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: 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: 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.
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.
Crafton: At Liverpool, a little thing, which meant a lot to a lot of people, was that you wore the rainbow laces and the rainbow armband. And during the Rainbow Laces campaign, when most players sign off a statement or quotes to go on a club website, you really engaged. You created expectations — expectations that people feel that you’ve not matched up to. So when you say you would continue to be the same person, would you wear rainbow laces still or would you see that as disrespectful to Saudi people?
Henderson: I wouldn’t rule that out. But at the same time, what I wouldn’t do is disrespect the religion and culture in Saudi Arabia. If we’re all saying everybody can be who they want to be and everybody is inclusive, then we’ll have to respect that. We’ll have to respect everyone. And by doing something like that, if that did disrespect the religion, then no, I’m not going to do that. But if the opportunity comes where I can do it and it doesn’t, then yeah, because that’s my values.
Crafton: That strikes at the heart of the tension here, as there are laws in the country. But there are almost certainly gay Muslims in the region of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, who are arguably the most important people in this discussion and feeling the brunt of that situation. To go back to the words that you have used in the past, everyone should be able to be themselves. That is where people see the issue.
Henderson: Yeah. I’m not an expert, I’m learning with this, but the way that I’m trying to be is I’m quite a positive person. So I like to think that by me going with the beliefs and values that I have, is that not a positive thing?
Crafton: I don’t know. Let’s take something that happened when Al Ettifaq announced your signing. There was a video that went out on social media from the club, where it looked to a lot of people as though in one of the pictures, your armband, which was rainbow in the original, had been greyed out. And a lot of people interpreted that to mean maybe they have censored it or changed that. Do you know whether that was the case?
Henderson: I didn’t know anything about it until it was out. And it’s hard for me to know and understand everything because it is part of the religion. So if I wear the rainbow armband, if that disrespects their religion, then that’s not right either. Everybody should be respectful of religion and culture. That’s what I think we’re all trying to fight for here in terms of inclusion and everything.
You know, years ago, for instance, women or kids probably couldn’t play football, but now I’m over there and there’s loads of women and girls playing football, so slowly things can change. 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.
Ornstein: Do you think that you holding those beliefs is respected by the Saudis and the people who are employing you? Will they be unhappy to hear these words?
Henderson: There’s never been any mention of, “You can say this, or you can’t say this.” It’s basically, “You have your values and your beliefs, which we will respect, but you respect our values and our beliefs” and surely that’s the way it should be.
Crafton: This is something we heard a lot during the World Cup in Qatar, about having to respect the culture. When we talk about culture, I think of food, music, sport, art. And then I think about being a gay person, which is not something where you’ve woken up one day and decided you want to get into it. It’s something that you’re born as. You can’t change it. So, therefore, when people describe homosexuality as a culture, I think gay people really struggle with that because you’re basically being told you have to just accept living a life where you’re illegal.
Henderson: (Long pause) Now, I totally understand that. And I couldn’t imagine how that must feel. And that’s why I have so much sympathy and the last thing I want to do is to upset you or anyone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. All I’ve ever tried to do is help. And when I’ve been asked for help, I’ve gone above and beyond to help. I’ve worn the laces. I’ve worn the armband. I’ve spoken to people in that community to try to use my profile to help them. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. I’m not going to sit here saying, “Why are they criticising me?” I understand it. These are all the things I was thinking about, and I do care. When I hear stuff like, “You’ve turned your back on us”, that hurts me. I do care. I have family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community.
Crafton: What have they said to you?
Henderson: They know me, so it’s not an issue. They were the people I spoke to before I made the decision. I’m comfortable knowing exactly what I am and exactly what I stand for. But I get and I can accept not everyone’s going to get that. So that’s why I can only apologise to those people if they feel like that.
Crafton: What would you say to those people who just say you were completely genuine, in terms of the engagement you made and the things that you did to support LGBTQ+ people, but then, as might be the case with loads and loads of people, there’s just a point where a sum of money comes along where it’s simply too hard to say no to. Is the most honest answer here, “I’ve been really genuine, but actually there’s an offer on the table and maybe most people in this position would do the same”?
Henderson: It would be a lot easier for me to say that. But that’s not true. It’s not the case because money wasn’t mentioned until after the event. I could have stayed at Liverpool and earned a lot of money and if people don’t believe that, then there’s nothing I can do.
Crafton: I don’t want to dwell on this topic too much longer because I feel the intensity here now. But just a, really, almost yes-or-no question: as part of your agreement, will you receive payments for any sort of social media posts promoting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
Henderson: No. Anything contractually was all to do with football. But there’s a lot of stuff that gets reported in the media and on social media. And I’ve learned over the years that you don’t know what’s true and what’s not. So you’ve got to go and experience it for yourself. So my (reported) wages, for one, are not true. I see stuff about me that’s just not true. There are loads of things. Do we sit over in the UK just criticising everything that goes on in the Middle East when really, when you’re there, it’s not quite like that. And I’ve found that over the past few weeks, the perception that I’ve seen in the media here compared to what the reality is over there isn’t the same.
