Steven Gerrard interview: ‘I went to see Sir Alex Ferguson before taking job in Saudi Arabia’

Steven Gerrard – Steven Gerrard interview: Money is not the only reason I took a job in Saudi Arabia
In January, Steven Gerrard signed a two-year extension to stay as Al-Ettifaq head coach until 2027

As always, Steven Gerrard is refreshingly candid. “I was financially secure a long time ago,” he says. “So, I would not come to Saudi for money. Was it part of it? Yes. Was it the only thing that made me do it? One million per cent, no.”

Gerrard is the head coach of Al-Ettifaq and caused a huge stir when he finally joined last July following a long courtship with one of England’s greatest-ever players hailed by the Saudi Pro League club as “a legend who brings a glorious history and exciting future”.

Sitting in his office at the sports club complex in Dammam on the Persian Gulf, next to the brand-new stadium, and adjacent to the equally new gym, Gerrard talks for the first time about why he surprised the football world by taking the job, rebuilding his career after the “hurt” of being sacked by Aston Villa – and how he sought out Sir Alex Ferguson to advise him on what next.

To fully explain Gerrard’s decision to join Al-Ettifaq, which has drawn criticism as well as shock, needs context. The 43-year-old does not want to dwell on what happened at Villa and is keen to enthusiastically discuss his work in the SPL and what is happening there.

But he needs to talk about it, how it left him and how it influenced his next move. It must be explained.

After being sacked by Villa in October 2022 there were other talks and other offers: two Premier League clubs wanted him towards the end of that campaign; two Championship clubs in the summer were interested and, intriguingly, discussions with two national teams and also a club in the United Arab Emirates took place.

But Gerrard eventually chose Saudi. So, is it about re-building a career damaged by losing his job at Villa?

“I respect that opinion. I don’t think it’s unfair,” Gerrard says. “I don’t think it’s too harsh because when you suffer a set-back and a knock you have got to look yourself in the mirror. You’ve got to have a look at where you have gone wrong and try and improve.

“So, of course I want to bounce back from that. But I didn’t want to jump into something that didn’t feel right and take an unnecessary risk when I am a young coach. I’ve had success up to a certain point. I actually felt my own performance at Villa was really good. I actually felt I went to the next level in terms of what I had learnt from Rangers. I felt like I had grown.

“But we had a bad run of results. I have to own that and take full responsibility for that. I have to learn from my mistakes. Maybe do things slightly differently and grow and evolve. That’s the only way you can move on from a set-back or a knock.”

Aston Villa  ‘had players who weren’t giving’

In truth, it unravelled bewildering quickly at Villa: from eight wins in his first 16 Premier League games to only four in the following 22. Just 11 months, in all, and Gerrard admits the players were not responding.

“I think when top footballers are not performing at their level I am not going to pull any punches. We had players who weren’t giving what I felt they should have been giving at the time and that’s my responsibility,” he says.

“Villa is a fantastic club. It was an incredible opportunity at the time and I have nothing bad to say. The owners gave me a fantastic chance.

“The initial period, our form was top eight in the Premier League and obviously the opinion of me now from a lot of people will be that I failed, if you like, but I know there was a period there where we got an awful lot of things right. We had the team doing OK.”

‘I went to see Alex Ferguson’

Unsurprisingly, the Villa situation hit him hard. Up to that point Gerrard’s career had only followed an upward trajectory – from his brilliance as a player for Liverpool and England, to turning Glasgow Rangers around in his first managerial job, winning the title after nine years of Celtic dominance, to inevitably being touted as Jurgen Klopp’s successor at Anfield, to landing in the Premier League at Villa.

“It was tough. It hurt. I felt it. But what people need to understand is if I didn’t feel that, if I didn’t take that personally, if I didn’t take full responsibility for that, then I am not Steven Gerrard anymore because when it’s football and it’s professional and it’s something that I love, I will always own it,” he says.

Steven Gerrard – Steven Gerrard interview: Money is not the only reason I took a job in Saudi Arabia
Aston Villa was Gerrard's first managerial job in the Premier League – he was in charge for only 11 months - Reuters/David Klein

“I am not one of those people who looks to blame, who looks to point fingers. It’s not my style and that’s the reason why I needed a period of time to process that hard toughness. It knocked my confidence a little bit. It does. I spoke to a lot of managers around it. I went to see Alex Ferguson for a couple of hours and he said ‘take your time, don’t jump into anything. Take your time and process it, analyse it’.

