Stability and continuity in Liverpool have been replaced by turmoil and uncertainty.
Just weeks after the American owners of Fenway Sports Group put the club up for sale, they were informed by sporting director Julian Ward that he intended to step down at the end of the season. To say that the news was received with shock in Boston would be an understatement.
Just six months ago Ward officially took over following the departure of Michael Edwards after six years at the helm. Throughout the past season, there has been a gradual handover of responsibilities.
They were huge shoes to fill given Edwards’ stellar record in the transfer market, but Ward has long been groomed as his successor after impressing FSG boss Mike Gordon in his role as director of Football Loans and Partnerships. He was promoted to Assistant Athletic Director in December 2020. The transition should have been smooth and scheduled for the long haul.
In his farewell, Edwards wrote: “Julian’s elevation is entirely in keeping with what I believe is a key factor in ‘the Liverpool way’, with the promotion from within ensuring expertise, experience and institutional knowledge is cherished the way it should be.” message.
But after just one season in charge, Ward will leave in May. The 41-year-old has confirmed up the Anfield hierarchy that he has no other job prepared and intends to take a break from football and spend more time with his young family. His companions tried to persuade him to reconsider, but his opinion was decided.
With FSG continuing to consider offers from around the world for a minority stake and full takeover of an asset valued at more than £3 billion ($3.6 billion), the search for a new sporting director begins.
To add to the turmoil, another key figure will leave Anfield next summer. Director of Research Ian Graham, who runs the club’s renowned data science unit and makes a significant contribution to recruitment, is giving notice after a decade of service.
Ward’s rise to one of the most prominent roles in European football has been remarkable. In less than seven years, he went from being Liverpool’s director of scouting for Spain and Portugal to sporting director.
For a man born in the Aintree area of the city who grew up in Cumbria and then returned home to study at Liverpool John Moores University, it was a matter of great pride. He’s come a long way since his days combining playing non-league football with working as a consultant for data company Prozone. He initially joined Liverpool from Manchester City in 2012. Like Edwards before him, he has always kept a low profile and avoided the limelight.
So why move away from Anfield? The truth is, it is no longer the same job with the same chain of command that he signed up for.
A change of ownership is expected in 2023 and, importantly, Gordon has stepped back from the day-to-day running of the club to oversee the sale. It is understood that this influenced Ward’s decision given the close working relationship he had with Gordon.
Chief executive Billy Hogan has recently assumed greater responsibilities and Hogan and manager Jürgen Klopp will lead the process of replacing Ward.
Klopp is under contract until 2026 and has assured his supporters he is not going anywhere regardless of whether FSG sells out. This is a source of comfort during a period of such turmoil.
Describing Ward’s decision as “unexpected and disappointing”, senior club sources say Hogan and Klopp will assess in the coming weeks the best model to support the future football operations team. Chief recruiter Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter will remain in place. Internally highly regarded but external appointment is more likely.
Klopp has publicly lauded Ward for his work in helping to secure Liverpool’s victory over Tottenham Hotspur to the signing of Luis Diaz, who cost £50m from Porto in January. His connections in Portugal came to the fore again when Liverpool signed Darwin Nunez from Benfica this summer. The Uruguay international’s fee could rise to a club record £85m.
He completed the transfers of Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsey, sold Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich and ended the uncertainty over Mo Salah’s future as the Egyptian penned a new contract worth over £350,000-a-week.
Not everything was easy sailing. Liverpool were dealing with a midfield injury crisis in August and FSG were reluctant to put in big money, so Ward ended up signing Arthur to Juventus on loan on deadline day as a temporary solution. The Brazilian wasn’t quite fit when he arrived and played just 13 minutes of first-team football before having surgery after tearing a thigh muscle in training.
It’s hard to make FSG’s self-sustaining business model work effectively when you can’t make big money selling unwanted fringe stars.
Klopp has always had the final say on signings, but he has become increasingly influential when it comes to transfer policy and contract extensions. It was Klopp who pushed hard for Nunez after analyzing Benfica’s matches ahead of the Champions League quarter-final clash in April.
Despite his imminent exit, Liverpool insist Ward will remain in charge until the end of the season rather than be placed on gardening leave. Senior figures have vowed business is business as usual and argue that this will not affect their transfer plans for January or next summer.
They point to Ward’s character and professional integrity as evidence that he will continue to work tirelessly for the good of the club. There is confidence in the wider Football Operations team around him.
There is a lot of work to be done. Liverpool entered the World Cup mid-season break sitting sixth in the Premier League, seven points off the top four, after a turbulent start to the season.
The midfield section needed an extensive and expensive renovation. Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner are all free agents next summer. By the start of next season, Jordan Henderson will be 33 years old, and Thiago 32.
Borussia Dortmund’s Judd Bellingham is Liverpool’s first target but they face serious competition from Real Madrid, Manchester City and Manchester United. Missing out on Champions League qualification would dampen hopes of landing the England international, who is valued at more than £100m.
So much for succession planning. Ward, a celebrity, was supposed to be the man overseeing this rebuilding, but that responsibility will now fall to someone else.
It’s a period of great change for Liverpool. Uncertainty reigns.
(Top images: Getty Images, Design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)