Fresh from his residency in Dammam, where he offered a masterful one-man study in how to torch a good name in just 180 days, Jordan Henderson has pivoted towards the language of politics. Truly, his opening press conference at Ajax was filled with enough evasions to make even Sir Ed Davey blush.
While the Liberal Democrat leader knocked back 10 chances in one interview this month to express contrition for his part in the Post Office scandal, Henderson was invited three times to say sorry for his hypocrisy in swapping rainbow laces and allyship awards for the blandishments of a Saudi regime that criminalises homosexuality. Instead, he found refuge in the politicians’ classic trick, the ‘non-apology apology’. “If anyone was offended, then that’s on me, I apologise for that,” he said, sticking to the same PR spiel he has used all along.
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) January 19, 2024
Where exactly is the “if” in this equation? The offence taken by a significant section of his fanbase at his move to Al-Ettifaq is not a matter for debate. Many still feel deeply betrayed. An England LGBT fans group, 3LionsPride, called out his posturing as a champion of their community, vowing that the banner they had made to honour him would be “consigned to the depths of history”. So why is Henderson struggling to admit that such blowback even exists?
It is a cynical manoevure, this ‘fauxpology’ business. Henderson’s “sorry you feel that way” framing not only suggests that there is nothing wrong with exchanging rainbow armband activism for the Saudi Pro League, but that his critics are hypersensitive in calling him to account. In any case, his premature departure for Ajax gives him a platform to act as if the whole sordid exercise never happened. “I’m dedicating myself to football.” “I’m overwhelmed by this opportunity.” These are the bromides he prefers now.
The speed of this reinvention, now that he has traded in the asceticism of life on the Persian Gulf for ultra-liberal Amsterdam, is a little difficult to swallow. One moment, he is happy to perfect his Jordan of Arabia act, right down to his cringeworthy promo for the Saudis’ 2034 World Cup bid. The next, he is embracing a club fifth in the Eredivisie as his natural calling, ready to be acclaimed – even if Ajax’s No 14 jersey has long since been retired – as the next Johan Cruyff.
Reputations are seldom repaired so easily. Henderson is so naive that, in response to Telegraph Sport’s revelations that he had deferred his Saudi wages to avoid tax, he said: “Don’t believe what you read in the press. That’s a little bit of advice.” Not the best gambit, all told, in a room full of journalists. And the Dutch press are unlikely to give him the smoothest ride. After a reporter from Volkskrant prefaced a question by telling him, “I heard it was because of taxes that you didn’t go to Britain”, an English colleague added: “And you thought we were direct…”
There is one school of thought that Henderson has been pilloried enough. Jürgen Klopp, his former manager at Liverpool, clearly thought so, asking why people “dared to judge” his darling ‘Hendo’. Well, Jurgen, it might just be that Henderson’s detractors know a hypocrite when they see one. And they see all too clearly that he has turned his back on many of the values he once purported to uphold. If that is not a legitimate target for criticism, what is?
In public life, you cannot contradict a message you have spent years preaching and expect to escape censure. During his nine years at Liverpool, Klopp has “dared to judge” any number of people in football, from referees to rivals to inquisitors whose tone he does not like. And people have every right to express the same strident opinions where Henderson is concerned.
Here is a player who consciously positioned himself as the game’s moral conscience and then threw in his lot with a state known throughout the world for its repression of gay rights. Here is a figure who claimed to be embarking on a noble project and then booked the first flight out once he realised that games played in near-empty stadiums, and in saturating desert humidity, were not quite as seductive as advertised. These are the types of about-turns that cry out, irrespective of Klopp’s pieties, to be challenged.
At least Ajax supporters seem, by and large, to be on board with Henderson’s latest rebrand. Tributes to him have been daubed on street signs, while the club shop is inviting fans to tuck themselves in at night under “Henderson 6” bed sheets. You wonder if his reception among England die-hards will be as forgiving. In the event that he earns a call-up to Gareth Southgate’s Euros squad in Germany this summer, he runs the risk of receiving the same boos that assailed him during a friendly against Australia last autumn.
“That hurt,” he conceded. But not half as much as Henderson’s fluffing on behalf of the Saudis hurt the people who used to lionise him.