By Charles Bamforth
Stan Cullis was a legend. His record as Wolves manager was second to none. He created two great sides – one in the late 1940s and early 1950s who brought his first FA Cup and Division One championship, then one in the late 1950s who lifted the Championship twice more and recorded another Wembley win.
For the most part, his squads featured home-grown players or the likes of Bert Williams, Johnny Hancocks and Peter Broadbent, who had barely played for other clubs and were recruited as raw talent.
There were exceptions, such as Bill Slater, who had elegantly graced Blackpool and Brentford before joining Wolves. But he was an amateur until after arriving at Molineux and his academic credentials marked him out as somebody Cullis knew was “the right sort and who would behave.”
It was the players who came in on what were then big transfer fees who, in so many instances, did not pass the Cullis test and did not linger long, no matter how well they contributed. One thinks of Harry Hooper and Mark Lazarus. Indeed, perhaps it was wingers above all that the Iron Manager was suspicious of.
Which brings us to John Gillespie Henderson. Winger? Centre-forward? Inside-forward? It is less than clear exactly in which of these roles he most excelled. And it is less than clear whether he knew it himself, which explains why the puzzle over which position he was happiest in remains.
Henderson was born in Glasgow on January 17, 1932 and didn’t play the game until he was 14. He was working on the cranes in his home city when he was persuaded to make up the numbers in a kick-about.
From there, he played for a church team who were a player short and, before he knew it, had been picked up by Kirkintilloch Boys Club.
Things obviously clicked because he joined Portsmouth for a signing-on fee of £10 in January, 1949, aged 17. He was surely tempted by the great name Pompey had at the time: later that season, they hoisted the First Division championship trophy and repeated the feat the next season, squeezing out Wolves on goal average.
But it was not until September, 1951 that Henderson was handed his debut, against Sunderland, having completed his National Service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Over the next seven seasons, starting at centre-forward but embracing every position across the front line, Henderson was a formidable presence for top-flight Pompey, scoring 70 goals in 217 first-team games.
His fine form earned him recognition from his country, first in the B team in 1953-54 but then seven times over a five-year period for the senior side, starting on the right wing against Sweden at Hampden Park on May 6, 1953. A month later against Northern Ireland in Belfast, he was on the left wing and scored his only international goal.
He wore number 9 almost a year later against England, again in Glasgow, where right-half Billy Wright was the visiting skipper. Henderson’s opposite number in the England centre-forward slot was Ronnie Allen. His last appearances in the blue shirt came when he was an Arsenal player.
Early in that year (1958), with Pompey struggling badly in the top division (they would escape relegation on goal average), he was growing restless and Newcastle showed a strong interest.
On February 14, Magpies chairman Alderman Bill McKeag apparently went to London to meet Henderson, his chairman and manager Eddie Lever, expecting to complete a £20,000 deal. Terms had been agreed but McKeag returned home with the forms unsigned.
Henderson was quoted as saying he only wanted to play on the right wing and Newcastle wanted him at centre-forward. The bizarre thing was that he had only played once on the right wing for Portsmouth because Peter Harris was so consistent in that position. One can only infer that the Scot didn’t fancy the north-east.
On February 17, 1958, Henderson said that if he could not stay in the south, perhaps with a London club, he would prefer to go to back to Scotland. However, there were rumours that Manchester United were interested as they rebuilt following the Munich air disaster less than a fortnight earlier.
Jackie duly declared his willingness to help United, who newspapers said were considering a late bid, but Preston and Burnley, other First Division high-fliers, were watching the situation, too. Henderson was not Cup-tied, as he had been injured when Pompey played their games in the competition earlier in the year.
Fast-forward to Friday, March 14…..Henderson was quoted as saying: “I believe I shall be playing in one of the Wolves teams on Saturday but in which one and in which position, I have no idea.
