional February 2018 return to Pompey.

Initially on loan from Championship side Nottingham Forest, it offered the lifeline his faltering career so desperately craved.

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His family even talked of relocating to Winchester, the area they fell in love with before that heartbreaking March 2012 departure. To this day, they continue the occasional visit to reminisce.

The future was mapped, with the Irishman back at Pompey under trusted goalkeeping coach John Keeley and handed an immediate debut in place of Luke McGee against Doncaster Rovers.

He never completed the League One fixture.

Stephen Henderson in action during one of his two Pompey training sessions after returning to the club on loan in February 2018. Picture: Colin Farmery

Henderson told The News: ‘Keelo (Keeley) was my lifeline. He asked if I would be interested. I said “Make it happen, please. I need this for my career”.

‘It was back and forth and, to be honest with you, at the time Keelo was the only one pushing it, but it finally happened.

‘I spoke to the manager (Kenny Jackett), he said all the right stuff, and I was thinking “Let’s go and do it”.

‘However, I went from not kicking dead balls in games to doing it for 40 minutes in training on the Friday trying to get ready.

‘I kind of started feeling something in my thigh and thought “That can’t be”. I put it down to fatigue on account of not having done it for so long. Although I was paranoid about it all evening.

‘On the Saturday morning, I woke up and felt good. I drove to the stadium, it brought back so many great memories. A cloud was lifted off as I walked through the gates, fans were coming up to me, it was what I needed.

‘Going back into that Pompey dressing room, I sat in my spot, argued with Kev the Kitman, it was stuff you miss. I could also tell the lads were a good bunch.

‘I went out to start the game and, as I entered the goal, shed a tear as the emotion got to me. It brought back so many memories.

‘I was desperate to perform, although I wasn’t good on the day. My kicking was off and Doncaster took the lead, I probably should have done better.

‘As the game went on, the weather became worse, the pitch got heavy, and, after 40 minutes, I felt this pain in my thigh, a niggly thing.

‘I didn’t say anything at half-time – then I heard a pop near the end as I kicked the ball.’

In the 85th minute of his second Pompey debut, Henderson was forced to leave the field.

With Pompey having already used their full complement of substitutions, winger Kal Naismith volunteered to deputise with the gloves as the match finished 2-2.

In only his second competitive match in almost a year, Henderson had ruptured a thigh muscle in his right leg, his natural kicking side.

Ruling him out for nine months, his dream of sealing a permanent Pompey deal had been shattered.

The Irishman had added a solitary appearance, taking his Blues career tally to 28 – and once again succumbing to a premature Fratton Park exit.

He added: ‘I needed to quickly get out of the stadium after that Doncaster game.

‘I had been dreaming of signing permanently, of moving back to the area, then it was taken away from me in two seconds.

‘It’s one of those things when you look up to the football Gods and think “Seriously, what are you doing to me?”.

‘It is what it is, there are a lot of other things to worry about in life, but, at the time, I couldn’t see any light.

‘I remember going back to my room at the Holiday Inn and sitting there all night on my own, sobbing.

‘It kept going round and round in my head: “There’s no chance I’m going back. This is the nail in the coffin”. I spent 12 hours in that room thinking it was over.

‘Thankfully, my wife and daughter flew over from Ireland without telling me and were there in the morning, so I didn’t stay in that mood.

‘I recognised the severity of the injury and it was annoying that the scan took three or four days to come back. I was simply waiting for the devastating news I already knew.

‘I was more annoyed and embarrassed for Keelo because I knew what he had done for me, he had put his neck on the line. I thought I had let him down, I felt awful to be honest.

‘He was as good as gold, reassuring me “These things happen” and keeping in touch every month with phone calls.

‘Me and the missus were speaking about where we’d live if I did sign permanently at Pompey. All these sorts of things probably added fuel to the depression after it happened.

‘I don’t like throwing the word ‘depression’ about too willy-nilly, to be honest. Yet there was a month afterwards when I probably suffered from it.

‘I was embarrassed to even ask the question about whether I could come back to the club again. I didn't even waste anyone’s time about it. Besides, I had seen Alex Bass in training and knew what a talent he was.

‘Being at Fratton Park again felt a million miles away, so I closed that chapter in my head. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone.’

Henderson has played just three times since that final Pompey appearance.

In December 2018, he embarked on an emergency loan at Wycombe, deputising for the injured Ryan Allsop for a three-game League One spell.

Now with Premier League Crystal Palace, it has been 17 months since his last taste of competitive action.

Aged 32, Henderson was last week handed a new 12-month deal, recognition of professionalism and talent which sadly was not allowed time to flourish during two south coast spells.

He added: ‘I go back to Winchester every now and again to walk about. I know it’s Southampton way, but it holds such fond memories from my first time at Pompey.

‘We were in Surrey recently, staying at a hotel, and my missus asked whether I fancied driving to Winchester. We went past the old spots and where we used to live.

‘Pompey were the best days of my career to date. It’s just unfortunate how the second spell went – but what can you do?’

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