“And that is what I have done. But it has not affected my ambition. I didn’t have any targets when I set out on this different journey. I didn’t have a plan to go to Glasgow Rangers. I didn’t have a plan to go to the Premier League after three and a half years. I didn’t have Aston Villa on my resume. I am going along trying to be the best version of myself and have a career in coaching because I am passionate about it.”

Part of that process, he says was “a period of time when… I didn’t feel the fire was back, the energy was back to go into any role… I am someone who’s – and you’ve known me for a long time – honest. I like to know why, how and when I did feel the fire and the energy coming back”.

‘I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t taking it seriously’

Gerrard says if the “conversations had been different” with some of the clubs he spoke to “I might be talking to you now in a city in England” but he was determined to find the “right project” to develop his managerial career and be part of something that excited him.

But standing on the touchline at Old Trafford as part of Channel 4’s coverage of an England Euro 2024 qualifier last June, Gerrard appeared to dismiss the prospect of that being in Saudi. “Where we stand right now, I won’t be taking that offer up,” he said. But everyone ignored the qualification of “right now” in that statement.

Again, context is everything, as Gerrard, explains. He had taken the initial call asking him to go to Saudi, with a couple of clubs after him, when he was in Istanbul for the Champions League final on June 10 and flew directly there. “That was the timing of it,” he explains.

“It was a case of the guys at Ettifaq were in a rush. They wanted an answer in days. I had been in Saudi, I had conversations over dinner that lasted a couple of hours but I hadn’t seen enough of Dammam, of the stadium, the training ground, I hadn’t seen any schools for my children. I needed to speak to them and Alex [his wife] and people around the game whose opinion I trust. So, the speed of decision they wanted me to make was too quick.”

Dammam is also not as cosmopolitan as Riyadh or Jeddah. There is less to do. It is more remote although it is commutable from Bahrain. Its claim to fame? It was where oil was first discovered in the kingdom in 1938 and accounts for up to a quarter of the world’s reserves.

So, taking his time showed how serious Gerrard was? “Trust me, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t taking it seriously,” Gerrard says. “I take football seriously. Always have. And at the same time I will never disrespect a person or an organisation by making a decision when I am not ready.”

Steven Gerrard – Steven Gerrard interview: Money is not the reason I took a job in Saudi Arabia
Gerrard during Al-Ettifaq's SPL match against Al-Ittihad last November - Getty Images/Yasser Bakhsh

Al-Ettifaq ‘felt a bit more like Rangers’

Al-Ettifaq are not one of the big four clubs taken over by the Saudi Public Investment Fund last June which sparked the summer spending spree. But they are backed by the kingdom’s second-largest petrochemicals company, SABIC, and significant money is there.

They signed not just Jordan Henderson but Georginio Wijnaldum from Paris St-Germain, Jack Hendry from Club Bruges, Everton’s Demarai Gray and the former Fulham and Celtic forward Moussa Dembele once they got Gerrard, who they were prepared to wait for and also, crucially, allow to bring an extensive background staff with him. Even in a summer when the SPL clubs were signing Karim Benzema and Neymar, securing Gerrard was quite a coup.

“Yes, but I am not someone who likes to blow my own trumpet. I am not someone who PRs myself. Yeah, big name. I played in the Premier League and have been successful in terms of my career as a player,” Gerrard says.

“But I think the opportunities to go straight back in quickly when I probably wasn’t ready, they were high-risk, really high-risk in terms of they could again have been a tough knock if it wasn’t the right opportunity.

“So, I needed to sit down with people who shared a lot of things with me, maybe in terms of wanting to build something, in being given a little more time… that felt a bit more like Rangers. Now, I am not comparing clubs and sizes but in terms of a project. Can you build something special? Can you build a team? Can you build an infrastructure? Can you give academy people opportunities? Can you share your experiences and let people grow?

“For example, I was offered the chance to go back into the Premier League late on, where a team had very little time to go, where a team needed to have that lift and that reaction. But if I didn’t get that reaction and they went down it would have felt like another blow on the back of Villa.”

But, still, surely it was a risk to come to Saudi Arabia, also?

“There are no guarantees but I believe with time with support and with the same people being on the same page, I’ve experienced it before, I have the confidence and belief that I can build something and make a difference,” Gerrard argues.

‘Nothing but respect for Henderson’

As a sign of Gerrard’s strengthening relationship with Al-Ettifaq, and despite a run of just one win in 11 games, he was offered and signed a two-year contract extension in January – even though he already had 18 months left on his initial deal. Cynically that may have been to distract from the bad publicity of star signing Jordan Henderson deciding to quit Saudi. How does Gerrard feel about that accusation?

