By Drew Austin
Ask Karl Henry to name the greatest players he ever encountered and he has no hesitation in reeling off names like Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Eden Hazard and Steven Gerrard.
He adds nostalgically: “But what a privilege it was to be on the same pitch as such world-class players! Never in a million years did I think I would have the career I’ve had.”
The former Wolves captain – whose 574-game career took in all four English divisions – was in a reflective mood this week as he announced his retirement from a 20-year football career that earned him a formidable reputation as a gritty tough-tackling midfielder. A keen chess player, he also won respect for his first-class football ‘brain.’
And Henry, 36, has plenty to reflect on: the remarkable journey that took him from kicking a football as an 11-year-old local kid on the back streets of Ashmore Park in Wolverhampton all the way to the Premier League, where he made more than 100 appearances.
Along the way he has worked under top managers and coaches, including Tony Pulis, Mick McCarthy, Harry Redknapp, Steve McClaren and Glenn Hoddle; he memorably captained his home-town team to the Championship title in the 2008-09 season; he then led Wolves on the pitch in the Premier League for two seasons; and helped guide his subsequent club, QPR, to a Championship play-off victory and promotion to the Premier League in 2014. In the twilight of his career, he helped Bolton pull off a Houdini-like escape, helping to rescue them from near-certain relegation.
He also fell out – famously – with QPR team-mate Joey Barton, but despite their long-time enmity, Henry pays him a compliment for his doggedness as a player. “Joey isn’t my kind of person,” he says, “but what I would say, is that he was never someone who shirked.”
Never someone who shirked. The same will be said of Henry himself who consistently outworked his opponents – usually covering every blade of grass on the pitch in the process, in a career that took him to Stoke, Cheltenham (on loan), Wolves, QPR, Bolton and Bradford.
Today, he is proud to have been honoured by Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Foundation, accepting an invitation to become the club’s first official ambassador, giving him a high profile in his home city for years to come, leading various community initiatives.
Henry decided to quit football soon after walking off the pitch after playing the last 20 minutes of Bradford’s 4-0 win against Walsall last December. “I went to Bradford in November as a free agent and I was really keen to give it a go,” he said. “The season before at Bolton had been a good one. I had done well – they were bottom of the Championship with only two points from their first nine games when I joined, but things improved and we managed to stay up. In hindsight, we punched well above our weight.”
Next, Bradford. “I went to Bradford having had no pre-season, and not played in six months,” he recalled. “In my first week, I played three games. I was absolutely knackered. The next week we played Plymouth away and I just felt so far off the pace. It wasn’t like me – throughout my career, I’ve always prided myself on covering the most distance during matches.
“My athleticism has been one of my main strengths, helping me to get to the ball quickly and make tackles. This time, though, I wasn’t getting there – my reactions were too slow. I could have carried on, trundled along and built up my fitness, but I just wasn’t doing myself justice and that wasn’t right either for Bradford or me. It was a long drive home to the family, and it was on that journey I started to think that maybe, after 20 wonderful years, it was time to call it a day.
“Sad? Yes, of course I was sad, but also I felt so privileged. In my career, I have seen hundreds of young players with far more quality than me, who didn’t make it. Many lacked the desire, dedication and determination I had. Others simply didn’t have parents/family who were able to get them to training every week.
“I was fortunate enough, in the early part of my career, to have a grandmother who helped financially and parents who made endless sacrifices to ensure I made it to training and games, week-in, week-out. My mum helped me complete my paper round on Sunday mornings to ensure we got to football on time and my stepdad has literally travelled the length and breadth of the country watching my games — whether away at Plymouth on a cold Tuesday night or against Manchester United at Old Trafford on a Sunday afternoon. I’ve also had incredible support from my amazing wife, two boys, sister, cousin, nephews, and in-laws.”
Henry’s potential was spotted when only 11 years old and attending a soccer school run by former Wolves manager Sammy Chung. After shining in a friendly against a Stoke City side, he was signed by the Potters’ Academy: to this day, he is eternally grateful for the guidance and support he received there from the-then youth team manager Dave Kevan, and chief scout Dick Bradshaw.
A highlight of his time as a young footballer was when he was called up to the England Under-21 squad, alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. (Later, he was to be named in a full England provisional squad, although to his regret he never fulfilled a life-time dream to represent his country at senior level).
Henry is full of praise for those who have helped mould his career: to Tony Pulis at Stoke, Mick McCarthy at Wolves, and Terry Connor, McCarthy’s long-term assistant. “Mick was an excellent manager, who showed so much belief in me and stuck up for me when others didn’t,” says Henry, who also greatly admires Glenn Hoddle and Steve McClaren.
“Tony Pulis is a true gentleman and an outstanding coach, so thorough and organised — I probably only fully appreciated how good he was after I left the club; I owe more than I can say to Terry Connor, also one of the game’s top-class coaches; as for Glenn and Steve, I worked with them at QPR, albeit for short spells, but they were tactically excellent, on another level from most, lovely guys as well.”
What about the controversies that haunted Henry’s career? There was the heart-stopping moment when playing for Wolves at Fulham, he challenged Bobby Zamora, in a tackle that broke Zamora’s leg. There was no red card, not even a yellow, just bad luck.
“I was devastated,” recalls Henry. “there was no intent on my part whatsoever, and the referee didn’t see it as a foul. Bobby was understandably a bit frosty with me when I joined QPR a few years later, but thankfully, we now get on really well.”
As for his well-publicised spat with Barton, Henry is tactful, saying only: “The players I dislike most are the ones who are lazy, and, in fairness to Joey, you could never say that about him.”
Did Henry resent Harry Redknapp (the-then QPR manager) for telling Derby County they could take him on loan for the season when they got promoted to the Premier League in 2014? Again, tactful, he says: “Harry’s job was to win games of football and I respected that.” But, after being told he wasn’t going to play any football for QPR that season, Henry went on to make 33 appearances out of 38 games. “I think that scenario probably sums up my whole career,” he said.
“Harry added £20m worth of central midfielders to the squad and told Derby County they could take me on a season-long loan,” recalled Henry. “I was desperate to play in what might have been (and subsequently was) my last year in the Premier League. I had one of the best pre-seasons of my life and went about outworking everybody in my position.
“An opportunity came after a few games and I never looked back. Fighting for your place is a prerequisite in professional football and those willing to fight the hardest, more often than not, end up in the team.”
Henry is above all grateful to what English football gave to him and his family. He has forged life-long friendships with his one-time Stoke team-mates Darel Russell, Kris Commons and Lewis Buxton – three of his best men at his wedding. He is also close to another ex-Potter, Anthony Pulis, son of Tony, along with former Molineux colleagues David Jones, Wayne Hennessey and Kevin Foley. Michael Doughty and James Perch are also great friends from his time at QPR.
He has already embarked on his coaching badges and is looking forward to the next stage in his footballing career. Unusually articulate with trenchant views, he’s featured several times on BBC Radio 5 Live, while – as always, bent on success – developing a business he founded in 2011.
Henry will also keep himself busy promoting the cause of his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers, the team that helped give the kick-about kid from Ashmore Park so many golden memories.