Ornstein: There was an article I read before this interview that sort of said that you’re being used — not just you but others as well — to help grow this league, and that is part of an attempt to improve the country’s image. Did it never get to a point where you listen to the people you were talking to before, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, and think, “I can’t do this”?
Henderson: It’s hard to know what the reality is and what’s not true. Because you hear about stuff and you’re like, “Is that true?” But when you speak to people who are close to me and have had experiences over in Saudi or over in the Middle East, it’s like, “Well, actually, that’s not the same.”
A perfect example would be before Qatar. We had a meeting with the FA about human rights, about the issues around the stadiums. I think it might have been Amnesty who had sent the images and stuff. And then, half an hour later, I go into a press conference or some media and I’ve commented on that situation. I was like, “Well, it was quite shocking and horrendous” and that was quite hard for us to see. But then when I went to Qatar and we had the experience we had at the World Cup, you get to meet the workers there and it was totally different.
Crafton: I suppose people would come back and say what you were presented with in Qatar as a high-profile footballer was always going to be different, a choreographed, manicured perception…
Henderson: I’m not saying that it wasn’t true. All of this stuff might have been. But when you go there and experience it for yourself, it is totally different. Now, what I would say is that if, let’s say, all of those things are true, is it not good that it highlights the problems and we’re trying to make positive change, slowly? You know, Qatar made rule and regulation changes for the World Cup. Is that not a positive thing? Is that not what we want? Otherwise, if we don’t have the World Cup there and nobody goes there, then nothing really changes for the people that are living there.
Like you mentioned before, if you have gay Muslims in those countries, nothing’s changing. Even looking in this country, I’m sure same-sex marriage nine, 10 years ago wasn’t legal — but in time, things change, things evolve, things open up. And I hope hopefully that that’s the case everywhere. That’s what I want.
Crafton: As the Saudi league infrastructure starts to grow, what are the things that you’ve been impressed by and what are the things that can still get better?
Henderson: I think there’s a lot to do to improve — in terms of infrastructure, facilities — but that’s ongoing. You’re seeing the different training grounds, the gyms… all of that sort of stuff to get it up to a level that it needs to be at. I can see them working on it now, which is good.
Ornstein: I’m sure it would have been tricky for you and many others at the start — acclimatising to the weather, to the facilities when you’ve come from the top of the Premier League. But are you pleased you went? Is it going to be huge?
Henderson: I’m trying to embrace it. It’s totally, totally different in terms of culture, living, night-time training, getting to bed late, waking up during the day…
Crafton: Are you being recognised?
Henderson: Yeah, a bit! I thought I’d be under the radar but people are coming over. Sometimes they’re not even asking for a photo; it’s just like, ‘Welcome to Saudi. Hope you enjoy your experience here’. I’ve had loads of that and that’s been a really positive thing for me. Honestly, and I’m not just saying it, the people have been amazing so far.
Crafton: If you were to go back to Anfield, given everything that’s happened over the last couple of months, would you have any anxiety in terms of the negative reaction?
Henderson: To be honest, Adam, the negative reaction, I think a lot of it is on social media and in the media, which I don’t get involved with. When I’ve seen people around, they have all wished me all the very best. Even Liverpool fans. I dedicated my life for 12 years to the club. I gave them everything. And I would do it all again if I could go back. I think they know that, they appreciate that. I’d have no concerns if I had the opportunity or if they welcomed me back to say goodbye. Because that does hurt me a little bit, that I didn’t get to say goodbye properly to the fans.
Crafton: Have you done a testimonial?
Henderson: No. But if I had the opportunity to do something — whether that would be a testimonial or just to go back to say “bye” — I think that would be good and nice for me to do, because that does hurt.
Ornstein: England’s LGBTQ+ fan group has been quite vociferous in the last 24 hours, saying there’ll be no more cheering, no more banner with your face on. They’re urging their group to turn their back to the pitch as they feel you have turned your back on advocating human rights…
Henderson: It hurts to hear that. I do care. I’m not one of these people who goes home, forgets about everything and is just like, “I’m fine, my family is fine, just crack on.” I do think about things a lot. But at the same time, I knew people can look at it like that and they’re entitled to their opinion, they’re entitled to feel like that. All I can say is that I apologise, I’m sorry that I’ve made them feel that way. But I haven’t changed as a person.
Crafton: Did you speak to Gareth (Southgate, England’s manager) during the transfer to check where you’d stand? You have said you were worried about how being on the bench at Liverpool may affect your England chances. Some people might say going off to Saudi Arabia presents the same issue.
Henderson: I spoke to the manager, who was very good. It wasn’t so much to check because I knew I didn’t really want to put him in the position where he would guarantee that I’d be playing for England. He couldn’t do that. Ultimately, I backed myself in terms of fitness, in terms of desire and keeping myself in the right shape.
Ornstein: Is there anything else you want to say to people reading?
Henderson: No, just thanks for taking the time. I don’t want a pat on the back or anything but I could have easily not done anything. I could have gone with another journalist (Adam is part of the LGBTQ+ community) who I may have a relationship with and been protected more. But I felt as though this felt right. Because I want to learn as well. Because it’s hard for me to hear some of the stuff that I’ve heard and I want to learn why that’s the case and how I can help going forward. People can make their own mind up.
(Top photo: Ian Hodgson)