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Friday, June 21, 2024

Exclusive: Inside Jordan Henderson’s Al-Ettifaq exit

When Al-Ettifaq signed Jordan Henderson in July 2023 it was a statement of intent. To poach the Liverpool captain was a coup for not just Ettifaq but the wider Saudi Pro League.

It wasn’t an easy deal to pull off. Ettifaq are not one of the PIF-controlled clubs and operate off a modest budget. Plus, Henderson had rejected their first offer, and senior figures at Liverpool thought he’d stay at Anfield right up until the 48 hours before he departed.

Driving the Henderson deal was Hatim Al-Misehal, the club’s former vice-president, who now heads up the club’s sporting committee. His brother, Samer Al-Misehal, is the relatively new club president and has a significant say on signings and strategy as well.

Hatim played a key role in convincing Henderson to join. And naturally the finances played a part; but despite some reports, Henderson was not earning £700k-per-week. Saudi sources insist his salary was £8m-per-year, but it would have been tax free had he stayed in Saudi for two years.

Ettifaq actually pushed hard to sign Henderson on a free transfer but eventually agreed a £4m fee, lower, club sources claim, than the £12m number that is widely reported. Liverpool also inserted a sell-on clause.

In the same window Ettifaq also added Scottish centre-back Jack Hendry from Club Brugge and striker Moussa Dembele from Lyon. Gerrard personally pitched to each of them, but was especially hands on with Henderson.

The Ettifaq boss, who recently signed a new contract until summer 2027, was also hired directly by Hatim following several Zoom meetings and an in-person interview in Dammam. Gerrard was asked to make his decision very quickly, and despite publicly stating he wouldn’t be moving to Saudi, he accepted the role a few weeks later.

Gerrard and Henderson arriving was particularly special for Hatim since he’s a self-proclaimed Liverpool fan, who will attend February’s League Cup Final when Jurgen Klopp’s side take on Chelsea. He was suddenly rubbing shoulders with Liverpool legends he’d watched and admired from afar.

After accepting Ettifaq’s offer and passing his medical, Henderson travelled immediately to Croatia last summer for a pre-season training camp. Then, upon arriving in Dammam he took a full tour of the club’s facilities. Ettifaq listened to Henderson’s feedback, and when he asked for improvements to the gym, it was renovated in just four days.

Henderson had two bases: one in Saudi and another with his family in Bahrain. He struggled to settle on and off the pitch, and even needed post-match oxygen after one game with summer temperatures in Saudi reaching 40 degrees. But the season started well as Ettifaq beat Al-Nassr in their opening game and followed this up with an away victory at Al-Hazm.

Ettifaq went out of their way to help Henderson acclimatise, but the England midfielder found it tricky making the transition from morning to night training and adjusting to the late kick-off times.

However, he was consulted on many major decisions at the club, including the arrival of Everton’s Demarai Gray on deadline day in summer 2023. Henderson was also a driving force behind the appointment of Dr Carl Todd as the club’s head of physical therapy.

After last summer’s window shut, former Rangers and Swansea sporting director Mark Allen arrived replacing Eelco Schattorie. And Ettifaq added Thomas Spring (head of scouting), John Hill (head of sports science), Richard Higgins (club doctor) and Darren Davies (first team coach); whilst more recently, and just after Henderson left, Dean Holden was appointed an Gerrard’s assistant manager.

Former Charlton boss Holden got the job after a Zoom and face-to-face interview in London with Allen and Gerrard. They were impressed by his frankness and eye for detail after being asked to analyse an Ettifaq match in real time.

But despite these positive and ambitious backroom changes, in the build up to the January window Ettifaq would go on a nine-game winless run leaving them in mid-table and causing Henderson to question his future.

Henderson was also concerned about the mid-season break. Ettifaq’s last game before it was a 1-1 draw with Al-Hazm on December 28 and their next match takes place on February 15 at Al-Khaleej.

It’s understood Henderson feared the gap might hamper his Euro 2024 chances. Although he was given guarantees by England manager Gareth Southgate that he would still be considered for selection if he left Liverpool for Saudi, the form of ex-teammate Curtis Jones and Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher made him worry his place in the squad this summer was in jeopardy if he stayed at Ettifaq.

Ettifaq were planning long-term with Henderson and trying to build a team around him. That’s why when they learned, first via the media, that Henderson was considering leaving they initially dismissed the stories as rumour. When it was clear Henderson’s potential departure had substance to it, they made it clear if he was to depart he would have to inform the club directly and face to face.

Ettifaq only had the budget to explore three or four local signings in January, but if Henderson was to exit it would change their recruitment strategy significantly.

Without informing Ettifaq to begin with, Henderson started to explore options. Ajax became a clear frontrunner, but he also approached Leverkusen, who showed little interest. There was no direct contact with Newcastle, despite suggestions, but it is fair to say Henderson offered himself around quite widely.

Whereas Tyler Alexander-Adams, the brother of Liverpool star Trent, cut the deal to bring Henderson to Saudi, the 33-year-old did far more self-representation this time around.

Henderson knew he had to return to a mid-season training camp in Abu Dhabi in mid-January and speak to the club in person. And when he did so, an urgent meeting took place led by Allen and Gerrard. Ettifaq were shocked when Henderson verbally informed them he wanted to leave.

The club’s stance was that any exit would only happen on their terms – as a loan with a fee and 100% wage coverage, or for a permanent transfer with a fee close to €20m. No offer came from Ajax, who didn’t wish to take either approach. So instead, Henderson agreed to join them on a free transfer and terminate his contract with Ettifaq.

Both Gerrard and Allen were clear: they wanted to let Henderson go if he was unhappy, which made the termination process far smoother and amicable.

Henderson agreed to forgo around £4m in deferred wages (done for tax purposes) with Saudi sources pointing out this offsets the fee paid for him. And by not having to pay Henderson for the second half of the season, Ettifaq also freed up budget. In addition, Henderson may directly owe Ettifaq further ‘bonuses’ depending on how many appearances he makes for Ajax.

Ettifaq still faced a big issue trying to replace Henderson with so little time left in the window. Hatim held a three-hour recruitment meeting with Gerrard and new targets were determined in light of the funds available from Henderson’s departure.

Former Real Madrid midfielder Alvaro Medran joined from Al-Taawoun – a deal the club negotiated in just 24 hours. And top target Seko Fofana – who could win the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast – was secured on loan from Al-Nassr with Ettifaq contributing 50% of his wages.

Ettifaq had other ambitious targets, including Everton’s Abdoulaye Doucoure, but the Ministry’s centralised funding team refused certain potential acquisitions on budgetary grounds. However, Ettifaq were able to add former Fenerbahce defender Marcel Tisserand and ex-Flamengo attacker Vitinho from Saudi champions Al-Ittihad.

This allowed the club to turn Henderson’s departure into a positive on the field; and they are now also exploring whether Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara is interested in agreeing a pre-contract along with several other suitors.

At the same time as Henderson left, Gerrard was handed a new deal worth over £6m-per-year. Ettifaq intentionally announced this at the same time as Henderson’s exit to make it clear the club was stable.

Ettifaq’s aim is now to finish in the top six of the Saudi Pro League. They start the second-half of the season four points adrift of this spot.

Ettifaq also recently opened a new 20,000-seater stadium and continue to modernise and progress behind the scenes. The Damman-based club are naturally sad to see Henderson go, but believe their project and long-term success wasn’t contingent on him alone. They are working hard behind the scenes to implement a patient long-term strategy that will lead to eventual and regular qualification to the Asian Champions League – a key goal given it will help attract both young Saudi talent and more foreign stars.

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