This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Everton matchday programme – 13th April 2016
It’s been a debate which has raged throughout the season amongst the Palace fans – who should be the club’s number one number one? It seems as though Alan Pardew has decided Wayne Hennessey is his man, helping the shot-stopper to embark on one of his best seasons to date, which could be set to get so much better.
Hands up who thought Wayne Hennessey would make over 30 appearances for Palace in 2015/16 this time last season? With Julian Speroni seemingly set to move into a second decade at the club wearing the goalkeeper’s jersey and the summer capture of Alex McCarthy, the Welshman wouldn’t have been seen by many to have much of a look-in.
But things have been very different. Shining in pre-season, he caught the attention of Alan Pardew and after McCarthy endured a tough start at Selhurst Park, Hennessey was told to get his gloves on for the league game against Watford in September. A strong performance that sunny autumn afternoon has seen him barely look back.
Coupled with his success with Wales, whom he helped qualify for Euro 2016 the following month, it’s been quite a campaign for the Bangor-born custodian who’s been thrilled to get another chance to shine after waiting patiently for an opportunity which he seized as effortlessly as most crosses whipped into his area.
“I’m absolutely delighted with how things are going,” he said. “If you factor in both club and country this has got to be up there as one of the best seasons of my career but it’s still not over yet. Hopefully it can get even better by getting into the final of the FA Cup and staying in the Premier League. We deserve to be higher in the table but that’s football for you, it’s been a strange season this year.
“You need to ask the gaffer if he thought I was going to play much this year! He brought in Alex during the summer so it looked as though he was going to be number one, but I knew I just had to keep myself fit and hope the chance came, which it did.
“Hopefully I’ve staked my claim for the spot here now. We’ve got Julian Speroni who is a legend at the club who the fans love and adore, and then Alex has come in and done well, so whoever gets that jersey it’s going to be difficult to keep it. I’ve got it now and hopefully I can for as long as possible and try to become a fan favourite.”
A goalkeeper’s life is never easy, with the emphatic highs of, literally, single-handedly winning your side points often quickly extinguished by a momentary blip in concentration seeing them, again literally, slip through their fingers.
Hennessey is a prime example of this equilibrium. Back in December he made two tremendous saves in back-to-back games, firstly using every sinew in his 6’6” frame to deflect a swerving volley from Everton’s Tom Cleverley away from his top corner in a game that saw Palace leave Merseyside with a point, before then showcasing extraordinary reflexes to prevent Steven Davis from looping a header into his net against Southampton.
Despite being just as crucial as Scott Dann and Yohan Cabaye’s goals in those games, these seem to have almost been forgotten by Sky Sports who omitted the Welshman from their shortlist of the season’s top stops, something which irks him:
“They’re probably my two best saves for Palace and hopefully the crowd liked them. I’ve been getting a lot of texts at the moment because Sky are running a Save of the Season poll and I’ve not been included which is disappointing!”
Back then with his confidence sky-high, Hennessey’s name was being chanted from the Selhurst stands, but he was quick not to let the plaudits coming his way go to his head such is the fallibility of being stopper, and he was to be proved right. A month later back-to-back games against Aston Villa and Manchester City saw two errors from the glovesman leading to goals in consecutive defeats, and suddenly he was firmly under the microscope.
Despite severe pressure from two keepers breathing down his neck, he picked up the gauntlet thrown to him by Pardew and repaid his manager’s faith by shrugging off the disappointments to return to his consistent form with minimal fuss.
He’s honest enough however to admit he went through some tough times, stating: “I made quite a few errors through January which was disappointing for myself and the team because they were crucial ones at critical stages of games but I’m turning that around now. Every goalkeeper goes through a sticky patch here and there but I’m trying to rectify those mistakes.
“If any kids are watching wanting to be a goalkeeper it’s a prime example for them. You don’t sail through your career as a keeper; you go through patches where things don’t work out for you. Goalkeeping is about putting that to one side and focussing hard on the next game.
“There’s a tight goalkeepers union here and all of us stick together. There’s only one jersey which is completely different to everywhere else in the team. Any outfield player can make a mistake and get away with murder but we can’t – one mistake and it’s a goal.”
At 29-years-old with over a half-century of international caps to his name and having completed 100 Premier League games last weekend against Norwich City, Hennessey is well versed in taking the rough with the smooth – after all his career started in extraordinary fashion.
Initially with Manchester City’s academy, he later moved on to Wolves but his first taste of first-team action came on loan at Stockport County in January 2007. He kept a clean sheet on his debut against Boston United before embarking on an unprecedented run of eight more – breaking a 119-year Football League record which still stands – to remain unbeaten in his first nine professional games.
Suddenly hot property, Hennessey was quickly thrust into the Wolves line-up upon his return to Molineux and he went on to appear 166 times for a club he still holds in high regard. However injuries blighted his latter years in the Black Country, including missing the entire 2012/13 campaign with a knee ligament injury and being loaned to Yeovil Town following Wolves’ demotion to the third tier.
This puts into context how he was able to quickly bounce back from the highs and lows of a couple of games here and there earlier this season – his career as a whole can be mapped by a series of peaks and troughs.
“Since I made my debut aged 18 my career has been up and down,” he admitted. “I won the Championship with Wolves and we got into the Premier League but I had some bad injuries and missed a solid year of football.
“At Stockport I kept nine clean sheets in a row which was fantastic and then I went straight from there into the Wolves team for a play-off semi-final derby against West Bromwich Albion. That was my first Championship game and it was a brilliant experience. From there I kept on playing and it was a great team to be involved with. Wolves is a big club and it was an amazing time for me.”
If you’re plotting Hennessey’s peaks and troughs, then you could well be about to see a steep incline if he gets his way over the coming months. Palace’s FA Cup run should see him turn out at Wembley for the first time in club colours, and hopefully a subsequent appearance under the arch in the final could see him get his gloves on Palace’s first ever piece of major silverware.
From there he will pack his bags and fly to France to participate in Wales’ first major international tournament since 1958, becoming only the second ever goalkeeper in the nation’s history to line up between the posts (the other was Arsenal and Wales legend Jack Kelsey) in a World Cup or European Championship. It has all the hallmarks of a potentially special summer.
On the showdown with Watford next week, Hennessey revealed: “I’m incredibly excited because I’ve never really gone this far before in the FA Cup, so to see ourselves in the semi-finals against Watford is great and hopefully we’ll do the business in a big game.
“I’ve only played at Wembley once before for Wales when we lost 1-0 to England [back in 2011]. It was a full crowd that day so it’ll be interesting to go back there and hopefully all the Palace fans will be there and the stadium will be bouncing.
“Internationally it will be the proudest moment for me when I go to the Euros,” he continued. “It’s going to be massive and it’s a great credit to the small nation of Wales. People have been quick to write us off but it’s our first time at a major tournament since the 1950s and we have fantastic talent in that dressing room.
“The closer it comes the more excited we’re all getting. The preparations are well underway with the hotels and our training stuff all sorted and there has been plenty of media work for us all so we’re really looking forward to it. I was just speaking to Joe Ledley earlier and he said ‘it’s getting closer, it’s getting closer!’ – we both can’t wait for it.
“It means so much to even be there. It’s an incredible time for myself, my family and the nation so hopefully we can do all proud.”