Jordan Henderson has cited Steven Gerrard and the opportunity to experience “something completely different” as principal reasons for joining the Saudi Pro League, with the England midfielder insisting his international career is not over simply because of the move to the kingdom.
The former Liverpool captain, 33, last month brought to a close a 12-year stay at Anfield, when he signed for Al Ettifaq on a three-year contract. The transfer fee is understood to have been £12 million ($15.5m).
In all, Henderson made 492 appearances at Liverpool, winning seven major trophies including the 2018/19 Uefa Champions League and the 2019/20 Premier League title – the club's first top-flight crown in 30 years.
At Ettifaq, Henderson will be managed by Gerrard, a former teammate and predecessor as captain at Liverpool. Henderson is one of a number of summer recruits at the two-time Saudi champions, alongside former Celtic and Lyon striker Moussa Dembele, and defender Jack Hendry from Club Brugge.
Ettifaq, whose two league successes both came in the 1980s, finished seventh in the standings last season.
In his first interview since transferring to the Dammam side, Henderson told the Saudi Pro League’s official channel: “It's crazy; I don't think a few years ago I would've said I would be sitting here.
“It's a different experience, different culture, different way of living and playing football, really. So, I'm trying to embrace it. It's exciting and something new for us.
“This is a totally different project and experience, and it's one of the reasons I wanted to come and try something completely different than I was used to for however many years. I’m excited and happy to be here and to get started. I will learn a lot about myself in different ways.”
Henderson added: “It has been really positive. People have been very welcoming and helped me to settle in very well … the people in Saudi have been amazing to us and very welcoming. The staff and the people around the city and the country in general have been very good to us, and I’m looking forward to getting started now.”
Henderson is expected to make his league debut for Ettifaq next Monday, when the east coast club open their 2023/24 campaign at home to Al Nassr. The Riyadh side, captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, finished runners-up last season.
The match represents a difficult start to the league campaign for Henderson and Gerrard, but the former said: “Stevie was a big reason why I came, to work with him and play under him.
“We need to be ready in the next week or so for the first game, but I'm sure we will be. We've had some good training sessions … hopefully we can keep moving things in the right direction and definitely work together to try to make the team better and more successful.
“We just want to be challenging and fighting every single game we play. And that's the same when I’ve always played the game: no matter what club I've been at, every time you step on the field you give everything to win, and you want to challenge every single team.”
Henderson will have no shortage of familiar faces with him in Saudi – and not only at Ettifaq. With the top-flight embarking on an unprecedented summer recruitment drive, the list of players to make the switch to the kingdom includes former Liverpool teammates in Roberto Firmino, Fabinho and Sadio Mane.
Henderson met up with Mane, signed last week by Nassr, during Monday’s league launch in Jeddah.
“It’s exciting times,” Henderson said. “The project and [being] something different is definitely a reason why I wanted to come here.
“I love football, so I want to try to grow it all over the world and I know the people in Saudi love football. Hopefully we can keep continuing to grow the league over the next few years, and hopefully I can be a big part of that.”
Henderson, meanwhile, is certain he still has an England future. Capped 77 times by his country, he was part of the team who reached the quarter-finals of last year's World Cup, previously stating that he is targeting a role at next summer's Euro 2024.
Last week, England manager Gareth Southgate told UK radio station Talksport that he had already spoken to Henderson, labelling it “stupid” if he was to rule him out of consideration for future squads.
In Tuesday's interview, Henderson said: “I’m focused on playing for Ettifaq and giving my best, and if I do that there’s no reason I can’t play for England. As the gaffer said, we spoke over the last few weeks about it as playing for England means a lot to me.
“I still feel I can bring a lot as I have showed in the last few games of the World Cup. But, at the same time, I’ve got a job to do at Al Ettifaq – if I can do that, hopefully I can make the team as normal.”