RIYADH: The summer of 2023 marked 40 years since the most memorable moment in the history of Al-Ettifaq, the green and red club based in Dammam on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia.
It was in the 1982-83 season that Al-Ettifaq made Saudi football history, becoming the first team in the nation’s history to win the league without a single defeat. It was the first league triumph for a club that was until that point not considered one of Saudi Arabia’s powerhouses, and it would be followed by only one more league title, four years later.
The success of the 1980s shaped the identity of the club nicknamed “Al-Nawkhada,” a nod to the ancient profession of Nawkhada, captains of the traditional dhow boats that roamed the waters of the Arabian Gulf for centuries, transporting goods between the Arabian Peninsula and places like India, Iran and East Africa as well as carrying experienced pearl divers on whose shoulders the fortunes of the region were built long before the discovery of oil.
Coach Khalil Al-Zayani was the original Nawkhada, leading Al-Ettifaq to their two league titles as well as guiding Saudi Arabia to their maiden AFC Asian Cup trophy in 1984.
Four decades later, Steven Gerrard, a man who established his legendary status in two iconic port cities thousands of miles away, in Liverpool as a player and then in Glasgow as a coach, is hoping to become the new Nawkhada in Saudi Arabia’s main port city of Dammam.
The former Liverpool captain says his journey to the Middle East began six months before putting pen to paper at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, when an icon of his former club’s fiercest rivals, Manchester United, arrived in the Kingdom.
“The arrival of ‘The GOAT’ as we call him, Cristiano (Ronaldo), in January (was) a huge signing. He still had a lot of football to offer,” said Gerrard as he sat in front of the Roshn Saudi League cameras.
“So, from afar, for six months, I was looking in at Ronaldo’s results, at the league, watching results and highlights. I think from that moment, the league around the world had become a popular talking point for everyone. After Ronaldo’s arrival, even more big-name signings, talents and skillsets were joining the league.
“At the time, it coincided with me being out of the game and looking for my next opportunity, so I was fascinated from afar looking in, and when my agents brought a couple of opportunities from the Gulf area at the time, I was fascinated to explore them.”
After a short trip to the Eastern Province where he explored the club facilities, discussed with the board and learned about the history and ambitions of the club hoping to restore their glory days and compete with the established elite of the RSL, Gerrard’s mind was made up.
“The Ettifaq proposal and opportunity was the most exciting for me because I’ve signed up to a club where the board are very passionate. They understand where the club are, they understand it’s something that’s going to need building, and it’s going to take time. That’s the reason why I was very interested to analyze this one because in my job you need time, especially when a club has finished seventh in the league and so many points behind the top four, that’s not an easy fix; it’s not something you fix in a week, a month, or six months. It’s a project to build on the pitch, which is obviously the priority, but also a lot of things needed to change around it to give the first team the support it needs.”
In a summer when the RSL title challengers brought in the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane, Gerrard had the task of rebuilding his squad, albeit not with the same resources or promise of immediate success that the likes of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr or Al-Ittihad could offer.
The first port of call for the Scouser was the man who succeeded him in wearing the Liverpool captain’s armband, Jordan Henderson, and for Gerrard, the decision to bring his former teammate was a no-brainer.
“I think when you’re the coach, the manager, you want players going into games that can be an extended version of the staff. People, who can really help on-pitch coaching, where the team needs to be in terms of distances, to make on-field decisions.
“Myself and Jordan (Henderson), we have that trust. We played together and he’s a fantastic player still, a fantastic human being. For us, to execute that signing was key and very important and I think a lot of the other signings we made came on the back of Jordan agreeing to come here. I think he wanted to still play, I think that was the key.
“He was at Liverpool at the time. He’s had a fantastic career, he’s achieved everything at that club, he’s been a fantastic servant to Liverpool Football Club, but I think in the previous months, maybe him not being a regular starter in the team, when you get to that age.
“I’ve been there myself under Brendan Rodgers. When you’re the captain, you play all the games, then all of a sudden you’re on the bench or you’re not getting as many minutes as you’d like, and that’s when you analyze and think about the different challenges, and when we knew it was a possibility, I wanted to be aggressive and wanted that to be my first signing, because for me it was a no-brainer.
“Still a fantastic player, he’s a leader, an on-pitch coach,” Gerrard added. “His standards on how he lives his daily life on and off the pitch is good for our young players to see, watch and learn. Jordan understands the size of the project, that it’s not a quick fix. He wants to be part of the journey and building it with us, but he was a very important signing at a key time.”
With one former Liverpool player signed, attention turned to another member of the 2019 UEFA Champions League winning side’s midfield. Dutchman Giorgino Wijnaldum had just returned to Paris Saint-Germain following a disappointing loan spell at AS Roma where his single season under Jose Mourinho was plagued by an injury that kept him out of the side for over half of the 2022-23 campaign.
“Gini (Wijnaldum) recently hasn’t played as much football as he would have liked,” said Gerrard. “He had an injury where he broke his leg, and his last couple of experiences haven’t brought him football happiness, so he was looking to play regular football, he wanted to smile again, to feel an important part of the team and we could give him that platform.
“He’s got many similarities to Jordan in terms of leadership, professionalism. He’s a winner, a different type to Jordan in terms of style, but they complement each other very well and I’ve seen that firsthand being a Liverpool fan for many years. We’re looking for that combination, we’re looking for that leadership and we’re looking for them to play those key roles in terms of presence and contribution on the pitch.
Looking for further additions to enable his squad to compete at the top, Gerrard was in pursuit of an established goalscorer and he looked no further than a man with connections to his former Old Firm rivals Celtic.
“I watched Moussa Dembele for many years up in Scotland when he played for Celtic and competed against him, so I’ve seen him live and up close a lot of times. He’s a goalscorer, he scores important goals. He’s a box player, he gives you profile, he gives you strength, structure and I think it’s important to have a focal point in your team as your forward and Moussa gives us that.
“Bringing the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry, it was important they were the right characters. The right people to also support us and give us a good core strength in the dressing room.”