Jack Hendry: ‘It’s been surreal but I came here to play in Champions League’

Ostend is an unusual place to encounter football rehabilitation. When Jack Hendry routinely references his pathway it is apparent he has taken an unorthodox route to playing against Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar in the Champions League. Next up for Hendry and Club Brugge: Manchester City.

“It’s been a pretty surreal last few weeks,” the 26-year-old says. “One of the main reasons I came to Brugge was to play in the Champions League. I believed in myself that I could play on this stage and it was up to me to go and show that. I feel mentally, technically and physically I can compete at this level.”

So far, so good; Brugge have four points from Group A games against Paris St-Germain and RB Leipzig. Hendry has earned widespread acclaim.

Six years ago, he made his debut for Partick. By 2016, he was sampling loans at Shrewsbury and Milton Keynes. Wigan thought they had handed Everton a bloody nose when signing Hendry – widely compared to John Stones – from Thistle in 2015. “The conversations were initially all about going to Everton, into the 23s and developing the way Stones had done,” Hendry says. “The Wigan chairman told me they had missed out on Stones when he went to Everton so now it was their turn to get one up.

“I’ve grown up with people speaking about our similarity. I’m now going to be on the same pitch as him. It’s funny how football works out. He has had criticism, come back and is a world-class footballer so he is a great role model.”

Hendry’s star was back on the rise when he joined Celtic from Dundee in 2018. Having quickly become the subject of ridicule – and make no mistake, the analysis was that fierce – the central defender was packed off on loan to Melbourne City in January 2020. He had been scouted by the City Football Group, who have Melbourne as part of their stable. “They saw me fitting into their model and it was a move that excited me,” he says. “I was a bit down, I needed something fresh.”

Alone in a new environment, Hendry suffered a serious knee injury within two matches. “I had some dark times,” he says. “Especially with the freak injury. You feel like the world is against you. But there’s people who go through a whole lot worse than I did. You just have to pick yourself back up.

“I worked harder than I ever had, mentally and physically, during that injury. I can’t speak highly enough of the people out there – they made me the player I am just now.”

Another temporary transfer, this time to Oostende, did not quite resemble a final throw of the dice but Hendry’s career was drifting. Thirty-two starts in the Belgian Pro League were enough for Brugge to spend £6m on Hendry this summer, immediately after Oostende had exercised their right to buy from Celtic.

“Oostende was another move into the unknown,” he says. “It put me outside of my comfort zone; different languages, different cultures. But I was more than happy to challenge myself. I backed myself to come over here and showcase my talent.”

Hendry rebuffed offers from England when swapping Belgian clubs. “I wanted to be competing for trophies and titles.”

Brendan Rodgers heralded Hendry as the likely solution to a Scottish central defensive crisis when signing him from Dundee. As it became clear Hendry would not succeed at Celtic, Rodgers bemoaned having to play the centre-back more often at that stage of his development than he would have liked.

Those inside the club say Hendry never really fitted in with the dressing room culture, which may not be his fault. It is also not as simple as emphasising that Celtic, whose defence routinely resembles the Keystone Cops, blundered by letting him go. Hendry appears to be have been spurred on by what transpired. Sometimes the right player simply reaches the wrong environment.

“There might be an abundance of reasons why that move didn’t work out as it should have done,” Hendry says. “Now I’m at a brilliant, extremely ambitious club in Brugge. I’m looking to the future, not really concentrating on what has been. I learned lessons and I’m pushing on now. Anything said that was negative about me, I used as motivation.”

Hendry is quick, allowing him to recover from mistakes that remain in his game. At 6ft 5in, he is tall enough to play in central defence in an elite environment. What makes him stand out – hence the Stones references – is composure on the ball. Steve Clarke, the Scotland manager, very quickly latched on to Hendry’s development.

Hendry tapped into the knowledge of Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay, Kieran Tierney and others when on recent international duty with regards halting City. “I got some good insight but I won’t be discussing that other than in-house,” says Hendry with a smile.

Hendry responds to the point that Brugge are his 11th club by pointing out how difficult it can be for a youngster in his position to earn managerial trust. He plans to be in Brugge for number of years, describing it as “the perfect move”.

Harsh lessons from the past means this level of contentment is perfectly valid.