The secret is out, then. The end of an era at Liverpool.
Big news for sure, if not entirely surprising. Rumours of Edwards’ departure had first surfaced a few months back, but on Wednesday afternoon there it was in black and white (and red) on Liverpool’s official website, a lengthy ‘open letter’ from the man himself explaining the reasons behind his decision.
“I’ve loved working here, but I’m a big believer in change,” wrote Edwards, who is not known for his public speaking, but who was still able to serve up a few juicy titbits in his goodbye missive.
He revealed, for example, that he had known “for a couple of years'' that his time at Anfield was coming to a close. He poked fun at his ‘stats man’ reputation, spoke glowingly about Jurgen Klopp and Mike Gordon, among others, and showed a lighter side when asked to disclose his favourite player.
“All I can say is my dog is called Bobby,” he wrote. Subtle.
Edwards will leave Liverpool a hero, as one of the chief architects of the club’s recent success. Together with Klopp and Gordon, and through a potent mix of hard work, personality, skill, courage and impeccable judgement, he helped transform the Reds from a sleeping giant into a team that would, thrillingly, become ‘Champions of Everything’ in 2020.
“He has been a constant presence during my period at LFC,” said Klopp. “His contribution to our success is clear for everyone to see.”
He’s got that right. Edwards will be remembered as one of the Premier League’s greatest sporting directors, one who has helped change the perception of a role which has traditionally been viewed with suspicion in English football.
“Michael’s contribution and achievements will stand the test of time,” said Gordon, who made repeated efforts to convince Edwards to extend his contract.
“He helped to rebuild and shape the club into what we see today.”
Edwards arrived at Liverpool in 2011, working initially as head of analytics before eventually progressing to the role of sporting director – the first in the club’s history – in November 2016.
By then, he had earned a reputation as a shrewd and ruthless operator in the transfer market, and that has been clear for all to see in the five years since, as Liverpool have gone from strength to strength.
Roberto Firmino might be his favourite – yes Michael, we got it – but Edwards’ transfer triumphs are plentiful. It was he who signed off on the deal to sign Mohamed Salah from Roma in 2017, and he who drove the transformative, big-money captures of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho the following year.
Andy Robertson was signed on his watch, as were Sadio Mane and Gini Wijnaldum, players who were not ‘obvious’ buys, but who became European, World and Premier League champions on Merseyside.
Edwards sold well too. Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona effectively paid for the purchases of Van Dijk and Alisson, while the Reds were able to secure hefty fees for unwanted players like Jordon Ibe, Mamadou Sakho, Danny Ings, Danny Ward, Dominic Solanke, Rhian Brewster and Harry Wilson.
Big boots to fill, then, for Julian Ward, who will step up from his role as assistant sporting director when Edwards departs. Ward, 40, is highly respected, and has a good relationship with both Klopp and Gordon, having himself been with the club since 2012.
He and Edwards are good friends, part of a close-knit ‘football operations’ team which includes head of recruitment Dave Fallows, chief scout Barry Hunter, head of loan pathways and football partnerships David Woodfine and the club’s much-lauded research team, led by Ian Graham.
“Geniuses,” Edwards calls them. He and Ward are particularly close – they spent Wednesday together at the Sport Performance Summit at Twickenham, for example – and Liverpool hope the transition next summer will be a seamless one.
There is still important business to take care of before then, of course. Salah’s contract must be sorted, while the likes of Mane, Firmino and Naby Keita are all into their last 18 months too.
Salah's situation is obviously the most pressing, as far as Liverpool concerned. The Egyptian has piled the pressure on Fenway Sports Group (FSG) by publicly stating that he would like to finish his career at Anfield, while his agent, Ramy Abbas Issa, tweeted after the winger's stunning solo strike against Watford, "I hope they're watching."
Salah wants a new deal that would make him the highest-paid player in the club's history but Edwards is nonetheless hoping to strike an agreement as soon as possible. The idea that the 29-year-old could be allowed to walk away for nothing in 2023 is absurd, and must be avoided at all costs.
A new midfielder is also needed, and a forward too, while Ward is well aware that looming large on the horizon is the fact that come the end of the season, Klopp will have only two years left on his own contract.
What impact will Steven Gerrard’s imminent move to Aston Villa have on that particular situation, one wonders? He and Ward, intriguingly, share an excellent relationship.
Ward is smart enough to know what awaits him, and experienced enough to handle it. He is extremely well-regarded within the football world, particularly among agents and executives, having worked with the Portuguese national team and at Manchester City prior to joining Liverpool.
Like Edwards, his fingerprints are all over the Reds’ off-field improvement over the past decade. It was he who transformed the club’s loan system, enabling them to boost the value of players such as Brewster, Wilson, Marko Grujic and Taiwo Awoniyi through short-term moves, and his contacts in Portugal and South America, in particular, have been more than useful when pursuing new signings. Ward, for example, played a big role in the captures of Firmino, Fabinho and Diogo Jota.
He will be trusted, then, to ensure Liverpool retain their reputation as one of the best-run clubs in Europe. FSG don’t get everything right, but when it comes to the football side of things, they tend to have the right people in the right positions.
“I have no doubt that Julian is more than absolutely ready for the new responsibilities that he will take on,” said Gordon on Wednesday, while Klopp added that he has “complete trust” in Liverpool’s owners’ vision for what comes next.
Edwards, meanwhile, was left to reflect on what had gone before.
“To be part of the club during this period has been a privilege,” he wrote, “but all good things must come to an end.”
Liverpool will miss him, for sure. Now, they must hope the new era at Anfield is as bright as the previous one.