Jordan Henderson: ‘If people want to boo me for playing in Saudi Arabia, that’s fine’

Jordan Henderson: ‘If people want to boo me for playing in Saudi Arabia, that’s fine’

It must have been one of the lowest moments of Jordan Henderson’s career, to be booed by his own fans at Wembley on Friday night, wearing an England shirt, something he has always described as the ultimate honour. Worse still, the reaction was not because of the football he played but because of the choices he’d made, and by extension part of the person he was. It must have stung.

Henderson, who joined Saudi Arabian side Al Ettifaq in July, captained his country in the 1-0 friendly win over Australia, and afterwards he put on a brave face. Asked if he was disappointed by the crowd’s reaction, he replied: “Not really. I’m not sure what the reaction was to be honest.”

When it was pointed out that thousands loudly booed as he was being substituted, Henderson said: “It’s not nice, your own fans, if they were booing. But people have got their own opinions. Whenever I bump into anyone on the street it’s always been positive stuff and nice things said. It won’t change who I am and what I do for this team and for my country. I give absolutely everything every time.”

He is not the only Englishman to join the Saudi Pro League – Demarai Gray and Andre Gray have both moved, while Steven Gerrard is Henderson’s manager at Al Ettifaq. But he is the most high profile player, and he has used that status in the past to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. That advocacy now looks like professional obligation rather than authentic sentiment after moving to a country which criminalises homosexuality.

Henderson was asked if he understood the fans’ reaction. “Erm, not really. I don’t know… do you?” he challenged. It was suggested that it might relate to his move.

“If people want to boo if I’m playing in a different country, that’s fine. Like I said, everyone is going to have an opinion when I’m playing over in Saudi. I’ve spoken in the past about the reasons for that. Whether people believe me or not is up to them.”

Perhaps it might have been easier for Henderson had he said a long time ago that he was lured by a lucrative contract that would secure the financial future of his family’s families for generations. But he has always insisted he didn’t discuss his financial package until after agreeing to the transfer.

Jordan Henderson was booed by some England fans (PA Wire)
Jordan Henderson was booed by some England fans (PA Wire)

Henderson suggested in a previous interview that he might be able to influence Saudi Arabian attitudes from the inside, and he seemed to repeat that line. “I’m playing football in a different country in Saudi where I want to try to improve the game on the pitch, but also things off the pitch as well.”

But what does improving things off the pitch mean, in practice? “The whole league. The football. I’m not a politician. I’m not going to get into politics. All I’ve ever done is concentrate on my football and try to help people that have asked for my help. When I’m going out there, I’m just playing football trying to improve the league, trying to improve my own team and trying to win football games.”

He softened slightly when it was put to him that some in the LGBTQ+ community considered his decision a betrayal.

“I haven’t been surprised by that because I can understand the reasons in what they’re saying. I look at it from a different point of view, obviously. But I can understand it and I’ve got to take that on the chin.”

How this affects Henderson’s England career is unclear. He was part of a disjointed performance against Australia by a largely second-string side, and is increasingly the understudy to first-choice starters Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice. There are few midfield alternatives, however, and the 33-year-old has every chance of making it to Euro 2024.

“I feel as fit as I ever have, probably because over there the conditions are quite hard at times with the weather and the humidity and the warm,” he said. “I’m an experienced player, I know how to play football, you don't forget that when you just go out and play in a different league. So when I've been back here, when I've trained, when I've played games, I felt as good as ever.”

Gareth Southgate staunchly defended his midfielder, which was no surprise from a manager who has always been fiercely loyal to his players, sometimes to a fault. “He is a role model in the squad, I don't understand it, ” Southgate said. But then Southgate has always taken firm stances on moral issues and, just as with Henderson, you were left wondering what he really thinks.