I’d offer a penny for Steven Gerrard’s thoughts, but his recent decision to extend his reported £15m-per-year Al-Ettifaq contract until 2027 shows his time and brainpower are seemingly worth much more.
Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq, as they must now legally be known, have not won a game since October. They are eighth in the Saudi Pro League, after finishing seventh last season and splurging more in one transfer window than they had collectively spent in their history. They have scored 22 goals in 19 games, fewer than relative minnows like Al-Khaleej, Damac and Al-Raed, often in a stadium less than a fifth full, and once in front of 610 people.
And now they have lost their captain, record signing and overarching statement of intent, six months after he joined, not just the core of Gerrard’s “project” but also a good friend. If Jordan Henderson’s mad dash for Amsterdam revealed the yawning chasms beneath the wafer-thin facade of success and functionality in the SPL, Gerrard’s extension shows how they will attempt to cover them up again.
Everything’s fine – nothing to see here. Look everyone, Gerrard will be here until 2027 – join him. There’s no chaos, no carnage, no fizzing rebellion of waning superstars who sold their souls and would quite like them back, thank you very much.
Roll up, roll up, Cristiano Ronaldo said this can be one of the five biggest leagues in the world! Have more money, bigger houses, another gold-plated Lamborghini – just sign on the dotted line. Did you know Neymar played here (for three games)? Please. Don’t. Leave.
Gerrard’s extension reveals the undeniable truth underpinning the Saudi project – this is an entertainment product, not a sports competition, an exercise in diverting eyeballs and artificially summoning a spectacle from nothing.
The meritocratic response to his performance so far would be a P45, but Gerrard’s name and face are much more valuable than his management skills.
Who cares what Steven Gerrard, failing football manager, is doing when Steven Gerrard, former Champions League-winning England and Liverpool captain, can be plastered across your global advertising?
So why is Gerrard not just tolerating it, but seemingly enjoying it enough to stay? If you watch him talk about Al-Ettifaq, you can tell he believes this matters.
In a recent interview with the league he said: “I’ve signed up to a club where the board are very passionate. They understand where the club’s at, the understand it’s something that needs building that it’s going to take time.
“It’s not something that you fix in a week, a month, in six months, it’s a project. On the pitch is the priority, but a lot needed to change around it to give the team the support it needs.”
Staying seems to be a personal pride thing, combined with a belief that if he can make it here, he can make it anywhere. If he can transform this rag-tag bunch of local lads (and an assortment of grossly overcompensated mercenaries) into a footballing force, then maybe it’ll heal the reputational damage Unai Emery has afflicted upon him at Aston Villa.
But really, to the European footballing establishment, Gerrard may as well be coaching Voldemort’s invitational XI. He could win the Saudi Pro League five times over and it’ll contribute nothing to restoring the long-lost fantasy that he is Jurgen Klopp’s natural heir.
Another issue Gerrard may have to contend with is his fresh title of English ambassador to the Saudi Pro League. Henderson’s move will refocus the crosshairs onto Gerrard, potentially exposing him to similar moral scrutiny.
It’s almost insulting that Gerrard hasn’t been held to the same ethical standard as Henderson, as if just because he previously hasn’t spoken about it at length, he’s not anti-homophobia, or anti-assassinating journalists.
He pledged his support to Villa & Proud, Aston Villa’s LGBT+ fan network while he was manager. There’s nothing to suggest his principles are any different to Henderson’s, yet he’s been saved thus far by simply staying quieter. That may now change. There always has to be a target.
The length of Gerrard’s new contract also begs the question – what will the Saudi Pro League look like in 2027?
Currently, the biggest issue the league faces is motivation. By offering such exorbitant sums, the Saudi Pro League attracts players who prioritise money over the quality of the football they play. Just ask Vladimir Putin – hiring mercenaries to do your heavy lifting can end very badly.
The reason Henderson and Karim Benzema appear so desperate to leave the Gulf within six months of joining is because they want more from life. They can’t cope with the lack of tangible meaning and ambition, with teammates who view this as a job not a vocation, with sub-par football and fans and facilities.
To win the Champions League, as both have managed, requires an addiction to football, to winning, to perpetual motion and improvement. It turns out they’re not ready for this methadone football, they still want the good stuff.
And so Gerrard is condemning himself to a life of commuting from Bahrain and coaching players who are only chasing pay checks and quick fixes. Al-Ettifaq’s Liverpool-supporting chairman may well back the Englishman again, but for now they’ve only signed two loanees from Al-Ittihad in January.
Unless he criticises the Saudi regime, there’s probably nothing Gerrard could do in the near future to be relieved of his position. He can continue convincing himself he’s building an empire, when in fact he’s just another glassy-eyed attraction in this vast footballing circus, brought out to dance until no-one wants to watch anymore.
Venal, banal, hollow, a league built on TikTok numbers and the magnetic power of names, this is where Gerrard has chosen to commit his future. In 2027 he will be 47, still young for a manager, yet damaged goods beyond repair. European football will have moved on without him.
Once a footballing romantic who spent 26 years with the same club, Gerrard is now chasing the money he believes he should have earned throughout his career. Yet he’s doing it at the expense of time he will never be able to recover. He should follow Henderson’s lead. Instead, he’s following the cash.