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Jordan Henderson: I strongly believe that me playing in Saudi Arabia is a positive thing
David Ornstein and Adam Crafton
Sep 5, 2023
Jordan Henderson’s transfer from Liverpool to Saudi Arabian Pro League side Al Ettifaq was one of the most controversial stories of the summer.
The Premier League– and Champions League-winning captain, who had long been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, has been questioned by many for moving in July to play in a country that criminalises homosexuality. Many felt the England international put the vast amounts of money on offer from Saudi Arabia ahead of his morals.
Henderson has not spoken about the move but today, for the first time, he explains the thinking behind his decision and answers the criticisms aimed at him. He also discusses his departure from Liverpool.
We have decided to run the interview as a transcript below (edited in some parts to avoid repetition) so you can make your own minds up as to what you feel about his answers. And so you can see how the conversation developed.
As with all The Athletic interviews, no topics were off limits and neither Henderson, his representatives nor Al Ettifaq were allowed approval of the words or headline before publication.
David Ornstein: All your pre-season preparations appeared to be focused on returning to Liverpool in the Premier League…
Jordan Henderson: That was very much the case. I had a chat with the manager at the end of last season, which was about the season coming up, the players that we were looking to bring in and what his plans were. I went away over the summer and I had an intense period of training to make sure that I was in the best shape possible when I returned to Liverpool.
Ornstein: You were Liverpool captain, the man who lifted the Premier League and Champions League trophies. When did that start to change? Was there an approach from the Saudi Pro League? Did Jurgen say you weren’t part of his plans?
Henderson talks to Crafton and Ornstein (Photo: Ian Hodgson)
Henderson: There were a few things that sent alarm bells ringing. I’ve got a very good relationship with Jurgen. He was very honest with me. I won’t go into detail about the conversation because it’s private, but it put me in a position where I knew that I wasn’t going to be playing as much. I knew there were going to be new players coming in my position.
And if I’m not playing, as anybody will know, especially the manager, that can be quite difficult for me and especially when I’ve been at a club for so long, I’ve captained the team for so long. Especially when England’s a big thing for me. You’ve got the Euros coming up. And then there was an approach from Al Ettifaq to the club to see if it would be possible for me to go there. The reaction from the club again wasn’t to say no. At that moment, I felt as though my value or the want for me to stay, with the manager and within the club, maybe it had shifted. I knew that time would come at some point. I didn’t think it would be now. And I had to accept that.
I’ve got very good relationships with Jurgen, with the owners of the club. That’ll be forever. What we’ve achieved together in the past 12 years has been incredible. But at the same time, it was hard for me to take that.
Adam Crafton: Was there part of you that was thinking, “I’d just like you to fight for me a little bit”, as in “fight for me to stay”?
Henderson: If one of those people said to me, “Now we want you to stay”, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And I have to then think about what’s next for me in my career. Now, that’s not to say that they forced me out of the club or they were saying they wanted me to leave but at no point did I feel wanted by the club or anyone to stay.
Ornstein: Why did you choose the Saudi offer? Did you have other opportunities? Because I think many people will be wondering what the captain of Liverpool was doing considering that move.
Henderson: I’m at the latter stage of my career and I want to be happy playing football. I want to play. I don’t want to be sitting on the bench and coming on for 10 minutes in games. And I knew that would have an effect on my chances of playing for England.
Crafton: Liverpool have bought midfielders before when you’ve been at the club. Thiago Alcantara came in. Naby Keita came in. And you’ve always responded. There have been times when players came and I’ve thought, “Is Jordan going to be in trouble?” And then you came back stronger each time. Were you tempted to think, “OK, they’re not saying they’re desperate for me to stay, but I’m going to prove them wrong and get back in the team”?
Henderson: 100 per cent. That was the whole thing about this training regime over the summer. I was working so hard and people saw the shape that I came back in. But when I got back, it was still the same situation, which made me think, “Actually, this time, does it matter what I do?”
Ornstein: Did you consider other options or was it full steam ahead with the Al Ettifaq approach?
Henderson: I think a lot of clubs would have known there was a possibility of me leaving because it was speculated over the summer. I’d love to sit here and say that every club under the sun was wanting me. But the reality was that they weren’t. Liverpool is where my kids were born; I’ve achieved so much there. I love the club, I love the fans and the thought of playing against them would have been a different challenge in a different way. And it wasn’t something that I felt was right for me.
Crafton: What if it would have been maybe a Brighton or a Brentford, that kind of level, or was it your view, “If I’m going to stay in European football, I want to be really competing at the top”?
Henderson: I wanted something that would excite me. And that’s not to say those clubs wouldn’t excite me because they are great clubs and they come with really different challenges. But it needed to be something that I felt as though I could add value in and do and try something new — a new challenge and for different reasons.
And this opportunity with Stevie (Gerrard) in a totally different league and totally different culture was something completely different, that maybe it would excite us in terms of the project that was put in front of us, in terms of the league and using my experience to try to help with that in many different areas and feeling that people value. It’s nice to feel wanted. I know Stevie really wanted me. I know the club really wanted me to go and they wanted us to try and build over the next few years — something that is here to stay and be one of the best leagues in the world.