“But what does it matter where you play when you are happy with a club? And I know I am going to enjoy myself with Wolves. I understand I shall be used as a utility forward to keep up the reserve strength and step into the League team in any position when required.” Suddenly it seemed that an insistence on having the no 7 shirt was no big deal!
A fee of £16,000 brought Henderson to Molineux and, on March 15, his questions were answered: he would be on the left wing in a Central League game against Sheffield Wednesday at Molineux.
Cullis certainly tested Henderson’s patience. When a slot opened up on the left wing in April, it was Alan Jackson who stepped in. When Bobby Mason dropped out of the no 10 shirt, there was a call to Colin Booth.
The first-team summons for the new boy finally came on April 28, ironically at Hillsborough. Henderson was handed the no 8 shirt and did well by all accounts in the following side, who were beaten 2-1 despite a goal from Ron Flowers: Malcolm FINLAYSON, Eddie STUART, Gerry HARRIS, Bill SLATER, Billy WRIGHT, Ron FLOWERS, Norman DEELEY, Jackie HENDERSON, Jimmy MURRAY, Colin BOOTH, Jimmy MULLEN.
It seems that there might have been another from the clan coming at the time. The word was that Henderson’s younger brother, Dave, a left-winger at Portadown, was on the Wolves radar, too. There was also Jim Henderson, a sibling playing at inside-left, who would switch from Queen of the South to Worcester in August, 1959, and two youngers brothers who made up the right-wing pairing for Kelvinside Thistle.
Getting back to the summer of 1958, Jackie was in the Wolves squad who toured Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. He was given games in the 9, 10 and 11 shirts and also went on in one game from the bench.
He must have been glad to be first choice at centre-forward for the opening game of 1958-59 at home to Nottingham Forest. Henderson stood 5ft 8in, only an inch or so shorter than Jimmy Murray. He wasn’t the tallest.
The Scot played the first four games in the no 9 shirt but failed to score. Murray was brought in, and Henderson was shifted to the left wing for the Molineux encounter with Blackpool. Sure enough, he netted his first goal for the club in a 2-0 win but duly asked for a transfer, unhappy with the switch to the wing. Cullis just said “You can go. We never keep a player who is unhappy.”
The News Chronicle’s John Camkin tipped off Sheffield United’s Joe Mercer, who said: “I shall contact Stan Cullis rightaway.”
Within a fortnight, Henderson withdrew his request and hit two goals from the left flank in a 4-0 drubbing of Villa. And his next game in the shirt was against Newcastle, the club who had been so eager to sign him earlier in the year.
The ironic thing is that he finally got his wish to play on the right wing in his next game – the one that proved to be his last for Wanderers. It was at White Hart Lane on September 27, with Spurs winning by the odd goal in three.
Within a week, the temperamental Scot was on his way. Villa were keen. Liverpool, too. But Arsenal were the more determined. On Friday, October 3, their manager George Swindin headed north to negotiate with Cullis.
Three times he backed away, saying the asking price was too high. But hands were finally shaken and Henderson was on his way to Highbury for £20,000, representing a 20 per cent profit on someone who had played only nine League games for Wolves and scored three goals.
John Bromley wrote in the next day’s Daily Herald: “He plays in his favourite position of outside-left today against West Bromwich Albion at Highbury”. Favourite position? One suspects it wasn’t really the position he played in the front line that mattered to Henderson. He clearly wanted to do what he had declared originally and play in the south of England.
It was quite a debut for Jackie with two headed goals in a 4-3 win over a Baggies side including Ronnie Allen and David Burnside. Left-half for the Gunners behind Henderson was Tommy Docherty. Within the month, the forward was back in the no 11 jersey for Scotland.
Henderson played 103 games (with 29 goals) for Arsenal before switching to Fulham in January, 1962. After 45 appearances and seven goals there, as well as a broken leg, it was to Poole Town in 1964 and a swansong at Dorchester before retiring in 1971.
Jackie retired in Dorset and was a storeman for a builders’ merchant and passed away too young in Poole at the age of 73 on January 26, 2005.