“I can look you right in the eye and say that certainly was not the case,” he says. “The cynics in England were going ‘hang on a minute’ which I understand. But these guys [in Saudi] had seen us work as a group of staff, had seen the team, the spirit and the analytics and were happy with us. That’s what the new contract came off the back off. We are on a journey.”

Even so he must have personally been disappointed that Henderson did not stay (ironically one of the midfielder’s apparent complaints was the poor facilities with Al-Ettifaq defender Jack Hendry now claiming the club’s new training ground, which opened in February after Henderson left, is of Premier League quality)

“I respected his decision because I love him as a guy, I love him as a player and I have nothing but ultimate respect for him,” Gerrard says.

“I was disappointed. Any manager who loses his captain during the season is not ideal and I told Jordan that. But if someone is not settled. If someone has some family things that are affecting him. If someone has got different outside goals or opportunities, like England for example, then I have to respect that and understand it. And I do. But was I disappointed? Of course I was.”

Jordan Henderson (L) and Gerrard – Steven Gerrard interview: Money is not the only reason I took a job in Saudi Arabia
Jordan Henderson was Gerrard's captain in Saudi Arabia before he left after just six months - Getty Images/Yasser Bakhsh

Did he try to persuade him to stay?

“I did but I didn’t over-do that because it had to be Jordan’s decision,” Gerrard adds. “He’s a big boy and I didn’t want to be someone – for example if I had convinced him to stay and he felt further down [the line] that it was the wrong decision then I didn’t want to be that person who was told ‘why did you convince me to stay?’. It had to be Jordan’s decision. He needed his own time. He needed to go through his own processes. The advice I gave to Jordan was ‘do what’s right for your family’.”

Saudi players ‘hang on to every word’

Gerrard believes he, personally, has done the right thing for his family and his career. In that order. “I have made every decision in a similar way: family, football project and money third,” he says.

Gerrard certainly sounds passionate and committed to the “project” and, revealingly, says his family can now see him “smiling again”.

“I had been in Liverpool for a long time. I wanted a bit of a change,” he says. “I want to get to the end of my career and think: ‘I tried different things. I didn’t just go for safety. I didn’t stay in my comfort zone.’ I want to make decisions outside the box. I want to challenge myself. Same with my children.”

But what of the standard of football which is, clearly, far below what he is used to?

“I don’t think the guys at the top of football here want to be compared to anyone,” Gerrard states. “They want to be themselves. They are ambitious, they are passionate. They want to support the local players. The key to the chats I have with [Saudi national team coach Roberto] Mancini is they are very passionate about their own players and want them to be as competitive and strong and talented as they possibly can. There is a lot of talent in Saudi but they need to understand elite.”

Gerrard wants to take on that role. “Whatever I can do to make a difference, I will do that,” he says. “The Saudi guys I have worked with want to hang on to every word. I see that when they question Gini Wijnaldum. I don’t want to compare Saudi to the Premier League because that’s unfair and there’s a recognition here that they know they are not there. But the potential and the hunger and the passion to grow the game and be the best version of themselves I can 100 per cent guarantee that.”

‘I want to be loyal back to the people who have been loyal to me’

Listening to Gerrard talk, even adopting Ferguson’s phrase of wanting to be the “noisy neighbour” to take on the PIF clubs, it appears he is in no hurry to return to England.

“When I sign up to something I am loyal. I want to see it out,” Gerrard says. “I would like to continue to build on the work that has been done on and off the pitch so far.

“I am on the pitch every single day. I am looking at other managers out here, competing against them. The league is going to continue to grow and I am in it, I am inside it.

“Now, I know what you are thinking – is it going to help me get back to where I eventually dream of getting back to? That’s for other people to decide.

“But I went for job interviews at the time, came close to a couple of jobs, and I didn’t want the period of being out of the game to be too long – not to be forgotten about because I know who I am without ‘blowing smoke’. But I was keen to get back on the grass, the fire came and this was a project where I could get a fair chance to make a difference and make a change.

“People have a perception of Saudi and this league and a lot of opinions on it, which they are allowed to have. But my advice is – don’t guess at that opinion, come and see it for yourself. I have had a really positive, enjoyable experience so far. It has been really challenging professionally – on and off the pitch.

“But I am enjoying my life. I want to give it the best shot I can give. I want to be loyal back to the people who have been loyal to me and I want to make a difference here in a positive way.

“I am still ambitious and hungry to be the best I can in my coaching career. So, will I coach elsewhere after this? Yes, I will. I am young. I have had success. I have had a knock. I am in the process of trying to recover from that while being in an environment where I can do a good job.”