Stability and continuity at Liverpool have been replaced by upheaval and uncertainty.
Just weeks after American owners Fenway Sports Group put the club up for sale, sporting director Julian Ward has informed them that he intends to step down at the end of the season. To say the news was greeted with shock in Boston would be something of an understatement.
It was only six months ago that Ward officially took over following Michael Edwards’ departure after six years at the helm. Over the course of last season there had been a gradual handover of responsibilities.
They were huge boots to fill given Edwards’ outstanding record in the transfer market but Ward had long been groomed as his successor having impressed FSG president Mike Gordon in his role as loan pathways and football partnerships manager. He was promoted to assistant sporting director in December 2020. The transition was supposed to be seamless and an appointment for the long-term.
“Julian’s elevation is wholly in keeping with what I believe to be a key factor of the ‘Liverpool Way’, with promotion from within ensuring expertise, experience and institutional knowledge are cherished in the way that they should be,” Edwards wrote in his goodbye letter.
Yet after just one season in charge Ward will walk away in May. The 41-year-old has assured the Anfield hierarchy he doesn’t have another job lined up and intends to take a break from football and spend more time with his young family. The owners tried to persuade him to reconsider but his mind was made up.
As FSG continue to consider offers from around the globe for a minority stake and a complete takeover of an asset valued in excess of £3 billion, the search starts for a new sporting director.
To add to the disruption, another key figure will leave Anfield next summer. Director of research Ian Graham, who runs the club’s lauded data science unit which makes such a big contribution to recruitment, is working his notice after a decade of service.
Ward’s rise to one of the most prominent roles in European football was remarkable. In the space of less than seven years he went from being Liverpool’s scouting manager 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 source of immense pride. He had 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 shuns the limelight.
So why walk away from Anfield? The reality is that it is no longer the same job with the same chain of command he signed up for.
The ownership is expected to change hands in 2023 and, crucially, Gordon has taken a step back from running the club day-to-day to oversee the sale. It is understood that influenced Ward’s decision given the close working relationship he has with Gordon.
Chief executive Billy Hogan has recently taken on greater responsibilities and the process of replacing Ward will be led by Hogan and manager Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp is under contract until 2026 and has reassured supporters that he will not be going anywhere regardless of whether FSG sell up. That is a source of comfort during a period of such turbulence.
Senior club sources, who described Ward’s decision as “unexpected and disappointing”, say Hogan and Klopp will evaluate in the coming weeks what is the best model to support the football operations team going forward. Head of recruitment Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter will remain in place. They are highly-regarded internally but an external appointment is most likely.
Ward was publicly praised by Klopp for his work in helping to ensure Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur to the signing of Luis Diaz, who cost £50 million from Porto in January. His contacts in Portugal came to the fore once again when Liverpool signed Darwin Nunez from Benfica this summer. The fee for the Uruguay international could rise to a club record £85 million.
He completed deals for Fabio Carvalho and Calvin Ramsay, sold Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich and ended the uncertainty over Mohamed Salah’s future as the Egyptian penned a new contract worth in excess of £350,000 per week.
It has not all been plain sailing. With Liverpool wrestling with a midfield injury crisis in August and FSG reluctant to commit significant funds, Ward ended up signing Juventus’ Arthur Melo on loan on deadline day as a stop-gap. The Brazilian wasn’t fully fit when he arrived and played just 13 minutes of football before undergoing surgery after tearing a thigh muscle in training.
It is harder to make FSG’s self-sustaining business model work effectively when you cannot raise significant funds from 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 analysing Benfica’s games before April’s Champions League quarter-final tie.
Despite his impending exit, Liverpool insist Ward will stay in his post until the end of the season rather than being placed on gardening leave. Senior figures have vowed it is business as usual and argue it will not affect their transfer plans for January or next summer.
They point to Ward’s character and professional integrity as proof that he will continue to work tirelessly in the club’s best interests. There is confidence in the wider football operations team around him.
There is plenty of work to be done. Liverpool went into the mid-season break for the World Cup sitting sixth in the Premier League, seven points adrift of the top four, after a troubled start to the campaign.
The midfield department needs an extensive and costly revamp. 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 and Thiago 32.
Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham is Liverpool’s top target but they face serious competition from Real Madrid, Manchester City and Manchester United. Missing out on Champions League qualification would scupper hopes of landing the England international, who is valued in excess of £100 million.
So much for succession planning. Ward, who is a popular figure, was supposed to be the man to oversee that rebuild but that responsibility will now fall to someone else.
It is a period of great change at Liverpool. Uncertainty reigns.
(Design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)