Rico Henry's long, painful road to the Premier League reflects Brentford's promotion journey

There were times in the past five years when Rico Henry didn't think he'd ever get to the night of Aug. 13. When he walked out of the tunnel at the new Brentford Community Stadium for the club's first-ever Premier League game, which also happened to be the club's first in England's top flight since 1947, more than 16,000 supporters were watching, nearly all of whom probably weren't even born the last time Brentford played at that level.

It wasn't just a celebration for the Bees. It was a moment of accomplishment for Henry.

Starting from the day he walked in the door at Brentford, Henry battled injury after injury for his first 2½ years in West London. It took its toll, leading Henry to question his playing future. He considered it, but the thought fluttered around his head only fleetingly. As he dealt with the burden of those injuries, both on his psyche and his body, Henry also had some doubts about what the future held for Brentford in those early years with the Bees.

Navigating all of that was a journey that tested his introspection, self belief and trust in team. Through it all, the 24-year-old, who is Brentford's longest-tenured player, didn't waver. He never tried to leave for greener, richer, more successful pastures of the Premier League while Brentford were navigating the English Championship and failing at promotion in 2020. He held true to his personality: an even-keeled and stoic young man who doesn't let much, if anything, bother him.

"Been a bumpy road, to be fair," Henry told ESPN.

His reward for sticking around? A promotion to the Premier League with the team that signed him in 2016 as a 19-year-old who had never been away from home.

As Brentford were winning their way through the 2020-21 season, Henry was doing his part in the backfield to keep the Bees' defence fighting for a promotion, all while playing with a newfound a sense of relief. Seemingly for the first time in his Brentford career, he was injury free after dealing with four in his first three seasons.

"I was quite confident," Henry said. "I didn't think I'll get injured again. I was in a good place at the time."

That changed in February when Henry tore a hamstring.

The initial prognosis was for him to miss two months, but he was still out when the promotion playoffs began in mid-May. He made a surprise return in the semifinal second leg against Bournemouth, but aggravated his hamstring, which kept him out of the final against Swansea City. Then his knee began bothering him at half-time of the Bournemouth game. He received an injection and later found out he tore his meniscus, which led to offseason surgery that he recently recovered from in time for the start of the Premier League season.

With a second straight promotion final awaiting and a place in the Premier League on the line again, the idea of another injury sidelining him was difficult for Henry to handle. He knew he could play through a knee injury because of the administered pain relief but the hamstring aggravation left him with "mixed emotions." On one hand, he was thrilled his team was playing for promotion; on the other, he was disappointed to be sidelined again, especially with so much at stake. It was yet another setback, but as Henry had throughout his career, he handled things as they came, not overthinking it.

"I think Rico has got an unbelievable mentality," Brentford manager Thomas Frank said.

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That mentality may have saved Henry's career.

Lorna Falconer, Brentford's head of football operations, first met Henry when he signed while she was logistics manager. Part of her responsibilities then were to help Henry with his transition to Brentford. Over the past half-decade, she's had a front-row seat to him going about life on and off the field. She's seen him become more self-aware compared to five years ago, and she's seen him develop a unique approach to, well, everything: He lets very few things bother him.

"He's not the type of person that's going to worry about what's going to happen next, what's going to happen in the game," Falconer said. "He's just going to be Rico and do what he needs to do."

She said Henry could be described as "quite vacant" because of how he comes across, quiet and reserved.

"But what I worked out is, is that it's the other way around," Falconer said. "If he wasn't that way, I don't think he would have been able to deal with his injuries the way he did."

There were many.

Henry had surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder shortly after signing with Brentford. In early May of 2017, he had a knee injury. That September he suffered a torn ACL that kept him out until November 2018. Then in February 2019 he had a minor foot issue followed by a hamstring injury in October 2020. That was it until the next hamstring injury in February, and the subsequent aggravation in the playoffs.

In all, Henry played just 39 of 152 games in his first three seasons with Brentford. That number grew to 51 during a healthy 2019-20 season, but dropped again to 35 last season.

"I've been unlucky with them," Henry said of the injuries. "You get like little nicks and small injuries, which could keep you out for a couple weeks, but sometimes you could miss a big game. So, obviously, it's frustrating. You don't want to be injured. You want to be playing every game. But yeah, let's get on with it and try and stay fit."

Even the most headstrong have moments of weakness. Henry was no different.

"What I found was he was down in the dumps about not playing football, not traveling with the team, not doing what he does," Falconer said. "I think that's what I noticed he was upset about."

One of Henry's lowest moments came toward the end of his ACL rehab in 2018 when he started to doubt whether he'd return to the pitch as sharp as he was before the injury. There were also times he thought all the injuries, all the setbacks, all the time away were too much for him, leading to him considering not playing anymore.

"I did get that a few times, to be fair," he said. "When you get injured a lot, like when you're unlucky with injuries, you do feel like that sometimes. But it's only for a short period, like 10 minutes, five minutes, and you just feel like, 'I can't be off.' So, you don't stay like that for long. Like, the next day you wake up is a new day, new opportunity. So, we just got take it in stride."

While Henry leaned on his parents, Brentford's medical team and the team psychologist to help him through all his injuries, his mental strength was what kept him afloat. That came from within.

He'd always had an innate ability to adapt and adjust to any situation he was in, whether it was moving from centre midfield to left-back when he was 14, continually getting moved up to face older competition in his academy years or figuring out how to deal with another injury. When he was going through Walsall's academy, Henry looked at the big games as any other match, said Kyle Kirby, one of Henry's youth coaches at Walsall, who remembered when Dean Smith, the former Walsall and Brentford coach who's now the manager at Aston Villa, wanted to play Henry in an exhibition match against Leeds United the day after Henry played in his under-17 match.

