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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Steven Gerrard looks trapped in Saudi football’s gilded cage

Standing on the touchline at Old Trafford last June as part of Channel 4’s coverage of an England Euro 2024 qualifier, Steven Gerrard appeared to dismiss the prospect of coaching in Saudi Arabia.

“There’s been a lot said in the media. A lot of it’s not true, I can say that,” the former Liverpool and England captain said. “I was invited over there to look at a potential offer, which I did. I’ve been analysing that in the last few days but, where we stand right now, I won’t be taking that offer up.”

Despite that “right now”, Gerrard sounded like a man closing on the door on Al Ettifaq. So many high-profile names were being lured to the Saudi Pro League, but Gerrard seemed to be ruling it out. Thanks but no thanks.

Over the days that followed, he briefly emerged as the bookmakers’ favourite for a managerial vacancy at Sheffield Wednesday. Leeds United held far more appeal but they turned to former Norwich City coach Daniel Farke instead.

Then, in late June, it emerged that Gerrard had been back out to Saudi Arabia for more talks. Al Ettifaq’s leadership were refusing to take no for an answer. Wherever he questioned something (player recruitment, the make-up of his backroom team, living arrangements, salary) he was told there was a solution.

Yes, he would be given the financial backing to try to sign players from the Premier League, including Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson. Yes, he could bring an extensive (and expensive) backroom team with him. If he and his family didn’t want to live in Dammam — and they didn’t — they could live over the border and enjoy more relaxed attitudes in a gated community of luxury villas just across the water in Manama, Bahrain. Salary? In that extraordinary Saudi summer, the numbers went up and up and it became an offer he felt he could not refuse.

And so, on July 3, Al Ettifaq announced Gerrard’s appointment on a two-year contract. In a statement, he was hailed as “a legend who brings a glorious history and exciting future to the club”. Gerrard smiled as he introduced himself in Arabic and declared himself “Ettifaqi”, adding, “See you soon”.

The sight of Gerrard in the Saudi Pro League has taken some getting used to. One of the great players of the Premier League era, he started last season as head coach of Aston Villa, still with ambitions to manage Liverpool when Jurgen Klopp moved on.

The swift unravelling of his tenure at Villa (from winning eight of his first 16 Premier League games in charge to just four wins out of 22 thereafter) raised serious questions about where Gerrard’s next management job might come from. But … Al Ettifaq? It was hard to see a way back to the Premier League — let alone to his beloved Anfield — from there.

It seems harder still now that, even with the credibility of the heralded Al Ettifaq “project” undermined by the abrupt departure of Henderson, its on-pitch leader, Gerrard has agreed a two-year extension to his contract, as revealed by The Athletic yesterday and confirmed by the club last night.

“As a club, we know where we want to go and we know we want Steven to lead us on the journey ahead,” Al Ettifaq president Samer Al Misehal said. “There are no shortcuts to success and Steven’s personal work ethic, his leadership qualities and his commitment to the project has shown everyone at the club just what it will take to compete at the highest level. Steven will be given time and resources to continue on this journey and build something special.”

Gerrard was similarly upbeat. “This is very pleasing for myself and my family and feels like recognition for a lot of hard work and commitment,” he said. “We knew at the beginning this was a big job and a challenging job. We had to put in place new infrastructure like building a new training ground in phases and building a new stadium, but a lot has been achieved. It’s a relationship (…) that’s growing, building and getting stronger, and I’m really looking forward to the future.

“We all know it’s not going to be an overnight fix. But it’s really exciting in terms of where we believe we can get the club to. We want to build a special club and build an elite culture around the team and squad.”

Steven Gerrard has had a patchy record at Al Ettifaq (Ali Alhaji/AFP via Getty Images)

These are the sentiments you might normally hear when a manager has exceeded all expectations in his first year or 18 months at a club.

