Neil McCann remains Jack Hendry’s biggest fan.
“I know he has agreed a move to Oostende but I would be staggered if he is not playing in the English Premier League next season,” the former Dundee manager exclusively tells Courier Sport.
Given McCann remains very close to Hendry, it is tempting to view that assertion as more than mere speculation. Talk that the Belgian club could seek to make a quick buck, it seems, has some merit.
And should Hendry be plying his trade in the world’s richest league next term — fresh from representing Scotland at Euro 2020 — McCann and Dundee are justified in feeling a sense of pride.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that Jack would play international football,” added McCann. “That’s from the first time I saw him.”
In the space of seven months, Hendry was transformed from an overlooked kid at Wigan to one of the most sought after defensive prospects in Scotland, ultimately earning Dundee a club record fee of £1.5m when he joined Celtic in January 2018.
This is the story of Hendry’s brief but eventful dalliance with Dundee, told by those closest to him.
‘He stood out a mile’
“At a club like Dundee, you don’t have a wealth of recruitment staff, so I found Jack scouring the lower leagues myself,” recalled McCann.
He was searching for a technically adept, confident defender who could play out from the back and press the game, yet still have the recovery speed to get back if they lost possession. No small task.
“I invited him up and I pretty much wanted to sign him straight away. He had everything that I wanted in my centre-backs.”
Graham Gartland — McCann’s number two and a solid, no-nonsense defender in his playing days — would go on to be pivotal in Hendry’s progression. He immediately realised that he had prodigious raw materials to work with.
The former St Johnstone man said: “His athletic ability and recovery pace stood out a mile. I would have killed for some of the natural attributes Jack has, and so would 99% of defenders out there.
“I also wish I had Jack’s confidence when I was a player!”
That confidence was apparent from day one. When this writer mentioned the prospect of a Jack Hendry feature to one Dundee supporter, the reaction was: ‘He thought he was Beckenbauer, that boy’.
A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but Hendry has always has a healthy appreciation of his own talent; the sort of appreciation that might convince one to take a pop at goal from 40 yards against the Czech Republic.
“He came in to club a little later than the rest of us and I remember winding him up saying: ‘Kerr Waddell’s ahead of you, it’s not going well’,” smiles Lewis Spence, the designated driver in Hendry’s car pool with Scott Bain and Kevin Holt.
“He just looked at me and said: ‘Trust me, I’ll be in this team soon enough’. That was his mentality. He strikes that balance between arrogance and confidence that all the top players have.”
McCann laughs: “Well, he was never behind Kerr Waddell in my pecking order. I don’t know what Spencey’s talking about. Maybe HE was behind Kerr Waddell, but never Jack.
“But Jack does has a real opinion of his ability and that can be misunderstood as arrogance. That’s not the case.”
Aggression and dominance
This is no tale of unmitigated success.
Hendry was in the team as the Dee shipped three to Hamilton (twice), four to Rangers, four to Celtic, two at Aberdeen, Partick Thistle, Hibernian and St Johnstone.
For all his class on the ball, Hendry needed to toughen up and turn his physical gifts into ferocious displays.
“Graham [Gartland] had some brilliant ideas, as a former centre-back himself, about how to improve Jack as a player,” continued McCann.
Spence added: “Jack did a lot of work with Graham Gartland — a lot of double-sessions. With that confidence Jack had, he didn’t always like being told!”
Gartland, for his part, is modest; reluctant to take too much credit for Hendry’s rise. Nevertheless, it is clear he relished the opportunity to craft a raw, physically precocious youngster into something special.
“I wouldn’t say I fondly recall those hours on the training ground,” said Gartland. “Maybe he wouldn’t either! Getting the message through to Jack could be a little bit difficult but nine times out of 10 he would respond.
“If a player realises you care, they become really willing to learn and I always told Jack: ‘I’m trying to teach you this stuff because I think you’ve got a real chance of being top-level footballer’.”
“I just found myself thinking: ‘You’re 6ft4in and you could be so much more aggressive in winning headers and being dominant’.
What a start for Scotland! 🏴
Centre-back Jack Hendry puts one past Tim Krul from 25-yards out! 🎯
Watch live on Sky Sports Main Event now! pic.twitter.com/U1F4qAMkUl
— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) June 2, 2021
“We put him on a program designed to bring that power to the fore, looking at things like his starting position and how to defend the front-post; making sure he is commanding that area.
“When he took that on board, his defending really improved and all those other attributes just shone through.”
Celtic Park, 14/10/2017
Hendry put those lessons to use in a 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park. While he emerged on the losing side, he turned in a performance of such pace, power and poise that it put him on the fast-track to Parkhead.
“Without going into our conversations, Brendan [Rodgers] wondered where we had got Jack,” recalled McCann. “I won’t repeat exactly how he phrased that! Let’s just say he was pretty impressed.
Spence, in the starting eleven that day, added: “That was the game when we all realised that Jack and Glen Kamara were just on a different level.
“Scotty Sinclair, who was on fire, tried to run Jack four or five times and Jack just stepped in and took the ball. He was so quick. There was no-one in Scottish football defending like that against Sinclair at that time.
“Jack and Glen looked like Celtic and Rangers players in a Dundee team — the rest of us were just trying to keep up! Let’s be honest about it.”
As McCann says, “I had a feeling, from that game, that Celtic were going to come in for Jack.”
You might expect that to be the talk of the car on the way to and from training. Not a bit of it.
“That was actually the one time that he actually kept quiet!” laughs Spence. “There were a couple of rumours that Rangers might be interested in him and they are my team, so my only advice was: he’d better go to Rangers.”
Besides, Spence has bigger issues to contend with during his months as the wheelman for Hendry, Bain and Holt.
“I had just passed my test and got my first car and, honestly, they would leave every bit of mess you can imagine in my car, spray stuff on the windscreen — every week they’d destroy my car,” he recalled.
“It was white as well, so I’d try to keep it nice. Then, the moment I got it valeted they’d stuff muffins down the seats.”
The Hoops swoop
With Hendry, and Dundee, showing a marked improvement in the weeks that followed that heartening showing at the home of The Invincibles, a switch to Celtic came to pass on deadline day of the winter transfer window.
McCann said: “Jack was such a big part in how we wanted to play and, although we ended up getting Steven Caulker in — a big signing for Dundee — he couldn’t perform in the manner I wanted him to. Jack was just so unique in his attributes.
— BBC Sportsound (@BBCSportsound) February 1, 2018
“I lost one of my lynchpins and a key part in how I wanted my team to function — but there’s also a great deal of pride to secure a record fee for the club, and to have helped a young footballer improve and make such a big step.”
Gartland added: “We really missed Jack at the end of that season. We lost our most consistent defender; someone who was so key to the way we played.
“We had reached a place where we were comfortable if Jack played — but you can’t stand in a player’s way when they want to join a club like Celtic.”
The rest is history well-documented elsewhere.
An ill-fated time at Celtic; loan spells at Melbourne City and Oostende; a serious knee injury.
But he emerged stronger to become one of 11 names on the team-sheet for Scotland’s first game at major finals in 23 years and, regardless of the result and his part in it, is once again on the upward trajectory which began with those 30 outings for the Dee.