‘Liverpool Left Stunned’, Unpacking Henderson’s Saudi Transfer

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Henderson’s Delicate Departure from Liverpool

In the quaint Cheshire town of Wilmslow, a small gathering of Liverpool players at the Italian restaurant Cibo turned into an emotional farewell for their captain, Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool squad had just returned from a nine-day training camp in Germany, and Henderson, who had left the camp five days earlier, took the opportunity to express his heartfelt gratitude for their support over his 12-year Anfield career.

As James Pearce in The Athletic puts it:

“Henderson was that player. Gerrard, who had been his team-mate at the end of his own career on Merseyside, saw him as a serial winner who had at least another three years left at a high level, and a perfect player around whom to mould his project.”

Gerrard’s arrival at Al Ettifaq on July 4 was the catalyst for Henderson’s move. Gerrard, keen to get back into management, was offered a vast financial package and the promise of a project that appealed to him.

However, Gerrard’s history with Liverpool meant that he was conscious of not upsetting his old club and Klopp, who had helped facilitate his brief return to the club as an academy coach in 2017.

The process would need to be managed carefully. Gerrard made signing Henderson his top priority and Liverpool were approached to see if they would be open to selling him. Gerrard was informed that, if a deal could be completed speedily and the price was right, it could be done.

The Decision & Moral Backlash

The Liverpool manager, who had been made aware of Al Ettifaq’s interest, was frank: Henderson was unlikely to be a regular starter in the Premier League. Talks were amicable, a reflection of the pair’s mutual respect, but they also opened the door for a departure. Henderson, understandably given his achievements at Liverpool, was reluctant to play the role of a backup, seeing himself as a leader on the field as well as off it.

During his final speech to the players, Henderson stressed that one of the reasons he was leaving was a desire not to hold the club back.

The prospect of him moving to Saudi, where homosexuality is illegal, jarred those who had considered him an ally.

“We are appalled and concerned that anyone might consider working for a #sportswashing operation for a regime where women & LGBT+ people are oppressed & that regularly tops the world death sentence table” tweeted Kop Out, an LGBTQI+ Liverpool supporters’ group.

On Monday, Henderson went to Liverpool’s AXA training centre to say his goodbyes to staff and then travelled to Manchester Airport to meet the squad, who were returning home after their 4-4 friendly draw with Greuther Furth. During his speech to the players, Henderson stressed that one of the reasons he was leaving was a desire not to hold the club back, and in the evening, they decamped for a last meal together in Wilmslow.

Henderson will also have to confront the fact that his exit has left a sour taste for those supporters who feel his behaviour has not lived up to his moral stances on big social issues. On Thursday, the move was criticised by the Liverpool supporters’ board, who said that it had caused “hurt and division”.

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