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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Inside Jordan Henderson’s retreat from Saudi Arabia to Ajax

No sooner had Jordan Henderson walked away from a contract worth millions of pounds at Al Ettifaq than Steven Gerrard was signing a contract extension to solidify his commitment to the long-term project they had both embarked on in Saudi Arabia last summer.

Henderson has headed back to Europe, signing for Ajax on a two-and-a-half-year deal, where he will earn around £120,000 per week — a significant amount for the Dutch club but well short of what he was expected to eventually earn over the course of his full contact at Al Ettifaq.

That figure was initially widely reported as equating to about £700,000 a week, though Henderson told The Athletic in September that he was earning “good money” but not “the numbers that were reported”.

Henderson has taken a significant pay cut, while also taking a notable hit to his reputation, to leave behind a club and league he described as “something that is here to stay”, adding he wanted to help build it “over the next few years”.

The 33-year-old signed a three-year deal in July but after only 17 appearances he reached a termination agreement this week and has left the Saudi Pro League without the riches many believe he went out there for.

Henderson was paid some money during his time at Al Ettifaq but opted to backload a significant amount of his wages, a move which would have brought tax advantages but has now deprived him of those greater payments.

A statement released by Al Ettifaq on Thursday said Henderson’s contract had been terminated by mutual agreement and had reached an “amicable conclusion”. The club’s president, Samer Al Misehal, spoke of a demand for “complete unity from all players and staff” under coach Gerrard.

The same statement quoted Henderson saying, “I’d like to thank the club, the fans and all involved for the opportunity and wish them the best for the remainder of the season. A lot of hard work is going in which I know will pay off in the future.”

On X, formerly called Twitter, Henderson posted: “I’m sad to say that I will be leaving Al Ettifaq with immediate effect. It wasn’t an easy decision but one that I feel is best for me and my family. I want to take this opportunity to thank the club & the fans for all the support during my time. I really felt the love from Day One. I’ll keep watching & hoping for your success. Good luck for the future.”

Gerrard’s decision to remain loyal has paid off. His contract extension — until 2027 — comes with the promise of Al Ettifaq continuing their commitment to provide him with more transfer funds and to develop the club.

Henderson will wear No 6 at Ajax — the club’s video announcement noted he “won’t be” wearing No 14, which was retired at Ajax in honour of Johan Cruyff.

”It’s a difficult year for Ajax both on and off the field,” said the midfielder, who joins a side who were bottom of the Eredivisie at the beginning of November. “But that’s been the same for me too in the last six months. I hope we can now help each other go forward and be successful.’

Ajax’s interim head coach John van ‘t Schip said: “We wanted an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities. Partially due to injuries in the team, we were looking for someone who could step in immediately. Jordan Henderson is that type of player.”

This is the story of how Henderson ended up in Ajax amid interest from Italy and the Premier League, how his Saudi Arabia move unravelled, the surprise of his team-mates at his exit and the state of “project” he leaves behind at Al Ettifaq.

Before Henderson’s switch from Liverpool to the Middle East last summer, his family harboured reservations about whether it was the right decision.

They decided to live in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, a 75-minute drive from Al Ettifaq’s training headquarters in Dammam. This concession was a significant move by the club, aimed at helping him to acclimatise.

Despite saying he had “no regrets” over the transfer from Liverpool in October, there was a sense that Henderson had struggled to settle into his new surroundings.

During that month’s international break, he confided in friends that the standard of football wasn’t great, citing issues with the high temperatures and his family’s happiness, but the expectation was he would ride it out.

By the next international break in November, it became apparent that he was fed up.

Does his decision to leave Saudi before receiving the vast majority of his money show that it was never really about that, lucrative though it was? That is open to debate. But while this may not have a long-term effect on his bank balance, the damage to his reputation may be harder to repair.

Henderson’s move was particularly controversial because he had been one of the most prominent vocal supporters of the LGBTQI+ community, illustrated most vividly when he wore the rainbow armband as Liverpool captain. Moving to Saudi, where homosexuality is illegal, upset many of those who considered him an ally.

Henderson wears a rainbow armband in October 2022 (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

On the field, ensuring he was picked for Euro 2024 was also a priority, with playing in Europe arguably boosting his chances of selection in Gareth Southgate’s squad.

Henderson has retained his place since moving to Saudi but competition for places has increased. Former club team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold has played in midfield for England while the form of Liverpool’s Curtis Jones and Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher has also caught the eye.

Once it became apparent to other clubs that Henderson was seeking an exit, he was not short of interest. Premier League sides in the top and bottom halves of the table gave consideration to making a move for him, but those conversations did not develop much further than initial enquiries.

On January 9, as talk of him wanting to leave dominated the news cycle, Kooora, one of the most prominent Arabic-language sports websites, reported an Al Ettifaq source saying that Henderson “did not tell us anything regarding him wanting to leave the club”. They also said that no bids had been received and there would be meetings with the board to work out the next steps.

The reality was that while Henderson did not join up with the Al Ettifaq squad in Abu Dhabi until January 14 — having been holidaying in Val d’Isere, a French ski resort — conversations about his future were already taking place.

The club’s hierarchy were angry at the media coverage of his desire to leave. Their initial reaction was that they had no interest at that point in letting him go, even if senior SPL figures had some sympathy for his stance regarding his family’s happiness.

