ADAM Henley still looks back at the whirlwind start to his Blackburn Rovers career with a sense of amazement. Two seasons on, it is simply a run without injury that the full back craves the most.
Henley is expected to start a second consecutive game for Rovers when they face Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium this afternoon, having seen fitness setbacks restrict his appearances since his dramatic breakthrough to the first team.
Then Rovers were battling relegation under Steve Kean and a 17-year-old youth graduate was thrust on to the Premier League stage.
For some it could have been a disaster, for Henley it was the making of him.
His debut came as a substitute in a 3-3 draw at Wigan – in place of Real Madrid great Michel Salgado, no less.
“It was crazy really,” Henley reflects now. “I’d been involved around the first team a lot that year but it came as a bit of a shock to be on the bench, never mind get on to the pitch. It all happened so quickly.
“But in a way that’s how you want it to be, if it builds up it allows the nerves to come in, just getting thrown in the deep end is probably the best thing.
“It was an honour to come on for Michel. It was great and training with him, to learn from one of the best in my position.
“Someone of his experience, just to watch them train can help you, they don’t really have to tell you anything.
“But he was really good with all the younger players too, passing on all the things he’d learned.
“He was massive fan of the club when he was here and I’m sure he’ll always be interested in how we’re going.
“He’s not popped in recently to say hello, but I’m hoping he will do soon.”
Salgado had been frozen out of first-team contention when Henley’s big chance arrived on Boxing Day of 2011, when he was handed his first start at Liverpool – the club he supported as a boy.
Rovers claimed a shock 1-1 draw and Henley started again five days later as they incredibly won 3-2 at Manchester United.
“It was massive for me at that age and a really big step up,” he said.
“For a lot of people it’s quite hard to handle, I think it’s a good test for players when they make that step up to see if they can handle it.
“I was able to do that in those games. It was a really good time. They’re good memories to look back on.
“I’d been at Manchester United when I was eight or nine so to play against them was massive, and I was a big Liverpool fan as a kid so playing there was really good.
“I was playing against players like Downing, Suarez, Valencia and Nani.
“As a player so young I’d looked up to those players and watched them week in week out. It was unbelievable really.
“They’re moments I’ll never forget, especially with it being so early on in my career.
“It gave me an insight to where I want to be later on.
“Let’s hope we can get back up to the Premier League and do it again.”
Henley’s incredible year continued when he travelled with the Wales squad to the United States for their end of season friendly with Mexico.
The defender was an unused substitute and is still waiting for his senior international debut, having played at under 19 and under 21 level, although he has been placed on standby for Wales’ squad against Iceland on Wednesday.
Henley is still also eligible represent the USA, though.
“I’ve still got options,” he said.
“It was a great trip when I went away with Wales with the other Premier League players – Gareth Bale wasn’t there but people like Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy, a lot of the top Welsh players. It was a really good experience.
“I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is something not a lot of people know and allows me to qualify for America.
“I moved over here when I was two or three, so I don’t remember anything about it but I’ve still got a lot of family over there and I get to visit when I can.
“But I grew up in Chorley so I’m still a local lad, even though I’ve represented Wales and I was born in America!”
Henley feels comfortable playing for Rovers first-team boss Gary Bowyer, who he has known for close to a decade, but knows it is important that he now has an extended run in the side to start to progress again.
A combination of injuries and competition from fellow right back Todd Kane means his longest run of consecutive starts this season is only five matches.
“The last year has been hard for me but I’ve learned a lot from going through it,” Henley said.
“I’m looking after myself well and hopefully I can put that behind me now and get some games under my belt.
“I had Gary Bowyer as a coach when I was only young in the under 12s and then again in the under 18s, the reserves and now the first team, so it’s good to have that relationship with someone who has known me for such a long time. He knows my game, what I’m about and how to help me.
“It’s healthy competition with Todd, too. It’s only going to make us better.
“It’s just about getting regular games and playing week in, week out.
“It’s the only way you can get better really.”