For several years the goalkeeper position was the least of Manchester United’s worries. David de Gea, so reliable, so consistent, had become irreplaceable after his arrival from Atlético Madrid in 2011. A constant even during times of transition.
He has played under several managers – Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær – and always been close to infallible, often keeping United in games single-handedly.
Of late, though, the Spaniard’s form has dipped. In the last four games, he has made three errors which have led to goals. The most recent came against Chelsea on Sunday, a spilled shot that allowed Marcos Alonso to equalise and effectively end United’s top four chances.
It is, of course, likely just to be a poor run of form, a blip in an otherwise unblemished career at United. But it will perhaps prompt Solskjær into thinking of potential alternatives, a goalkeeper who can at some point step in for de Gea.
Jan Oblak has been linked but perhaps there the answer to that quandary may already be within the club.
Dean Henderson, who has spent this season on loan at Championship Sheffield United, could be the heir to de Gea. The 22-year-old has excelled with the Blades, helping them secure automatic promotion back to the top flight after a 12-year absence.
The youngster has dealt remarkably well with the step up from League One, where he spent the previous season with Shrewsbury. In the Championship this campaign, Henderson has kept 20 clean sheets – the most of any goalkeeper in the division – at a rate of 0.46 per game.
Sheffield United have the strongest defensive record in the league, conceding just 39 goals in 45 games. Henderson has been a significant factor in that, managing an impressive save percentage of 74.3 per cent – compared to De Gea’s 69.8 per cent – this term.
United, then, are likely to be strongly considering the possibility of bringing Henderson into first-team squad next season. The alternative is that they allow him to return to Sheffield United on loan for another campaign, which would give him a taste of Premier League football.
“It made me really emotional to get this club back to where they belong. It’s a massive football club and driving forward they deserve to be in the Premier League,” Henderson told BBC Radio Sheffield when promotion was confirmed.
“For me personally, I was really emotional and I’ve just told the gaffer then ‘don’t let me leave’. Obviously, it comes down to the two clubs to agree on money and stuff so I’ll be itching at the bit to come back here next season.”
The most likely outcome appears to be a return to Sheffield United for Henderson, although he has done his future at Old Trafford no harm. His development has been rapid and eye-catching: only three years ago he was on loan at National League North Stockport before a move to League Two Grimsby the following season.
However, things have not always been plain sailing for Henderson. He has made high-profile mistakes, notably in games against Aston Villa and Leeds. But he has had the mental fortitude to acknowledge them and bounce back.
“You’ve got to have character,” he’s said. “I think I’ve shown that from the moment I walked in the door.
“I’ve always said I’m a Manchester United fan and eventually I want to be Manchester United’s number one and England’s number one. But at the end of the day the love this club’s shown to me. It’s all about being loved. You want to feel welcomed and to be quite honest I’ve never felt so welcomed in my life.
“I’ve built up a good rapport with the fans and that’s all part of it. I’m really enjoying my time here and anywhere I go in Sheffield all of them giving me hugs, pictures, anything. I honestly feel like a star here and that makes me feel great. I’ve got to keep going, keep working hard and see what happens in the future.”
Whatever happens, the future is bright for Henderson. He has proven himself more than capable of stepping up a level, of dealing with high expectations and bouncing back from mistakes. He has earned praise from England manager Gareth Southgate for his performances at Under-21 level, too.
A place in the United first team and a senior England call-up by not be too far away for Henderson.