STEVENAGE FC FEATURE Ronnie Henry says after his record-breaking 500th appearance: "One day my career will end - but I don't want it to finish just yet because I love what I do"
PUBLISHED: 17:37 14 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:45 14 March 2019
A biting chill numbed the flesh and the wind swirled.
Dino Maamria’s Stevenage were 1-0 up in a hard-fought game against play-off rivals Swindon Town looking to close out the match.
As clock ticked down activity occurred on the Boro bench at Broadhall Way. A player in red and white readied to come on.
Applause commenced instantly.
Supporters in the all-seater West Stand rose as one in acclaim to hail the man, who, by stepping onto the turf, was creating history.
It was fitting the grizzled warhorse Alex Revell made way to be replaced by another.
The name of the veteran history maker? Ronnie Henry.
The reason for such worship? The evergreen 35-year-old was making his 500th appearance for the unprepossessing North Herts club quietly existing in the middle to upper reaches of League Two.
It was testament to the highly-respected Henry that not only did his side grab the vital three points on offer, they extended their lead to seal a 2-0 win through a star of the future, QPR loanee Ilias Chair, who scored with an audacious shot from his own half.
Yet such is Henry’s standing around the club, boss Maamria was more inclined to praise Henry’s contribution than highlight the promising Chair.
Maamria said of the moment after the match was won and the fans long departed: “It was absolutely brilliant.
“I told the lads before the game, let’s make sure we’re in a position late on in the game for Ronnie to come in and seal the win with his 500th appearance.
“He’s a club legend but hasn’t played as much as he would have liked this season – yet he always leads by example around the training ground and in everything he does.
When the notepads and cameras are out Henry is the consummate professional.
Once the whirring dictaphones are turned off, the Hemel Hempstead-born 5ft 11in defender is good company, sharp and witty, full of the genuine self-deprecation the majority of sportspeople possess as a sine quo non of their trade.
He is also modest.
Recalling the moment he broke the record, 14 months after smashing the club’s all-time appearance figure of 469, held by Mark Smith, on another freezing day, on the Fylde coast at Morecambe, Henry was quick to thank those who helped him on his odyssey through the lower reaches of the professional game and upper echelons of non-league football.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I’m not sure if anyone will ever beat that but if they do good luck to them, they’ll deserve it.
“I feel really proud. I wanted to do it sooner rather than later. You never know what is going to happen in football so it is a relief to be honest. It is a great milestone and a wonderful moment. It really meant a lot to me to see the supporters singing my name, to see the scoreboard light up.
“It was the perfect way to do it. I came on to help win the game and Ilias’ goal topped the evening off. It was fantastic. That moment will live with me forever. The fans were absolutely outstanding, as they have been to me for the past 14 years and I would like to really thank them for their support.
“I have a lot of people to thank. I couldn’t have reached this milestone without all the different managers I’ve played under.
“The players and friends that I have made over the years. All the staff that have been so good to me. I must also thank my family who have supported me every step of the way.”
Henry’s down-to-earth nature - which still sees him drive a humble Fiesta that stands out in a players car park peopled by snazzy BMW’s and sleek Mercedes – comes from a deep awareness of the vicissitudes that professional sport can throw at those who dare to take part.
In 2004, at the age of 17 he was released by his boyhood club Spurs – where his grandfather Ron played in the 1960-61 double-winning side.
Leaving White Hart Lane was a blow to the young Henry, the team his family supported, and the club his grandfather, Ron, served for more than 50 years.
Speaking at the club’s training ground two days after reaching the 500 game milestone Henry said: “It’s been one heck of a journey.
“People rarely get to more than 150 games at one club because so many players move around. Stevenage has been good to me, but I like to think I’ve been good for them.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of. There’s been so many ups but also a few downs too but I’ve been strong and got through it.
“I owe a lot to my family. To my dad. He was running my around when I was 10.11,12 and driving me around the M25 to train at White Hart Lane.
“You don’t’ really realise the sacrifices your parents make until you become one. My son is with Stevenage and it does take it out of you.
“I wouldn’t be standing her today with you if it wasn’t for the support of my family.”
Yet, showing the character he is known for, Henry made the brave move to join Dublin City 15 long year ago - where he only spent six months before being jettisoned due to financial issues at the football club.
The then Stevenage boss Graham Westley took a chance on the raw teenager, handing him a six month deal.
The decision would prove to be the best deal the club ever made.
Henry was the perfect fit for Boro. He was a revelation and became an ever-present as Stevenage reached the Conference play-off final in 2005, falling to Carlisle United 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium.
