JEDDAH: On the eve of the new Roshn Saudi League campaign, new Ettifaq signing Jordan Henderson and coach Steven Gerrard have both underscored their commitment to nurturing the next generation of Saudi Arabian footballing talent.
While the recent headlines have been about the big-name signings being made by SPL clubs, a new strategy was introduced in the close season that places an emphasis on fostering young Saudi talent while also securing the best international players.
As part of the SPL and Saudi Arabian Football Federation strategy to drive competitiveness on and off the pitch, new regulations have been rolled out, including an increase in playing time for young Saudi players by reducing the age of eligibility from 18 to 16, and a requirement for squad sizes to include 25 senior players and 10 aged under 21 from the 2025-26 season.
Henderson has been impressed by the quality of the youngsters in the Al-Ettifaq squad and is committed to helping the next generation develop alongside world-class players like his former Anfield teammates Roberto Firmino and Fabinho, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, to name but a few.
Speaking at the launch event for the Roshn Saudi League in Jeddah, Henderson said: “There are a lot of good young players in the team and it has been really positive to train and play with them. Hopefully I can help them in lots of ways on and off the pitch with different things they may not be used to. They are young and it is a challenge and experience for me to help as many people as I can.”
Gerrard believes the future is bright for the Damman club ahead of the new season. He said at the launch event: “At Ettifaq we have a lot of promising young talent who have a bright future, and I am really proud to be coach of the team. Hopefully I can help support these players and help develop them into better players in the future.”
Ex-Liverpool captain Henderson was persuaded to move to the Kingdom by his former Anfield teammate. Having agreed to do so in the summer, he likened his experience so far to his “first day at school.”
“This is a totally different project and experience, and it is one of the reasons I wanted to come and try something completely different than I was used to for however many years,” he said.
“I’m excited and happy to be here and to get started. It’s obviously a very different challenge to anything I’ve ever done before and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to try it and have new experiences. I will learn a lot about myself in different ways and it has been really positive.
“People have been very welcoming and helped me to settle in very well. The heat has been hard and it has been tough trying to adjust, but training has been good — I enjoyed it and I’ve been trying to embrace this different experience and culture and way of living and playing football.
“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 hopeful that a strong performance in the Roshn Saudi League will keep the door open for England duty. National team coach Gareth Southgate said recently that he had held talks with the midfielder and that he would be “stupid” to turn his back on him because of his close season move.
Henderson said: “I’m focused on playing for England 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 showed in the last few games of the World Cup. But at the same time, I have a job to do at Al-Ettifaq. If I can do that, hopefully I can make the team as normal.”