But as the talks continued, it became clear that Al Ettifaq would be prepared to let him leave. Work then started on terminating his contract.

There was interest from Juventus in a permanent deal for Henderson and that appealed. Although Ajax’s very public courting was already clear, Juventus was perhaps the more enticing move.

As deliberations and conversations continued, Juventus’ pursuit appeared to fade.

When the former Liverpool captain chose to board a flight to Abu Dhabi last week it raised the prospect of his time at Al Ettifaq continuing. Yet by this point the Saudis were harbouring reservations of their own and it suited all parties to reignite the contract termination process.

Henderson’s departure depended on him finding a new club and Ajax remained the most concrete in their advances.

The framework of a deal with the Dutch club was already in place and eventually a compromise was found to leave Al Ettifaq, resulting in Henderson flying back to the United Kingdom on Tuesday night to complete the paperwork on his exit and next move. The discussions with Ajax touched on whether Henderson would take on the club’s captaincy, although a decision on that has yet to be made.

The intermediary Nathan van Kooperen — who is close to Tyler Alexander-Arnold, the brother of Liverpool right-back Trent — and Henderson’s agent, played a key role in brokering the transfer to the Netherlands.

By Thursday morning, Henderson had agreed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Ajax and flew to the Netherlands to undergo a medical.

At that point he was yet to terminate his contract with his SPL employers but had agreed the terms of that deal. On Thursday evening confirmation came that he had been released from his Saudi contract and signed up with Ajax, who hailed the arrival of a “born leader”.

Henderson’s departure follows Ian Foster, Gerrard’s assistant, leaving to fill the managerial vacancy at English Championship side Plymouth Argyle. On the pitch, the club have won only one of their past 13 matches.

It may have come as a surprise to some that Henderson’s move to Ajax was marked by a two-year contract extension for Gerrard as head coach, which keeps him at the club until 2027.

Gerrard has signed a new deal in Saudi Arabia (courtesy of Al Ettifaq)

But while Gerrard retains allies — Mark Allen, the former Manchester City academy manager, is the Saudi club’s new executive technical director and knows Gerrard from their time working together at Rangers — the need for improvement across the board is clear.

Some of the failings can be traced back to Al Ettifaq’s pre-season camp in Croatia in July. The facilities were sub-standard, and not befitting a team backed by a pharmaceutical company owned by an oil-rich state whose president is the brother of the sports minister Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud.

It was apparent that staff were not overly impressed by the arrangements in Croatia, with the food and training facilities not being deemed up to scratch. The pitch Al Ettifaq trained on was bumpy, while Henderson was unveiled as the club’s marquee signing in a makeshift boardroom. The pitch at the team’s home ground has also had to be relaid.

Despite this, Henderson immediately got to work and started barking orders at his team-mates, though how much of it they understood was unclear.

Evidence of a squad at that stage lacking structure came in the example of Gerrard being the one to tell players they could leave in search of regular game time, as opposed to someone more senior — such as a technical director.

The arrival of Allen is designed to ease the burden on Gerrard when it comes to recruitment, allowing him to focus on the team, while the former Liverpool captain’s backroom team have all signed up until 2027 too.

Al Ettifaq’s first league game of the 2023-24 season was at home to Al Nassr, a team that includes Cristiano Ronaldo and another former Liverpool player, Sadio Mane, in which Henderson’s side came from behind to win 2-1. They won four out of their next six SPL matches, losing once, and everything appeared to be headed in the right direction.

Henderson and former Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane in Saudi Arabia in August (Photo by Ali Alhaji/AFP via Getty Images)

But then the wheels started to fall off, attendances began to drop to below 1,000 — with Henderson playing in front of just 696 people on one occasion — and they embarked on a run that leaves them 28 points behind league leaders Al Hilal.

Many cite Moussa Dembele’s absence owing to injury as the key reason behind their current malaise, with the forward scoring seven goals in eight matches to begin the season before missing a run of six games between October and November.

The club invited Jesse Lingard, the former Manchester United attacker and free agent, to train with them, but that did not materialise into a permanent move, though the club have been hopeful of signing a forward this month.

Henderson’s departure will likely be viewed as a significant blow. Even if he is no longer playing at the peak of his powers, his levels in training were always high and he remained driven. He was one of the marquee players to arrive in Saudi Arabia following the summer football revolution and now he has already left.

Some players in the Al Ettifaq dressing room are surprised by the departure, having initially disbelieved the reports they saw on their winter breaks. It was only when Gerrard confirmed Henderson was departing at the camp in Abu Dhabi that they knew for certain it was true.

For all their failings, Al Ettifaq are in the throes of developing their infrastructure, with ambitions of making it among the best in the league, and are building a new academy building and training ground.

They also hope to improve the quality of local Saudi players, with sources close to the club saying the abilities are mixed among some of those in the present squad.

New academy facilities will go some way to helping improve that pool of players, but that is a long-term project.

So is the club’s ambition to become one of the SPL’s most attractive propositions, and Saudi Arabia’s bid to establish itself as one of football’s major players.

Henderson told The Athletic last year of his desire to help make the SPL “one of the best leagues in the world” — but it turned out to be only a fleeting stay in Saudi Arabia.

Additional reporting: Jordan Campbell, Simon Hughes & Laurie Whitwell

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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