But Gerrard was only six months into a two-year contract. More to the point, Al Ettifaq are in a distant eighth place in the Saudi Pro League, with one win in their last 11 games. Henderson regretted the move so severely that he agreed to a termination of that huge contract, at a significant financial cost, in order to join Ajax. Gerrard’s assistant, Ian Foster, has left to become head coach at Plymouth Argyle. The average attendance is 7,854. None of this has sounded good for the Al Ettifaq “project”.

They are not one of the “big four” clubs who were taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund last summer to embark on a money-no-object mission to sign the biggest names in the sport. But, backed by the kingdom’s second-largest petrochemicals company SABIC, Al Ettifaq were the biggest spenders among the rest: signing Henderson from Liverpool, Georginio Wijnaldum from Paris Saint-Germain, Scotland defender Jack Hendry from Brugge, Demarai Gray from Everton and former Fulham and Celtic forward Moussa Dembele from Fulham, as well as experienced coaches and analysts who had worked in the Premier League. There is some mitigation with the goals drying up since Dembele was injured, but they were not expected to be so far off the pace.

In short, it doesn’t look like a situation that would usually merit a head coach being given an extended contract.

But this is not your standard football project. As with so much else that is happening in the Saudi Pro League, it has to be seen in the context of the wider ambitions and the huge investment in high-profile sports events — and high-profile sports people — to promote the kingdom, both indirectly and directly.

Henderson is certainly not in the Cristiano Ronaldo category profile-wise (who is?), but if his acquisition was a coup for Al Ettifaq and for the league as a whole, then his departure is damaging, as are the rumblings that continue to surround Karim Benzema and Neymar, two bona fide A-list stars, at Al Ittihad and Al Hilal respectively.

Within that context, the legitimacy of the Al Ettifaq “project” relies so heavily on Gerrard’s profile. But the club’s management and, more widely, Saudi football’s administrators were impressed and delighted by Gerrard’s handling of the situation — and no doubt by the effusiveness of his statement last night.

Given the Henderson situation, it was striking that Gerrard spoke about how “my family has been all-in, in terms of embracing the new adventure, a new challenge.

“We wanted to make the most of this and the family have settled extremely well. I’m happy, I’m excited and that what I’m pleased to extend — because we’re all enjoying the journey so far.

“The easy decision would be to stay in Liverpool, to wait for jobs. But as a family, we decided we wanted something a little bit outside the box. I’ve learnt about adapting to a new culture, a new league, making new friends, facing new challenges. I think that has made me a better person and a better coach and also made me mature a bit more as well.”

What next for Steven Gerrard? (Essa Doubisi/Getty Images)

It is also making a very wealthy retired footballer even wealthier. And when, clearly, the unique selling point of this project is financial, it becomes harder to establish what might or might not be an easy decision.

For both Gerrard and Henderson, it was an easy decision to reject Al Ettifaq’s initial advances last summer. Over the course of a fortnight, as the overtures intensified and the sums escalated, they found themselves in a position where they felt it was easy to say yes and almost impossible to say no. Within six months, Henderson, deeply disenchanted, had changed to the most emphatic no, desperate to get back to Europe for both family and professional reasons.

Has Gerrard, in venturing “a little bit outside the box”, really left his comfort zone? Or has he found it at a club that is willing to extend a huge contract after a run of one win in 11 games?

On top of the blindingly obvious attraction, there must genuinely be something comforting for a manager to be at a club where there is almost a blank canvas and an opportunity to start afresh — and where patience is so much greater than in the Championship, where his former England team-mate Wayne Rooney lasted less than three months at Birmingham City.

But there were only 5,808 people at Al Ettifaq’s last home game. What, realistically, is Gerrard building towards?

He was at pains to point out in his statement last night that “it’s a results business”. But from a distance, it doesn’t look much like one. It looks like a strange existence, as if now there is no way out and no obvious next move for Gerrard, no matter how good, bad or indifferent results might be.

(Top photo: Courtesy of Al -ttifaq)

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