Ex-Man City and Ipswich starlet Alex Henshall: Now I’ve got to start again from the beginning

Alex Henshall joined the City academy aged 16. Credit: Man City

By Will Unwin

As a teenager Alex Henshall had the enviable choice between signing for Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, but has now had to readjust his ambitions.

Once one of the most-sought after talents in English football, the winger has recently joined National League side Braintree Town in an attempt to re-start his career.

Henshall has endured five frustrating months without a club since departing Kilmarnock in the summer. Offers came from a number of league clubs were rejected prior to the season starting, something the winger puts down to a certain level of naivety, leaving him with an uncertain future.

A spell training with Yeovil Town to stay fit and a couple of outings for Margate followed to ensure he was fully prepared for a return to the game he loves.

Like most footballers, he's a creature of habit and is happiest when playing, meaning his time away from the professional game has left a lasting impression on him.

“My mentality at the time was that I was annoyed that I didn’t have a club. My family were saying I wasn’t the same as when I was in football. It was quite a daunting time for me and I had to assess my options.

"Football is the only thing I know, and now I’ve got to make sure I can keep working on it. I have another chance now at Braintree. I am happy to start again, as long as I’m playing and working hard, I’ve got to be confident that I can get back up into the league."

Henshall is commuting across the country from his home in the West Country to play for Braintree, after signing a deal until the season, showing his commitment to play again and fulfil his ambitions.

"I had a couple of options in the summer, but I turned them down thinking I would get something better and that just wasn’t the case, leaving me without a club for five months. I finally got a good relationship with an agent and he got me the move to Braintree quite quickly.

“Now I’ve got to start again from the beginning, as that’s just the way it’s gone for me this last year. It is something I have to do, I have to get my head down and move back up from where I am at the moment."

Braintree is Henshall's new home. Credit: PA

Henshall, 22, has played just 18 senior games, so is now at the point where he needs to be getting regular time on the pitch to prove his qualities, as the archetypal England left-winger who likes to beat the man and put a cross in.

He can take inspiration from former team-mates Luke Coulson and Adam Morgan who have recent made an impression in non-league football. Ex-Manchester City academy player Coulson has just signed for Barnet after an impressive spell with Eastleigh, while former England youth international Morgan made headlines when he scored a hat-trick in the FA Cup for Curzon Ashton.

There's no doubt in Henshall's mind that he can become the player he promised to be, even if he has to go the long way round to get playing professionally once more.

“I won’t be the last and I definitely not the first, it’s just one of those things that you need to try and get on with. I just want to make a living out of the game, as it is all I know. Adam Morgan has done the exact same thing and I am really pleased that he’s doing really well for himself, so hopefully it’s onwards and upwards."

Henshall came through the ranks at Swindon. Credit: PA

At the age of 15 Henshall was called up to the Swindon Town first team, featuring on the bench on a couple of occasions, a sign of his prodigious talents

“Throughout my youth career at Swindon I’d been playing years ahead of me, anyway. It was a bit of a shock – I woke up one morning with a phone call from someone at Swindon saying I was in the squad for the first-team. Even though I was mentally prepared for it, it was still a bit of a shock. It was a great feeling, but if you asked me if it was a bit early, I still wouldn’t know."

Henshall played alongside the likes of Nathan Redmond. Credit: PA

Aged 16 Henshall travelled up and down the country to look around all the clubs who wanted to sign him, including two days training at Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. Eventually he plumped for City, joining them in a six-figure deal, after being won over by youth team manager Scott Sellars.

"The whole coaching set-up at City that did it for me; with Scott Sellars and the things he was saying to me, as he played in my position. That persuaded me to go there and I don’t regret not going elsewhere.

“I went to Liverpool and a week after I went to Man United for a couple of days, then went next door to City’s training ground and my agent said I had to make a decision, so I did."

Scott Sellars, right, convinced City to sign Henshall. Credit: PA

As is well documented, no Manchester City youngsters have broken through to the point of becoming a first team regular in recent years from the club’s academy for a variety of reasons. It’s plain to see that the quality of the first team squad means opportunities are limited, something Henshall accepts is just part of being at a top Premier League club.

Although these circumstances were worsened by Roberto Mancini’s insistence his two sons, Andrea and Filippo, should be part of the club’s reserve side.

“I would say it was a little bit difficult at the time, as Roberto Mancini was in charge at the time, so even getting into the reserves was tough; he would play his two sons ahead of players that were better than them, so that pathway was blocked. And with all the money City have they can go and buy who they want, so there were a few restrictions, but that’s just what happens in football.”

City are now more organised with the development of players, with a number of academy being sent to NAC Breda and Twente in Holland, whereas Henshall only had a few games in the lower leagues when still at the Etihad.

“When I was a City, I had loan spells at Chesterfield, Bristol Rovers and then Ipswich. There wasn’t the structure there is now around getting players out on loan to clubs like NAC Breda where there are quite a few lads at the moment."

Henshall moved to Ipswich after a loan spell. Credit: PA

A loan spell at Ipswich lead to Mick McCarthy signing him permanently for the Championship club at the end of his Manchester City contract, despite interest from a number of Premier League clubs.

“I went on loan to Ipswich first and I did quite well and the manager Mick McCarthy said he wanted to sign me permanently. The things he was saying to me made me want to go there. I could see my time at City was coming to an end, so it was just one of things I wanted to do. Stoke, Swansea and Crystal Palace were all interested in me at the time, but Mick McCarthy was saying I’d get first team football at Ipswich and that’s what I wanted.

“My first season I did quite well in the appearances I made and then in my second season things didn’t work out. I think it came down to differences between me and Mick McCarthy, we just had different ideas, as the type of wide player he wants, is different from the type of player I am. We just ended up falling out, which wasn’t great, but you just have to learn from it."

Alex Henshall left Kilmarnock in the summer. Credit: PA

Short spells at Blackpool on loan and a permanent deal at Kilmarnock followed, but Henshall is now back in England waiting to remind those of what he can do on the pitch.

Henshall played alongside the likes of Raheem Sterling and Nathan Redmond for a number of England youth teams, but now has a different challenge on his hands to once again make a living out of the game.

Looking back is not an option for Henshall, he wants a blank canvas to start from one again, Braintree might not be the most picturesque setting to re-find your place in the world, but it could just be perfect for one left winger.