Jordan Henderson standing in front of the Kop on the last day of the season as his career comes to a close. The Anfield crowd in full voice singing his name and waving banners adorned with his face, not a dry eye in the house. That is the way Henderson’s Liverpool career should have ended, with a farewell fitting of one of the club's greatest captains who won everything there is to win and for the man who lifted the premier league trophy after the club's 30-year wait. Instead, journalist reports of Jordan Henderson's Saudi transfer to Al-Ettifaq came seemingly out of nowhere before the pre-season start, and a viral video of him already training for his new side before any official announcements were how he departed. Henderson's whole Saudi transfer leaves a bad taste for several reasons, mostly because of the man and role model he had been for so long. But does this move now tarnish the remarkable legacy he had built for himself?
Henderson had a difficult beginning to his Liverpool career after being signed by Sir Kenny Dalglish from his hometown club Sunderland, with a lot of fans not being convinced of his qualities. Something that he would have to face throughout his career to an unfair degree. He even faced criticism of his running style by Alex Ferguson in his biography and was almost pushed out the door by Brendon Rodgers in an attempt to bring in Clint Dempsey. How different Liverpool’s fate may have been if that had gone ahead. Despite all the adversity, he decided to stay and fight for his place and became an essential part of the team in 13-14 as Liverpool fought for the title with Suarez leading the line. It was Henderson who enabled Gerrard in his twilight years to successfully transition to the deep-lying playmaker as he acted as his legs, covering all the ground Gerrard no longer could in his later career. This was when fans finally began to appreciate just what he could bring to the side.
Due to his exceptional character and work ethic both on and off the pitch, he was the natural choice to step up and take over the captaincy when Liverpool’s greatest-ever player left for the MLS. He had the biggest shoes to fill and although he could never be considered as good a player as Gerrard (very few could), he was arguably a better captain. Whereas Gerrard led by example, the maestro on the pitch who carried the team with his brilliance, Henderson was a very different style. He was the vocal kind on the pitch, barking orders, motivating his teammates, and setting the tempo with his pressing and never give up attitude. It made him the perfect leader for Klopp’s Liverpool, whose whole identity is based on pressing and hard work as a team. He was the engine and heart of the side which facilitated the brilliance of some of the more technical players like the front three of Mane, Firmino and Salah to flourish.
It was his off-the-field work that set him apart though and made him stand out as one of the role models of the game. He was the leader for Liverpool, making sure all of the players maintained the right standards off the field while making them all feel welcome. But outside of Liverpool, he also chose to take a stand for many issues and lead by example. He called a meeting of all the captains in the premier league to discuss the restart of football in the aftermath of Covid to discuss player welfare. He later then organised another meeting of captains to discuss the potential for a super league. His constant place at the forefront of any initiative led to him being seen as something of a ‘captain of captains.’ A true leader on all fronts who you could rely on to set the right example.
Jordan Henderson's position as an LGBTQ+ ally after Saudi move
There was no greater example of this than his advocacy and support for the LGBTQ+ community. He was a vocal supporter and even wrote 900 words in a Liverpool match day programme on why it's important to make sure football is an inclusive place for everyone. He positioned and established himself as an ally for their community and someone who would stand side by side with them. This support personified the man he was, or appeared to be, and what made him such a beloved figure in the footballing world to so many. It is also why his move to Saudi Arabia has caused so much scrutiny and upset for so many, much more so than any other player who has made the same lucrative move over there.
In Saudi Arabia, same-sex relationships are illegal and those found guilty could even face the death penalty. For Henderson, someone who so publicly advocated that football should be inclusive, to sell out his values to move there for a bigger salary, it comes as a massive slap in the face for all those who believed he had their back. It seemingly goes against everything he stood for and ultimately makes it seem that his support was only ever for show, or that even if he did truly want to be an ally, that support had a price that could be bought. Whatever it may be, it's a really bad look for him. There does remain a possibility that he could try to continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights over there and try to push for change but that seems a slim possibility. Instead, it looks like the opportunity to more than double or triple his salary depending on the accuracy of reports proved too alluring for him to turn down.
With Liverpool's midfield revolution the summer it was likely he was looking at reduced playing time which could also have played a large factor. But unlike in his early career when being pushed to leave for Fulham, he has decided against the fight for places and has taken the easy option to jump ship to a less competitive league. Just one more thing which appears out of character of the man who had become such a legendary figure at the club. With Milner having already left for Brighton and so many young new players coming in, his experience and guidance would have been a priceless asset in trying to bed in the new signings and get LFC back to fighting for trophies after the disaster of last season. He could have ensured he and Liverpool came back stronger, and on a personal level, could have passed 500 club appearances, maybe brought him some more silverware, and left on the high his career deserved. Instead, he leaves with a bitter whimper, with no fight or character of the captain and legend he was.
Nothing can ever change the legendary player and captain Jordan Henderson was for Liverpool. The trophies and success that he led the club to will live forever and his leadership qualities and immense work rate will stand the test of time. He will always be remembered fondly in the hearts of Liverpool fans for everything he has done for the club, perhaps even more so with time. However, I think there is no doubt this move has tarnished the legacy of the man. Selling out his values at a time the club needed him for a bigger paycheck is not fitting for someone with his character and status, and he has let a lot of people down. Instead of being the legendary captain who also advocated for so many people’s rights, he will now be the legendary captain, who sold out for a big Saudi payday.