LIAM Henderson has made quite an impression on Scottish football since making his first-team breakthrough at Celtic, culminating in being named the SPFL Young Player of the Month for March yesterday.
But it was the impact the 17-year-old midfielder made on one of European football’s most celebrated players in his position that confirmed to Neil Lennon just how quick on the uptake his young prodigy can be.
“We were playing Galatasaray in Turkey during our January break,” recalled the Celtic manager. “I told Liam he might need to do the dark side of the game, that if he felt they were breaking on us he should concede a foul and let us get reorganised.
“Well, he took it far too literally. Five minutes into the second half, Wesley Sneijder was breaking and Liam just walloped him. I thought ‘well, at least he’s listening’, He just needs to be a bit more subtle about it.”
Henderson has shown there is far more to his game than the destructive side he willingly displayed to halt former Real Madrid and Inter Milan star Sneijder in his tracks. The Broxburn teenager has shone during the run of games in which Celtic clinched their third successive league title and Lennon hopes he can become a permanent fixture in his first-team squad.
“He’s done fabulously well,” added Lennon. “He also understands we don’t just want him to come in for a short fix and then disappear. His attitude is very good. As you’d expect for a 17-year-old, he’s got a bubbliness and enthusiasm about him.
“We think he is a good footballer, he’s already hitting the six foot mark and there may be a bit of growth in him yet. His upper body will develop over the next two years but already you can see that football-wise, he’s very good. He’s a lovely boy. The one thing I like about him is he never gets disappointed when he gives the ball away – although I do! But he never hides, which is a great trait at that age. There’s an inner self-confidence about him.
“He’s got a very good temperament already. He’s playing with the big boys as well and hasn’t looked out of place. I’m just pleased with the progress he’s making although I’m sure there will be a dip along the way and we’ll be ready for that as well.
“The start he’s made to his career has been excellent. We were a little bit wary as I’d seen him play development games before when he was 16 but he came into the first-team environment in pre-season and didn’t look out of place.”
Henderson may even qualify for a championship winners’ medal if he keeps his place in the Celtic side for their remaining six games of the campaign. But he insists that is not a priority as he simply savours his promotion to the first team.
“It’s been a brilliant time to come into the team but the boys had done the work to win the league long before I came in, so all credit is due to them,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity and I’ll just keep working hard. I didn’t expect to get the Young Player of the Month award but it’s a nice little confidence booster for me.”
Henderson could find himself facing his Scotland under-19 international team-mates John Souttar and Ryan Gauld this lunchtime when Celtic face Dundee United at Tannadice.
It is a fixture manager Lennon is relishing, although he believes his United counterpart and former Celtic team-mate Jackie McNamara may have half an eye on the Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers at Ibrox next weekend.
“I always look forward to going to Tannadice but I don’t know how United will approach it,” said Lennon.
“With the semi-final coming up, I’d imagine that would be their priority. But Jackie is a competitor and he will be trying to put out a team to beat us.”