Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson wins captains’ duel with Jonjo Shelvey | Jonathan Wilson
What is talent? There is a tendency to prioritise what looks good over what works, to be wowed by a player with grace rather than somebody effective, to rave about a footballer who can swoop by another with a sway of the hips or in a blur of feet, or who can caress a shot into the top corner, and to be slightly dismissive of those whose game seems based on graft, who have through dedication and focus made the most of their gifts.
At which, enter two exhibits, the two captains at St James’ Park: Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson of Liverpool. They arrived at Anfield a year apart, Shelvey as a highly rated 18-year-old who had already amassed 42 league games for Charlton, Henderson as a 20-year-old worth £16m. There was a time when they represented a possible future for the centre of the Liverpool midfield: both scored in a 4-1 win over Chelsea in May 2012, in what turned out to be Kenny Dalglish’s last home game as manager.
At that point, Shelvey was arguably the better prospect. He had a grace and a poise, a right foot capable of delicious passes. Henderson was a trier who, as Alex Ferguson noted, had a slightly odd way of running. That he happened to be an excellent crosser of the ball had largely been forgotten after Steve Bruce had moved him from the right into the centre of midfield. It was Shelvey who appeared the more talented.
But then talent can take many forms. In 2013 the former England cricket captain Mike Atherton wrote a column on the retirement of Mark Ramprakash. It wasn’t hard to detect a slight note of irritation as he discussed how “talented” Ramprakash was perceived to be. “If [talent],” he wrote, “is generally defined as possessing either a natural gift, or a capacity for success, then our game invariably tags as talented those who enjoy the gift, but not necessarily the success.”
Ramprakash, for all his talent, averaged 27.32 in Test cricket and made just two centuries. Atherton contrasted him with Graeme Smith and Alastair Cook (“hard-working, focused, driven, effective, pragmatic”), who made far more runs at far higher averages. Atherton then cited the Swedish psychologist K Anders Ericsson who, he said, had demonstrated “that elite performance is almost always the result of ferocious hard work, relentless self-improvement and specific, rigorous practice – all within a cultural context in which the appetite for self-improvement can flourish. In other words, few have reached the top without putting in the hours.”
And of course, behind it all, what Atherton was really talking about was himself and the way his ability had consistently been demeaned throughout his career by the idea that he was mentally tough, that he could grind out ugly runs. But which is worth more, a cover drive of such fluency it sends a flutter through the guts of even the most hardened observer, or the ability to face down Allan Donald for hours and occasionally nudge the ball off the pads for four?
But that, Atherton argued, was his talent, citing Friedrich Nietzsche to make his case: “All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming and ordering.” That was why he (Atherton, not Nietzsche) scored 16 Test centuries and averaged 37.69.
Henderson, it hardly needs saying, is the Atherton in this analogy. As Henderson has grafted his way to enormous success and 69 caps for England, making the most of his talent, Shelvey has drifted, an inconsistent figure, almost as notable for his temper as anything else.
There was a moment early in the second half when a loose ball spun between the two captains. Henderson, of course, was sharper to it. He made nearly twice as many passes as Shelvey over the game at a far higher accuracy, including the swift forward pass to Naby Keïta that eventually led to the only goal.
Perhaps Shelvey has been the more graceful player through his career, perhaps he is in that sense the more talented. But it is Henderson who has captained teams to the Premier League and Champions League, and this season still has the chance to do both for a second time.