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Henderson or De Gea? Why his keeper plans are Ole's biggest Man Utd dilemma

COMMENT: For most managers, it would be a good headache to have. But it's still a headache. And probably the biggest Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will face at Manchester United. Just what to do with David de Gea and Dean Henderson...?

Forget the speculation. The rumours. De Gea remains Solskjaer's idea of a long-term No1. The odd mistake, a rare lapse in concentration, it's not going to change the manager's opinion. The Norwegian rates the 29 year-old the best goalkeeper in the world. And also believes, just as he saw up close with Peter Schmeichel, that De Gea's best years are still ahead of him.

It wasn't until he was 27 that Schmeichel found his way to Old Trafford. And it was almost nine years later, going stride for stride with Solskjaer, that he crowned his United career with the Treble. For today's United manager, the same is expected of De Gea.

But there is a challenge to the status quo. Something De Gea has never really had to experience. Yes, his place has come under threat, but not from any teammate. Instead, both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho both arrived as managers unconvinced by De Gea's reputation and made an effort - to varying degrees - to replace the Spaniard with those they knew.

De Gea, however, did will out. Indeed, he outlasted both men. But now he faces a new challenge from within: Dean Henderson. And it's also a challenge for the manager. Just what does he do with potentially England's best goalkeeper - and one he rates as the best in the world?

The easy answer is the most obvious: put it to one side. Allow Henderson to stay with Sheffield United for a third season running. Simply kick the can down the road for another 12 months.

But the headache will still be there. And Solskjaer knows a tough decision will have to be made.

For the moment, Bramall Lane is a good place for Henderson. And Chris Wilder the right mentor. The Blades boss has impressed United coaching staff with his management of their goalkeeper. Indeed, as a finishing school, Sheffield United's campaign couldn't have offered Henderson better. A stage to show off his best as he's played a crucial role in the club's run to seventh on the table and a shot at Europa League qualification.

And there's also been setbacks. Very public setbacks. Tests that Henderson has had to endure and overcome.

The most high-profile was a clanger against Liverpool earlier in the season. An error which drew a very public dressing down from Wilder.

"This is a real tough sport. I'm certainly not going to put my arm around him and rub his head," snapped Wilder in the aftermath of a defeat he felt should've been avoided.

"We set a high bar. It always amazes me when pundits talk about not criticising players in the press. This game has been beamed around the world. There's no hiding place."

Indeed, the hand-wringers moaned and whined. Somehow convincing themselves they knew better than a manager who had worked with Henderson for 18 months and had been in this job for almost 20 years. But for those not in the business of projection, it was no surprise to see Wilder's stick bring the best out of his No1.

And inside Carrington, they were delighted. This was the test they wanted Henderson to experience. To see how he reacted to a blaze of negative publicity. The response couldn't have pleased Solskjaer and co more.

So they think they have one. One to break the mould. Not since Gary Bailey has United had an established goalkeeper emerge from the academy. The South African paying his own way for trials as a 19 year-old from Johannesburg over 40 years ago.

"I am really, really pleased with how Dean is progressing," United's recently-appointed senior keeper coach Richard Hartis said of Henderson. "It is a big jump to go from the Championship to the Premier League, but he has shown that he can cope with that level of football at Sheffield United.

"He is an exciting prospect for us, moving forward as a club, so we are delighted to have him as our goalkeeping pool really."

In all this, the return of Hartis is significant. A former member of Sir Alex Ferguson's staff, Hartis helped develop Tom Heaton (Burnley) and Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover) at Carrington before moving on. And during his time away, in his role as the FA's youth keeper coach, he established a working relationship with Henderson.

So they know eachother. Trust eachother. Henderson can be confident that while away, he does have an ally championing his cause to the manager.

But that's not to say a return to United is a cast iron guarantee. And it's something that is front of mind for Solskjaer and his staff. If Henderson continues his progress, the offers will arrive - and a decision will have to be made.

Chelsea have been mentioned this season - though those at Carrington have dismissed this as paper talk. Instead, the real threat they see is from Mourinho. It won't happen this summer, but there is a belief the Tottenham manager will make an offer to Henderson over the next 12 months to replaceHugo Lloris. The England prospect won't be offered the chance to succeed the Frenchman, instead he will be told by Mourinho that he'll replace his captain upon arrival.

To play for a big club. In big games. And with better players. It's everything Henderson is working for. The question is: how long does he give De Gea and United to run their cycle?

This is the headache Solskjaer will soon find himself grappling with. Of course, it's a dilemma most managers would welcome. But it's still a headache and arguably the biggest he has looming on the horizon.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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