Ornstein: Does that value extend to monetary? Because there’ll be so many people who will hear you say, “I want the challenge and the project and Stevie and the excitement” but still say “he has just gone for the money”.
Henderson celebrates a win in Saudi Arabia (Photo: ALI ALHAJI/AFP via Getty Images)
Henderson: That was the hardest thing. People will see this club come with loads of money and he’s just gone, “Yeah, I’m going.” When in reality that just wasn’t the case at all. People can believe me or not, but in my life and my career, money has never been a motivation. Ever. Don’t get me wrong, when you move, the business deal has to be tight. You have to have financials, you have to feel wanted, you have to feel valued. And money is a part of that. But that wasn’t the sole reason. And these possibilities came up before money was even mentioned.
Crafton: It’s been pretty widely reported figures like £700,000 ($881,000) a week or four times what you were earning at Liverpool. Is that true?
Henderson: No. I wish it was (laughs). No, honestly, the numbers just aren’t true. But again, it had to work out for us financially as well. I’m not saying that it didn’t and I’m not saying, “Oh, I’m not on good money” because it’s good money and it was a good deal but it wasn’t the numbers that were reported. No.
Crafton: So you’re saying that Steven, in all the conversations you had with him, was never mentioning the money to you?
Henderson: Stevie never mentioned money. Everything I spoke to Stevie about was football and the project. And he actually said he didn’t want to get involved in any of the money stuff. It was all about what we could do together to achieve something special and build a club and build the league.
Ornstein: It prompted a backlash from fan groups, LGBTQ+ rights groups, around Liverpool and the wider game. You will have seen many of the comments, absolutely damning. They were urging you not to take it and they hoped you would do the right thing in their eyes and reject the move. Did you start to have second thoughts? Were you talking to your wife, your advisers and your friends?
Henderson: Every day. It was a difficult time, definitely. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It was just difficult to make that decision. I’d been at a club for so long, a club that I love and have a lot of respect for the fans, the owners, the manager, my team-mates — to leave my team-mates was a big thing. But in the end, I felt as though it was the right thing for them as well.
But from the outside and people who don’t know me, then it’s a lot more challenging to understand. There can be a lot of criticism, a lot of negativity around me as a person. And that was difficult to take. But I just feel as though, because I do care about different causes that I’ve been involved in, and different communities… I do care. And for people to criticise and say that I’d turned my back on them really, really hurt me.
Crafton: When you say you were having those second thoughts, what were they about?
Henderson: Everything. About the situation with the LGBTQ+ community and with everything that is being reported in Saudi, my family, footballing decisions, team-mates. And again, I’m not just saying this for people to think, “Oh yeah…” I’m just trying to give you some insight into what it was like. I spoke to so many different people that I trust, who know me, who will challenge me.
Crafton: What was it, therefore, that persuaded you? What reassured you?
Henderson: I think there was always going to be criticism regardless of what I did, whether I stayed, whether I went. So basically I had to make the decision on what was best for me and my family. So the football is the football side. So do I go somewhere to try something new, to grow the game that I love in another country, and grow the league into one of the best in the world? That excites me because I want to grow the sport all over the world. And that got me going, really.
And obviously the LGBTQ+ community. I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger. I get it. All I can say around that is that I’m sorry that they feel like that. My intention was never, ever to hurt anyone. My intention has always been to help causes and communities where I felt like they had asked for my help. Now, when I was making the decision, the way that I tried to look at it was I felt as though, by myself not going, we can all bury our heads in the sand and criticise different cultures and different countries from afar. But then nothing’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to change.
Henderson wore a rainbow armband but it was greyed out in his announcement video (Photo: Peter Powell/PA Images via Getty Images)
Crafton: So, what you’re saying is, that by going and engaging, that brings a bigger possibility of change in some way?
Henderson: I think people know what my views and values were before I left and still do now. And I think having someone with those views and values in Saudi Arabia is only a positive thing.
Crafton: So I would press you on that, because we were told that around the World Cup in Qatar. You go, you engage. But I was there in Qatar walking down the street one day and saw a flag draped with a rainbow symbol crossed out, with the words that said, “Not welcome in Qatar.” Then supporters were trying to go into the stadiums and they were having rainbow T-shirts taken off them. There was a story about one person being stripped down even, and having it taken off them by a security guard. So I suppose I’d ask: have you actually seen or heard any evidence of this change on this specific issue?
Henderson: Firstly, I’m not a politician. I never have been and never wanted to be. I have never tried to change laws or rules in England, never mind in a different country where I’m not from. So I’m not saying that I’m going there to do that. But what I’m saying is people know what my values are and the people who know me know what my values are. And my values don’t change because I’m going to a different country where the laws of the country might be different.
Now, I see that as a positive thing. I see that because, from their (Saudi) side, they knew that before signing it. So they knew what my beliefs were. They knew what causes and campaigns I’ve done in the past and not once was it brought up. Not once have they said, “You can do this, you can’t do this.” And I think it can only be a positive thing to try to open up like around Qatar. In the end, around Qatar, having a World Cup there shined a light on certain issues where I think in the end, I might be wrong, but they changed some rules and regulations to be able to host the World Cup and I think that’s positive. That’s the way you try to create positive change. And I’m not saying that I can do that. I’m one person.