Steven Gerrard has explained his reasons for accepting the Al Ettifaq job at the second opportunity, adding that he did not believe his move to Saudi Arabia would diminish chances of another managerial job in the UK in future.
The former Rangers and Aston Villa manager began life in the Saudi Pro League on Monday night by guiding his new side to a 2-1 win against Sadio Mane’s Al Nassr in Dammam.
Gerrard, 43, was appointed Ettifaq manager at the beginning of last month having told UK broadcaster Channel 4 two weeks previously that “as we stand right now, I won't be taking that offer up”.
However, speaking on Monday following Ettifaq’s come-from-behind victory in their league opener, Gerrard said: “I said I wasn’t going to take the job at that moment.
“The situation and the truth is that Ettifaq, with all due respect, were in a rush. They obviously didn’t have a manager at the time and, for me, with such a big decision and an important decision for me and my family, it was important I analysed every aspect of the job.
“For example, how’s it going to work with my family, for me, what players are available. I needed time to analyse those players; I needed to speak to the board in terms of what was available to make some changes in the squad and the facilities. It wasn’t a decision I could’ve made in three, four days.
“I was pushed for a decision, and I told them I wasn’t ready. I never said I didn’t want to take the job; I didn’t say I didn’t want to come to Saudi. And thankfully they gave me some patience, we continued to talk and what I needed in terms of, I wouldn’t say promises, but I needed the club to show they were going to back me.”
Gerrard, who was dismissed as Aston Villa manager last October after 11 months in charge, said he had discussions with two English Championship clubs, believed to be Leeds United and Leicester City, before agreeing to the Ettifaq offer.
“At the time I had a couple of other things on the table at Championship level and I had to make a decision what I believed was right for me. And in time, with being patient, this was the best offer on the table because we had two offers that had a chance – they were taken away from me rather than me making that decision.”
Asked if continuing his coaching career in Saudi would harm his chances of returning to an established club in the UK in future, Gerrard said: “Who knows? I’ve not really got a right or wrong answer. But I will continue to try to grow and evolve.
“It was important for me not to stay out of the game for too long. I needed a challenge where I would get some time to build something similar to the opportunity I had at Rangers [Gerrard spent three years at the Glasgow club, leading them to the 2020/21 Scottish Premier League title].
“I wanted to reset, I wanted to adjust and adapt how I wanted my team to play … and I thought the best thing was to try something a little bit out of the box.
“I was in for two Championship jobs. I’m not afraid to say that. I never got those jobs, and this was the best thing on the table at the time.
“I’ve got ambitions to go back at some point. I’ve got ambitions to be the best manager I can be and be involved in the biggest challenges out there. But, in terms of do I think this will happen, they’re obviously questions for other people. But by doing well here, I’m sure it’ll give me a better chance.”
On Monday night at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, Ettifaq responded to Mane’s fourth-minute opener – the former Liverpool forward captained Nassr in Cristiano Ronaldo's absence – by striking twice in eight minutes at the beginning of the second half. Swedish striker Robert Quaison and summer signing Moussa Dembele got the goals.
Gerrard also gave league debuts to Jordan Henderson, his successor as Liverpool captain, and Scottish defender Jack Hendry.
Henderson, recruited from the Anfield club last month for a reported £12 million ($15.2m), clearly toiled in the heat, with the temperature at kick-off 35º Celsius. He was withdrawn in the 87th minute.
“We put him in a position in the team where he can be our on-pitch coach, if you like,” Gerrard said. “We know what he brings to the table, I certainly do more than others.
“He is still not match fit because of the summer – we know he’s extremely fit anyway – but you know, and I know, it’s about game minutes to really get that last 10-15 per cent.
“He played for the sake of the team tonight, not necessarily ready, but I think he showed what an elite athlete he is, because to play in that heat for that long at the level he’s at was a credit to him. And the same for Moussa Dembele.”
Gerrard said he was “incredibly proud” of his side’s performance, especially since the match eventually extended to 105 minutes.
“Today was about representing the club and what it stands for: a lot of passion and fight,” Gerrard said. “These games, I see them go beyond 100 minutes, which in this heat, is concerning for every coach.
“We’re proud of the effort, the performance of the boys. We see this not only as a start – we will get better as we get fitter, have more time together – but it’s certainly the start that we wanted.”
Gerrard, whose senior playing career spanned 17 years with Liverpool and 114 caps for England, said the sapping conditions were not the only obstacle he had to overcome in moving to the kingdom.
“There’s also a personal challenge off the pitch: my family aren’t here,” he said. “They’re due to arrive in the coming weeks, so that’ll certainly help. So, yeah, I’m facing the challenges, accepting them.
“I know what I’ve signed up for, but there will be a settling-in period and we will have to adapt, not just me, but my coaching staff and some of the signings we’ve made. But that’s on us.”
On Monday, news broke that Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) forward Neymar was close to being confirmed as Al Hilal’s latest signing. Should the deal go through as expected, the Brazil international would become the latest star recruit to join the Saudi Pro League, alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane and Henderson.
Gerrard welcomed someone of Neymar’s stature in the Saudi top-flight but joked that he would rather the former Barcelona star would not move to the kingdom.
“I think Neymar, the name speaks for itself,” Gerrard said. “He’s given me so much joy to watch him, Barcelona, PSG, Brazil – I don’t think the boy gets enough credit for the numbers that he’s put up in the last decade or so.
“I don’t want him to come because he’s not coming to my team, but he’ll certainly bring a lot of value and quality and credibility. He is, in Hollywood terms, an A-list football star. The name speaks for itself, and it makes my job extremely hard.”