The next season Henry became the first player to lift a trophy at the new Wembley Stadium as Stevenage came back from two goals down to beat Kidderminster Harriers 3-2 in the 2007 FA Trophy final.
For good measure he also claimed player of the year honours as Boro enjoyed an unprecedented period of success.
“Lifting a trophy at Wembley was also a highlight,” he recalls with the merest hint of a smile at a job well done.
“How could I ever forget that? That was a great moment for myself and my family.
“People still say to me now I was the first person to lift a trophy at the new Wembley. That was a proud moment. It tops everything off. To even play at the new Wembley was good enough but to come back from 2-0 to win 3-2 was unbelievable.
“To walk up those steps that every kid dreams of walking up whether it be at the new stadium or the old one – I’ll never forget that.
“I’ve had a lot of good times but I don’t want it to end.”
The FA Trophy was won in 2009 as Steve Morison and Lee Boylan struck at Wembley to beat York 2-0. Although not captain at the time, Henry was once again ever present throughout the campaign.
Having knocked on the door for a number of years, promotion to the Football League was finally confirmed in 2010 as Stevenage romped to the league title with 99 points and just 24 goals conceded, keeping 27 clean sheets.
Such a fierce defensive record meant more individual honours for Henry, earning a place in the Conference Team of the Year alongside Mark Roberts and Scott Laird.
“It was a very proud moment for my granddad when he came to the FA Trophy game shortly before he started to get ill with Alzheimer’s,” he explained.
“It is tough to be a professional footballer. You have to get over the defeats. I don’t like losing and I’m sure my wife and my son will tell you what I’m like on a Sunday morning if we’ve lost on a Saturday.
“My advice to youngsters is that you’ve got to work hard every day. You’ve got to make sacrifices. You’ve got to want to be the best you can possibly be. “You’ve got to be mentally strong. You’ve got to believe in your ability. You have to enjoy coming to work. It’s a great career. I love what I do.
In Boro’s first ever season in the Football League, Henry helped anchor the team to the best defensive record in the division and a second successive promotion.
Henry was part of the memorable FA Cup upset over Newcastle United in 2011 - also going some way to right the wrongs of the side’s never-to-be-forgotten pairing in 1998.
“The highlights are definitely the promotions,” Henry insisted.
“You just can’t beat a promotion season. It’s a long, hard season and a lot of work goes into it so to achieve promotion will always live long in the memory.
“The FA Cup tie against Newcastle in 2010 and of course the FA Cup fifth round games against Spurs. We got a draw at the Lamex to set up a replay at White Hart Lane. Because of my family history that meant a lot too.
“The new Spurs stadium looks fantastic. I’m looking forward to watching games at the new White Hart Lane. But I don’t want it to be too soon as I still want to be playing Tuesdays and Saturdays for as long as possible. There’s plenty of time for that.”
As Maamria’s side gear up for a late push for a play-off with help from Chair scoring from 60 yards to help Stevenage secure a vital three points in the hunt for a Sky Bet League Two play-off place after beating Swindon 2-0 at the Lamex Stadium on Tuesday night, Henry is savouring every minute left in his career.
“You have to make sacrifices as a footballer. You want to celebrate Christmas with the family, with the kids but you can’t because you’re working.
“Yet I don’t want to look forward to celebrating Christmas properly because that will mean I’m longer a footballer. And I really don’t want that to happen yet.
“I’ve been lucky to have been fit throughout my career. Every season I’ve played more than 40 games bar this one. I live to play but that’s life and I’ve had to keep my head down and work hard on the training ground. It’s mentally tough not to play but I’ve tried to be as professional as possible and do things right.”
The win over the Robins saw tenth place Boro move to within five points of Colchester, who occupy the final play-off spot ahead of the weekend’s fixtures.
As winter turns to spring hope is in the air.
Yet for the first time in our chat, Henry, the consummate pro, betrays a hint of wistfulness on his battle-hardened face as he looked to the run-in.
Not because of a fear of failure. Absolutely not. The brief look of trepidation came from the fact this hugely-respected professional knows he will have to hang up his boots one day soon.
He says ruefully: “I get a bit of stick from the younger players. I tell them I’m still looking fit and that I run more than them in training. I love all the laughs and I don’t want it to end. I love being here every day.
“It’s part of my life. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years and I really don’t want to get out of the routine.
“I’ve never been on social media. I don’t know why it’s probably because I’ve just focused on my game. I’m not interested in social media.
“One day my career will end...but I don’t want it to finish just yet because I love what I do.”
See CometSport and Stevenage FC for details of Ronnie Henry’s testimonial.
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