The coaches questioned the decision because of the stress it was going to put on Henry's body. But when Kirby walked by the locker room on the day of the Leeds game, he saw Henry unfazed, talking with the first-teamers like he'd always been part of the group.

"He's just a really chilled lad," Kirby said. "Doesn't get overconfident when he plays well, but then he doesn't get too low if he has a down performance."

It all harkens back to how Henry approaches life. It's a gift, of sorts, to not let himself linger on what's affecting him at any particular moment.

"I've seen players that have got or had injuries, and they almost can't recover from them because their brain won't allow them," Falconer said. "Whereas, Rico has that genius ability of just not thinking about it and worrying about it. He just deals with what is happening, he just does what he needs to do.

"If his brain worked in a different way where he was thinking about things, I actually think he wouldn't have recovered as well."

When Henry arrived at Brentford in 2016 as a fresh-faced phenom from Walsall, he wasn't sure what the immediate future of his new club would be.

It was promoted from League One to the Championship just two years earlier, and his first three seasons had records of 18W-10D-18L, 18W-15D-13L and 17W-13D-16L, good for 10th, ninth and 11th in the 24-team table, respectively. Even though the Bees were consistently finishing in the top half, they always went into the offseason with a few key areas to work on that they hoped would lead to the next level.

For Henry's first three seasons, however, the Premier League was all but a hope, a prayer and a dream.

"Obviously, when I first came in, I didn't know where we'd end up," Henry said.

Then came the 2019-20 season.

Brentford lost in the promotion playoff final to Fulham in extra-time, 2-1, missing out on a move up to the Premiere League by the narrowest of margins.

"I think it made us stronger," Henry said. "Obviously, we bounced back. We knew what to do. Obviously, coming in third, losing in the playoffs is difficult. Obviously, so we knew what to do the season after.

"It was good that we bounced back."

When the Bees reported to training camp for the 2020-21 season, Henry didn't think Brentford would be able to recreate the type of run they had the season before. Then they signed striker Ivan Toney in late August, only to lose Ollie Watkins a little more than a week later to Aston Villa.

"Starting the season, we didn't know what would happen," Henry said. "We knew we had the strength in other areas but, obviously, as a striker, he was new, so he was just coming in, so we didn't know what's going to happen.

"He carried us, to be fair. It was a good season."

A year after Watkins was Brentford's leading scorer, Toney filled that role, although it wasn't until late-November that Henry started to believe they could do it again. Brentford went on a run, winning 12 out of 16, including a stretch of eight out of nine from Dec. 19, 2020 to Feb. 19, 2021, all part of a 21-match unbeaten streak.

"That's when I really knew, like, 'Wow, we could be in for a treat," he said.

Henry and Toney aren't the only Bees enjoying the spoils of promotion. Keeper David Raya is tied for second in the Premier League with two clean sheets, winger Sergi Canos is tied for first with 15 tackles and midfielder Bryan Mbeumo leads the top level with two shots off the woodwork.

While Brentford closed in on a second consecutive promotion playoff final, Henry was still described as one of the best left-backs outside of the Premier League, even as he nursed a hamstring injury. That led to him being the subject of speculation that he could be headed to the Premier League for the 2021-22 season, regardless of whether it was with Brentford. He was in line for a £15 million move to Southampton, according to an April report in the Evening Standard, and was linked with potential transfers to Smith's Aston Villa, West Ham United, Leeds and Leicester City, according to various reports before Brentford were promoted.

To hear that teams were considering him gave Henry "a little bit of a buzz about it," but he said recently he didn't think about leaving Brentford, even signing a new four-year contract in 2019.

"It's about sticking with Brentford," he said. "Obviously, I'm a Brentford player. I got to put my heart into Brentford. Got to do everything for Brentford. I got to focus on Brentford at the moment, nowhere else. Just want to do well in the Premier League and see where it goes."

Kirby raised an interesting point: Henry's injuries could have delayed his jump to the Premier League, benefitting Brentford in the process.

Henry didn't need another team to play in the Premier League: Brentford beat Swansea in May's promotion playoff final, 2-0, and the party in West London began.

Fans cheered Brentford's bus as it headed back to Brentford Community Stadium afterward, Henry remembered. He had done it. Brentford had done it. It took a while for the idea that he'll be finally playing in the Premier League to sink in.

"Even like two weeks after, I still couldn't believe it," Henry said. "Only really started believing when I came in for preseason the first day back and everyone's back, and we got a new kit, new staff.

"That's when it really kicks in that we're in the Premier League. We're playing with Premier League balls now in the training ground. So, that's good. That's when it really kicks in."

It's one feeling to get promoted, but another entirely to do it with the team he ascended English soccer with.

"Now that I've been here five years," he said, "it's more of a better feeling."

The celebration after Brentford's 2-0 season-opening win over Arsenal wasn't just about a victory. It was about time. That moment was 74 years in the making. Tears were shed. Strangers were hugged. Brentford had said goodbye to Griffin Park, which was Brentford's home for 116 years, with a pub across from each corner, for a new stadium in 2020 that their website described as a "Premier League ready facility."

The 132-year-old team bet on itself and won. And Henry, who Falconer described as the "backbone of Brentford," was a part of that.

Whatever happens from here on with Henry, whether that's a long career with Brentford or a lucrative move to one of the game's deep-pocketed teams, he'll always have one thing: He stuck with Brentford to help them end a 74-year drought from the top level of English soccer.

"He was part of the dream team that took us to the Premier League," Falconer said. "He will always be remembered to be as a part of that journey and such an integral part of that journey.

"In years and years to come, when somebody says, 'You know, name the team that took Brentford to the Premier League,' Rico will be one of the names that pops up instantly in your mind."