Why Jack Hendry isn't one that got away for Celtic despite Ange Postecoglou's likely desire for two centre-halves

Revisionism is an addictive drug in football.

Hendry hasn't started for Celtic since October 2018, which strain claims he is a loss to the club as the result of Ostende having activated a buy-out option on him. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Frankly, it is all that can explain the mainlining on claims of missed opportunities and mismanagement from Celtic subsequent to Belgian club KV Oostende having now activated a £1.75million buy-out option for defender Jack Hendry. The smart money is on Oostende “flipping” the player’s club status to sell him this summer. Leeds United, Burnley, Newcastle and West Brom have been credited as willing to part with a fee placed in the region of £10m in order to acquire the 26-year-old centre-back.

Open and shut case, it would appear then. Celtic have screwed-up. They packed off an unwanted player to an unfashionable Belgian club on a loan-to-buy season-long deal – having first papped him out to Australia, only for him to suffer serious injury ahead of the pandemic hitting – and it has rebounded on them in costly fashion. A player that they bought from Dundee in January 2018, for an initial £1.2m fee, will now only earn them around a paltry half-a-million profit. Except this isn’t a legitimate appraisal of the situation.

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Plaudits and profits

Scotland's defender Jack Hendry during the match against the Netherlands.

Hendry deserves mighty plaudits for rebuilding his career at Oostende. No-one expected him to do so, and force his way into the Scotland set-up for the Euro 2020 finals. It has been a remarkable turnaround, yet it remains questionable as to whether he will bank Oostende anything like an £8m profit. Equally, even across his renaissance, there have been few indications that he would be the answer to Celtic’s deep-seated defensive issues. In reality, for the Parkhead club to make a 40 per cent profit on a player the supporters turned on in vicious fashion, whose confidence ended up in at some subterranean level way below rock bottom, and who pre-Oostende had become a poster boy for Brendan Rodgers flawed signing policy during his final 18 months in charge, is a decent outcome for them. And the best outcome for Hendry, never mind Oostende.

The sublime finish that the defender produced in Scotland’s 2-2 draw with the Netherlands has led to the hype being applied to the Glasgow-born performer’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches tale. Yet, his less than stellar role in the first equaliser for the Dutch last Wednesday – he didn’t get tight enough to Georginio Wijnaldum which allowed him to fashion the headed knock-down for Memphis Depay to strike – reminded that he is an impressive, quick centre-back of the ball-playing type who can often lack the aggression or discipline required for the primary functions related to stifling opponents.

Celtic fans lost it with Hendry, at times unfairly, as such tendencies were witnessed across his 18 starts in Celtic colours. Notably one fewer start than Stephen Welsh, the 21-year-old centre-back the Parkhead club clearly believe is a better back-up through demonstrating greater robustness even in a crumbling team last season. It is surely the case that, given his past reliance on such figures, expected in-coming manager Ange Postecoglou will recruit two senior, scrapping centre-backs to vie for these berths, alongside returning-from-injury Christopher Jullien. The imminent departure of Kristoffer Ajer is a given. In this scenario, there wouldn’t have been an obvious playing niche for Hendry, even if he could have been returned to Glasgow. And at five years older than Welsh, Hendry recognises he needs to find a footballing home where he will be trusted, as he was at Oostende.

What Hendry has had to say

Jack Hendry during his time at Ostende,

“My main focus is just on the Euros and whatever happens afterwards will happen,” the defender said last week. “The most important thing for me next season is playing regularly at the highest level possible. I think my game has come on a lot this year by playing games. But even so, I’ve not got any other distractions right now. I’m concentrating on these group stages and then we’ll see what happens afterwards.”

Hendry’s prospects of starting in Scotland’s Euro 2020 opener with the Czech Republic in a week have been talked up. So too is what he achieved in Belgium. Some of the facts seem to have become a little distorted, though. One report claimed he had been voted Belgium’s player of the year. He was given this accolade by a football magazine Sport Voetbal. However, the official player of the year, voted for by his fellow professionals in the Belgian top flight, was actually Genk forward Paul Onuachu.

Genk claimed the final European place in the country’s Jupiter League, Oostende eventually finishing seventh after the country’s byzantine play-off system. They slipped out of contention for this Europa League qualifying slot in part because in Hendry’s final three starts, they contrived to concede 11 goals. As Rangers’ madcap 9-5 aggregate win over Royal Antwerp in UEFA’s second string tournament last season demonstrated, defensive solidity isn’t exactly prized in Belgian football. Indeed, across Hendry’s final 23 games for Oostende, they kept only three clean sheets. Moreover, Scotland have conceded two goals in only two of their past 15 games under Steve Clarke. These two games just happen to be the only ones where Hendry has played 90 minutes for his country. In that span, Declan Gallagher has proved a reliable presence. Yet that didn’t have any Celtic supporters clamouring for their club to sign up the up-and-down defender before he agreed a deal with Aberdeen.

It is now more than two-and-a-half years since Hendry started a game for Celtic – a 3-1 defeat away to Salzburg in the Europa League. Rodgers, after gushing about his early impact, then pushed him to the periphery, where he remained once Neil Lennon replaced his fellow Irishman in February 2019. Hendry is patently a performer of much greater poise now, but Celtic took the proper course of action to allow him to become so, and that means it is specious to seek to present him as one that got away.

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