It is nearly five months to the day Jordan Henderson sat next to his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard, putting pen to paper as a new Al Ettifaq player.
The first England international to play in the Roshn Saudi League has been a hugely influential figure Dammam since his arrival. Not only does he carry the captain’s armband and wears the number ten shirt, but his capture his since paved the way for more high-profile signings at the club including his former midfield partner Georgino Wijnaldum and former Everton winger Demarai Gray among others.
Speaking to the official Saudi Pro League website, the UEFA Champions League and Premier League winning captain reflected on his early days in the kingdom.
“To be honest, I didn’t watch too many [RSL] games. I’ve seen a few because of watching Ronaldo. Since he’s come here, everybody took a bit more interest in seeing a few games,” said Henderson.
And if Ronaldo was the attraction for Henderson to start watching some Saudi football, it was a former Liverpool captain that had the biggest impact in bringing him to these shores.
“Obviously, I’ve played with the manager a few years ago now, so I have a good relationship with him of course and he was a big reason why ended up coming here,” said Henderson about Al Ettifaq boss Gerrard.
“We have continued that relationship while we were here and it’s still very much professional. We speak about what we can improve on, what we can do around, not only on the pitch, but also around and off the field.
“He is such a huge role model for a lot of people, myself included. What he did at Liverpool was incredible.”
With August temperature hovering around the high 30s in Dammam and the high humidity from the Arabian Gulf, the first few games were a far cry from the Merseyside afternoons where he started each of the previous 12 seasons.
But while the warmth of the weather presented a challenge for the Mackem, it was the warmth of the people in the port city that surprised Henderson the most.
“The first matches were tough. It was very hot, but it was just something that I just needed to get used to and that took me a few weeks, but now the weather has changed a little bit and it’s a lot cooler.
“I’ve got to get used to the culture and living a different way. It’s a big shock for me to come into that, but like I said, people have been amazing here, helping me and my family settle in.
“Teammates have been fantastic, the staff have been incredible and also the people when you’re walking around going to the restaurant or the mall, there have been so many friendly people coming up and saying ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia’ and just having a chat, so that has been really good for me since I arrived.
The very first match of the 2023-24 RSL season brought Henderson face-to-face with another teammate of his in Al Nassr’s Sadio Mane, but across the league, there was no shortage of former Reds to catch up with.
Midfielder partner Fabinho now dons the colours of Al Ittihad in Jeddah, whereas his fellow Brazilian and ex Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino plays for city rivals Al Ahli and Wijnaldum shares the pitch with Henderson in the green and red of Al Ettifaq week in and week out.
“It’s nice to see some familiar faces of course. There are a lot of good players, especially in the summer since Ronaldo joined, that have come to make the league better and try to improve it, and hopefully that can continue.
On the pitch, a transformed Al Ettifaq side are looking to close the gap on the top four, having last won the league title in 1987, long before the stat of the Pro League in its current iteration in 2008, but the road to the top has been a bumpy one so far, as Henderson acknowledges.
“For us as a team, it’s been up and down. Some games have been good, some games not so good, but in general the league has been very exciting and tight. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for us so far, but hopefully we can find some consistency over the next few games.”