By Nick Mulvenney
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Maligned for years as a player who does not deserve a place at the top of the game, Jordan Henderson has come to personify an under-rated England side who have confounded expectations by reaching the World Cup semi-finals.
The 28-year-old Liverpool holding midfielder has really come into his own in Russia as Gareth Southgate's youthful side have taken England to the World Cup's last four for the first time since 1990.
Having shaken off a hamstring problem he aggravated against Sweden in the quarter-finals, Henderson will be one of the first names on Southgate's team sheet on Wednesday when England take on Croatia for a place in the final.
If anyone doubted that, they only had to listen to the words of the manager in his news conference on Tuesday.
"Jordan’s a player who's been under-estimated for a long time," Southgate said, with Henderson sitting beside him.
"He’s an outstanding person, he has outstanding leadership qualities ... He’s playing at the top of his game.
"He’s not only a huge part of the team but of what we’re building as part of the team in terms of his leadership. We’re very fortunate to have him."
That Henderson is more attack-minded than the other holding midfielder in the squad, Eric Dier, has enabled him to fit perfectly into the pattern of play England have developed in Russia.
He brings steel to a midfield rich in skill and pace but small in stature - a midfield that might otherwise get blown away by more physical opponents.
Protecting the back three remains his number one priority but, as Southgate pointed out, Henderson has developed other strengths.
"The quality of his game has gone on to another level this season I think, his understanding, reading of danger," the manager said.
"You can see he’s seeing really clear pictures with the ball. Seeing passes early, seeing forward passes early, a couple of his through balls the other night were exceptional."
Henderson, who made his international debut in 2010 and has played 43 times for his country, is an old head in one of the youngest squads at the tournament.
He has clearly, though, bought into the "no ego" culture which Southgate has fostered in the camp, as he illustrated when asked about not having lost in his last 29 matches in the England shirt.
"I don’t win on my own, we win as a team," he said. "Of course, I want to win, we want to win as a team, but it’s not down to any individual, it’s down to us, as a team.
"It’s down to what we do behind the scenes, what we work on in training. All the hard work to get here. The whole squad, even people who aren’t even here, that have chipped in for us to be here now. That’s what I focus on.
"The biggest thing for me is just continuing to winning, hopefully there’s a few more wins over the next week."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)