The Jordan Henderson Dilemma: Should Saudi Pro League Players Play For England?

Henderson's move to Al-Ettifaq has caused a stir
11:19, 09 Aug 2023

Jordan Henderson’s move to Saudi Arabia has been one of the talking points of the summer. He has turned his back on the LGBTQ+ supporters who adored him after his excellent work in the community and left Liverpool’s midfield significantly weaker in terms of experience. But what about England? 

Henderson met with national team boss Gareth Southgate before the move, seeking assurances that a transfer to a weaker league wouldn’t rule him out of Euro 2024 contention. He got the answer he wanted from a manager who has always put full faith in the former Liverpool captain. 

“I spoke to him in the summer, the question he wanted to know was: ‘If I move here, are you going to automatically rule me out?’” Southgate told talkSPORT.


“We would be stupid to do that,” Southgate added. “Why would we rule anyone out based on where they are playing? We have got to see how they are playing. We have an idea of what the Saudi league will look like, but we won’t know until we actually start to see the games.”

This is a sensible and conservative move on the manager’s part - for now. Ruling Henderson out of Euro 2024 would not only make his squad immediately weaker, but set a precedent for any future stars who moved over to Saudi Arabia. Imagine if Harry Kane is tempted by the big bucks on offer when his contract at Tottenham Hotspur runs out next summer.

It’s easy to dismiss a 33-year-old midfielder’s chances of playing for England again after this seismic move, but what happens when it is the Three Lions captain and key man at the centre of the debate? It can’t be one rule for one player and another for a different player, purely based on ability. Southgate has taken the safe approach this time around.

In terms of quality, it will be interesting to see how the different Football Associations react to their players playing in the Saudi Pro League. Cristiano Ronaldo is the standout star who won’t be affected no matter where he is playing. He could play in the National League North and he’d still get picked for Portugal, just as Lionel Messi can play for Argentina as long as he damned well wants, even though he’s now in MLS.

Bellingham is the only current England international to play abroad
Bellingham is the only current England international to play abroad

But what about his countryman Ruben Neves, who is approaching his peak and has a load of competition for his national team place? Portugal are an underperforming nation who have always been more willing to accept players plying their trade in foreign countries. But England are almost unique in their position in world football. 

There are barely any elite English players playing overseas. Of the most recent England squad, only Jude Bellingham and now Henderson don’t play their football in the Premier League. With the strength of the English league system, this is understandable but it does feel a little inward-looking. 

Picking Bellingham, one of the finest midfielders in the world and now playing at Real Madrid, is obvious. Selecting Kane, if he moves to Bayern Munich this summer, would also make complete sense. But 33-year-old Henderson, now of Al-Ettifaq? The drop down in level and intensity is stark. 

Henderson’s saving grace may be his timing. He’s not going to play at the 2026 World Cup, but the fact that the Euros is just one season away gives him a fighting chance. Roy Keane mocked him for ‘being good around the camp’, but if his role is to make the likes of Bellingham feel 5% more confident with his experience while not playing himself, he’s a vital component of Southgate’s leadership team.

It doesn’t really matter what league he is playing in if he is not a starter for England. His chances are also helped by the lack of central midfield talent the Three Lions have. Behind superstars Declan Rice and Bellingham, who else is there to operate in that position? James Ward-Prowse? Conor Gallagher? Kalvin Phillips? If England had the same depth in the heart of midfield as they have at right-back, Henderson would be out of the squad in the blink of an eye. But they don’t. 

His experience and leadership, combined with England’s lack of depth, show he is still valuable. Don’t be surprised to see Henderson in Southgate’s Euro 2024 squad. 

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