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Jordan Henderson responds to backlash with his move to Saudi Arabia ‘not about money’

Jordan Henderson responds to backlash with his move to Saudi Arabia ‘not about money’ and also apologises for hurting LGBTQ+ fans.

The England international has given his first interview since leaving Liverpool for Saudi Arabia with The Athletic, as he opens up on why he left, his new life in Saudi Arabia and extended conversation on his perceived betrayal of LGBT community.

He also claims that he didn’t feel wanted at Liverpool, despite being offered a new contract with Jurgen Klopp previously stating on how important he was and that he wanted him to stay.

Talking with David Ornstein and Adam Cratton, Hendo said: “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 asked: “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?”

To which Henderson replied: “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.

“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 questioned: “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 said: “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 agreed with Crafton that new midfielders came in at Liverpool which left Jordan concerned about his future at the club: “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?'”

When Ornstein as if he had considered other options or was fully focused on the approach from Al-Ettifaq, Hendo said: “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.

“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.”

Talk turned to money, with Crafton speculating on the money he earns: “It’s been pretty widely reported figures like £700,000 a week or four times what you were earning at Liverpool. Is that true?”

Henderson laughed: “No. I wish it was. 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.”

Henderson denies Gerrard had ever mentioned money, but instead was more abotu football and the project.

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 turned attention to the anger from fans over his move: “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 and 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.”

Henderson on second thoughts: “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.

“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.

“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, which 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 when asked if he’d wear rainbow laces in Sauid Arabia: “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 by me going with the beliefs and values that I have, is that not a positive thing?”

Crafton brought up the announcement video which saw the rainbow armband turned to black and white: “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.

Crafton spoke about hearing how those who went over to Qatar had to ‘respect their culture’, but raised the point of gay people being told to ‘accept living a life where you are illegal’.

Henderson: “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.”

Henderson on what they told him: “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: “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’s 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 that the perception that I’ve seen in the media here, to what is the reality over there isn’t the same.

Ornstein: “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.”

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.”

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