In the second part of our exclusive interview with Steven Gerrard, the Al Ettifaq boss opens up on his personal desire for his team to compete with the very best in the Roshn Saudi League, the aspirations of Saudi Arabia, and his pleasure in joining the club from Dammam at such an exciting time of unprecedented growth in the RSL.
When Gerrard signed for Al Ettifaq in June of this year, he oversaw an overhaul of the playing staff, welcoming the likes of fellow former Liverpool players Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium. The transfers grabbed plenty of headlines, although the Al Ettifaq boss is quick to dismiss suggestions that his players had moved to the Kingdom for financial gain.
“I think I've seen it with China and I've seen it with different leagues where there's financial power,” Gerrard tells the RSL. “They think people want to just come here for money, or at the back end of their career for the last time, they can earn big money. That certainly wasn’t in any of the conversations I had with any of my players.”
“You know they want to share a vision; they want to share a dream that we can go and achieve some special things together. I don't get involved in the financial side of deals, we focus on the football, and we talk about the football.”
Al Ettifaq were certainly aggressive in the transfer market during the summer and added plenty of quality, including former Celtic striker Moussa Dembele and Scotland international defender Jack Hendry. Understandably, Gerrard was pleased with the business his club did, and feels the profile of player he was able to bring in will help push Al Ettifaq up the league.
“All the players that we went for, we got them done,” the ex-Liverpool captain says. “That has been the most positive thing for me, that we have got a good group of players that all want to improve individually. They understand that the team has been probably underachieving in previous years. You know we're on the same page in terms of what work needs to be done for us to move up the positions in the league.”
Seventh last season, Al Ettifaq are currently sitting in the same position in the RSL, four points behind Al Taawon, who occupy fourth. Gerrard is under no illusion about the task he faces in pushing the Dammam team up the table in a league that is packed with capable sides, but is relishing the responsibility and challenge so far.
“The competition in this league is fierce,” he says. “It's not just about four teams. I think as you have seen, there are many strong teams. I know [the Public Investment Fund] owns four teams [Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli] and they're powerful teams, but you've got to respect Al Taawon, Al Fateh, Al Shabab - teams that finished above Al Ettifaq last year.
“There is no getting away from it that this is a huge challenge. It's a very tough challenge, but for me in football the size of the challenge and the pressure and responsibility, that's something that excites me. It's something that I really want to commit to and get my teeth into and try to make a difference.”
After a big-spending summer, it would be understandable to think that Al Ettifaq fans are targeting a top-four finish. However, Gerrard would be more satisfied with a more patient approach, starting with his team bettering their 2022/23 campaign.
“I think it's good for our fans to dream,” he says. “We want to dream, we want to be as ambitious as we can, and we want to finish as high as we can. We want to commit and compete for every game we play in. I think that is extremely important, but you also have to be realistic.
“The team finished seventh last year. I think it was 20-odd points off the top four positions [Al Shabab, in fourth, were 19 points better off]. I think that, in the short term, we want to stay as close as we can to the top teams that are competing for the top four places.
“We want to improve on last year's finish in the league, which was seventh. This season we want to see improvement.”
The Liverpool legend is only 13 games into his managerial career in the RSL, but Gerrard acknowledges that he has received plenty of support from the Al Ettifaq hierarchy. They are fully invested in the club’s long-term project.
“I am happy,” Gerrard says. “I'm lucky to have the opportunity at a good club, at a supportive club. The people that support me from above around the board, the president, the vice presidents, the board of directors, have been supportive.
“They are very knowledgeable; they understand where the team has been previously. They understand and see what we're trying to implement and what we're going to do, and they know that there needs to be patience.”
Gerrard stresses that his process is crucial in developing Al Ettifaq, whose two Saudi top-flight titles arrived in the 1980s, into creditable title contenders and that it would not happen overnight. He admits, also, that he has been warmly received and understood by the fans of his new club.
“If I was to sit here now and say that everything is going to be great and we can fix it by that date or that moment, I’ll be telling you lies, because it's a process,” he says. “Our fans need to know that everyone is pushing behind the scenes every single day, every single moment, to make sure the team is better and more competitive.”
“All the Ettifaq fans I have met seem to be very happy. They have given me a fantastic welcome. They're optimistic. I think they understand like ourselves that this is something that we need to build and keep pushing.
“Everyone needs to keep pushing in the right direction. The Saudi fans as a whole since day one of my arrival have been incredible, they are very passionate about football, whether that be here in Saudi Arabia or talking about the Premier League or talking about the Champions League.”
Gerrard, who made more than 100 appearances for England, describes his joy at joining the RSL at such an exciting time, when the summer brought a plethora of top stars to the Kingdom.
Gerrard believes fans should expect more big-name signings in the January transfer window.
“I think all fans, all players, should be extremely excited because it's only going to get better, stronger - and I don't think they need to hear it from me. I think it's clear that Saudi is on everyone's lips, it's on everyone’s mind, because of the growth, the investment and the standard of the players, the skill sets and the talent that's arriving in such a short space of time.”
With the league undergoing an unprecedented phase of growth, Gerrard is confident that the league and his own Al Ettifaq team will only get better.
“I have only been here for three months and I have experienced growth in a short time,” he says. “The level is rising every single week. In the back end of the window, some of the names that we got in to make it even stronger… the league is only going to get better.
“It's only going to get stronger. It's only going to get more talented players, more coaches coming and wanting to be a part of it. I'm just grateful that I got in at the beginning.”
Gerrard’s Saudi Arabian adventure is only really getting started and, through careful planning and patience, the former Aston Villa and Glasgow Rangers manager will be confident he can guide Al Ettifaq back among the top table of Saudi football.
That challenge that Gerrard thrives for swings back into action on Friday the 24th of November, as Al Ettifaq host reigning champions Al Ittihad under new manager Marcelo Gallardo.