Jordan Henderson’s hasty retreat from Saudi Arabia to Ajax concludes a miserable episode in a previously exemplary career – one which had been conducted with a sure touch up until last July.
Henderson’s arrival was designed to be another shining symbol of the Saudis’ unstoppable momentum in the sport, joining iconic figures such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema as their standard bearers. And yet he could not even last a full season in Saudi Arabia.
The past six months have damaged Henderson’s reputation, particularly over his commitment to LGBTQ+ causes he had previously championed.
His exit has also hurt the image of the Saudi Pro League to the outside world, something it can ill-afford so early in its development and with the country determined to use it as the launchpad for its bid to stage the 2034 World Cup.
Clearly, it does not reflect well that one of their statement signings – the former captain of Liverpool and a high-profile current England international – wanted out after only 19 games at Al-Ettifaq.
Senior Saudi sources insist they are unperturbed by his exit, accepting Henderson was unsettled and happy to cut a quick deal to solve the problem. Behind this, however, they will be surely be badly wounded by his desire to leave after a matter of months.
Henderson’s short stint in Saudi was marked by poor results while playing in front of meagre crowds that, on occasion, did not even reach four figures. Al-Ettifaq, struggling in eighth place in the league, have an average home attendance of 7,854 in a 35,000-capacity stadium.
It is hard to argue that this is not a desperately poor look all round.
Henderson is the first major player to leave from the new influx. He may not hold that sole status for long. BBC Sport has also been told Benzema has doubts about staying at Al-Ittihad after signing for the Jeddah-based club on a three-year deal last June.
As for Henderson, the 33-year-old is yet to explain his decision to exit but it is hard to believe the man who enjoyed stellar success at Anfield will look back with anything other than huge regret at his decision to follow the money trail to Saudi Arabia.
Henderson was not forced out of Liverpool.
Manager Jurgen Klopp explained, honestly and with the respect he always reserved for Henderson, that there may have been a limit on his playing time this season as a squad showing its age was rebuilt.
This message, plus the lure of vast riches and the chance to reunite with Al-Ettifaq manager Steven Gerrard, his friend and former Liverpool team-mate, prompted Henderson to join the formative Saudi league, immediately altering perceptions of someone previously regarded as one of the game’s statesmen.
In an instant, Henderson – the player revered by everyone at Liverpool for overcoming adversity early in his Anfield career to lift the Champions League and then the club’s first league title in 30 years as Gerrard’s successor to the captaincy – faced charges of rank hypocrisy.
Henderson, a public champion of the LGBTQ+ community, was a target for fierce flak after moving to a country where same-sex sexual activity is illegal.
Blackpool’s Jake Daniels, who in May 2022 became the first active professional in the UK men’s game to come out since Justin Fashanu 32 years earlier, received a private message of support on his social media account from Henderson at the time.
Daniels told the BBC’s Newsbeat in November: “He was backing me and said: ‘We’re proud of what you’ve done.’ Seeing him move to Saudi, it kind of like, slaps me in my face really. But I guess the money pays well and money must mean more to some people.”
Liverpool supporter Keith Spooner, who came out as gay when he was 17, said he was “gutted” by Henderson’s move to Saudi Arabia, telling BBC Sport: “On a personal level, I can understand there’s financial reason, personal reasons, game time, but as an advocated or ally of LGBT people, whether in sport or life, there are knock-ons, repercussions of your actions – and his decision to go to Saudi Arabia has definitely tarnished his reputation.”
Soon after his move, Henderson conducted an exclusive, extensive interview with The Athletic, in which he defended his position, saying: “I can’t promise anything but what I can do is sit here and say I have my values and beliefs. And I strongly believe that me playing in Saudi Arabia is a positive thing.”
He was also asked what he would say to members of the LGBTQ+ community who felt he had turned his back on them, responding: “I get and I accept not everyone’s going to get that. So that’s why I can only apologise to those people if they feel like that.”
If Henderson was trying to reduce criticism and offer context to his decision, he failed. Many mocked his claim the move was a “positive”.
There was already a debate around Henderson’s place in England’s squad. He was a veteran at 33, playing in a league one seasoned former international likened to “walking football” in suffocating heat without any of the intensity required for Euro 2024.
If Henderson hoped for a sympathetic hearing on his homecoming, he was to be sorely disappointed. His name was loudly jeered by England fans when it was announced before the Wembley friendly against Australia in October, and then again when he was substituted after 62 minutes of the 1-0 win.
At the time, England manager Gareth Southgate defended one of his most trusted lieutenants, saying: “I know what’s created it but it defies logic. Why you would boo a player who is putting his heart and soul into playing for England?”
Southgate also refused to criticise Henderson’s decision to move, insisting football factors played a part in his switch from Anfield.
“Obviously there is a lot of money within Saudi Arabia that is being paid, none of us are going to avoid that because it’s obvious,” said Southgate. “But his prospects of playing at Liverpool were probably a big factor in that becoming more attractive than it might have been in the past.”
Henderson has not exactly moved to a settled, stable environment with a switch to Ajax, with the one-time Dutch superpower fifth in Eredivise, 23 points adrift of PSV Eindhoven and, by previous standards, in crisis.
It will give him a higher public profile – less out of sight, out of mind as it may have been in Saudi Arabia – but Henderson will arrive in the Netherlands a chastened figure after an ill-starred move made in haste that will undoubtedly cast a permanent shadow over a previously outstanding career.