Michael Edwards – the Liverpool visionary FSG simply cannot live without

Michael Edwards – the Liverpool visionary FSG simply cannot live without

This is an updated version of an article first published in June 2020.

Perhaps the best place to start is the story Harry Redknapp tells when he is asked about Michael Edwards and the remarkable chain of events that first took a frustrated IT teacher from Peterborough to a position of power and influence at Liverpool.

Redknapp had been Portsmouth manager when Edwards — or ‘Eddie’, as he is commonly known — was given his big break in football and, over a decade since they last worked together, he got back in touch a while ago to request a favour.

“I’d met a guy who had only a few weeks to live,” Redknapp says. “This poor guy was in his early forties. He had been married only a couple of years and he knew he was dying. Someone had got in touch and said, ‘Harry, he’d love to meet you. He’s football mad’. So I went round to his house one Sunday and spent a couple of hours with him, his wife and his in-laws. He was an amazing boy, so strong, and he told me it was his dream to go to Liverpool.

“I rang Michael Edwards and, straight away, he went, ‘Harry, not a problem’. I arranged a car, I got a driver. Eddie sorted everything else. There wasn’t any of the, ‘Oh, Harry, I’m sorry, mate, you know how busy I am’, that you can get sometimes.

“He put himself out, he organised the full day and treated him incredibly. We have to remember we are in a position where we can make a difference to people’s lives. Sadly, this guy died four or five weeks later. Eddie had got him into the directors’ box, introduced him to everybody — Kenny Dalglish, Jurgen Klopp — the boy had the best day of his life. Loved every minute of it.”

It was all done with no publicity, of course, because Edwards had a strict understanding with Liverpool that, as far as the media are concerned, he would rather keep everyone a long arm’s distance away and speak about as regularly as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Edwards was the sporting director who identified Klopp as manager and brought in, among others, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk.

It was the collection of players that helped Liverpool end their 30-year wait for a league title and turned a drifting giant into the champions of England, Europe and the world, surpassing even the achievements of the club’s sides from the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet the paradox, at a time when one of the banners on the Kop read “Champions of Everything”, was that Edwards did not even have a Wikipedia page. If you typed in his name, the first result was that of an ex-pro from Notts County.

A lot has changed since then for the University of Sheffield graduate, who has just been persuaded to return to Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s American owner, nearly two years since leaving the club. Edwards will be returning to a new, bigger role as FSG’s director of football operations.

He will have a prominent say in choosing Klopp’s successor and his influence will quickly become apparent when he brings in Richard Hughes, formerly Bournemouth’s technical director, to fill the vacant sporting director position at Anfield. Liverpool, once again, will be relying on Edwards to work his magic behind the scenes.

There was a long period, however, in his first spell on Merseyside that the only photograph of Edwards in the media’s possession came from a Just Giving fundraising page for the 2018 Manchester half-marathon, for which the list of donations included £5,000 from a certain Mr J Klopp. Edwards could freely walk around Anfield without anybody recognising him and that was exactly how he liked it.

Jurgen Klopp, FSG president Mike Gordon (centre) and Michael Edwards (John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“He isn’t the most stereotypical football director,” Redknapp says. “In fact, he is probably the most un-stereotypical. You won’t often see him in a suit. He isn’t a go-getting, big-personality kind of guy. You look at him, he used to have this spiky hair… a very inoffensive, quiet guy. You’d probably think he should be standing behind the goal.”

Don’t be mistaken, though. Others talk about Edwards as a fiercely driven, intelligent and ambitious individual who possesses the streak of ruthlessness that is often required to reach the top in football.

Edwards has upset a few people along the way and was one of the three members of staff from Anfield cited in the alleged hacking of Manchester City’s scouting system in 2013. Liverpool offered a £1million ($1.3m at today’s rates) settlement, including a legally binding confidentiality agreement, to stop the matter going any further. As relations between the two clubs deteriorated over the following decade, Edwards’ presence was one of the reasons there was only a thin veneer of cordiality at boardroom level.

Not that Liverpool’s owner, John W Henry, or his colleagues at FSG, will have cared too greatly about that detail when they finally got wind that Edwards was, after all, open to the idea of leading the club into the post-Klopp era. 

Edwards was a youth and reserve-team footballer at Peterborough United who never fully made the grade and, having been released at the age of 18, trained to be a teacher before getting his first job in a local high school. He is the lorry driver’s son who grew up in Fareham, Hampshire, and developed a fetish for numbers and statistics. The “laptop guru” as he was called in one headline.

There is one story that should make it clear how highly the 44-year-old is regarded at Anfield. It goes back to the night — June 25, 2020 — when Manchester City lost 2-1 at Chelsea and the defeat meant Liverpool had won their first title since 1990. 

When the final whistle sounded at Stamford Bridge, the Liverpool chairman, Tom Werner, pulled out his mobile phone to get in touch with the people who had made it happen.

And the first person to receive a congratulatory text from Liverpool’s chairman? Klopp, perhaps? No, it was Michael Edwards.


Transfer savvy and Edwards bond: Why Liverpool want Hughes as sporting director

After everything that has happened since Klopp arrived on Merseyside, it can feel like a trick of the imagination that Liverpool gave serious consideration to hiring Eddie Howe rather than the man who, eight and a half years later, counts as Anfield royalty.

Howe was on a three-man shortlist with Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti for the manager’s position and it was part of Edwards’ job, then as Liverpool’s technical director, to determine who had the outstanding credentials to replace Brendan Rodgers.

Ancelotti passed all the criteria in terms of his record in the Champions League and the statistics relating to his teams at Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid, but his transfer record counted against him because the system devised by Edwards and Liverpool’s analysts deliberately placed less emphasis on a manager’s recruitment in his first year.

Their theory was that a manager might not have the ultimate say when it came to transfer business during his first season but, in years two, three, four and five, that manager’s influence would be greater and signings would not happen without his input.

A lot of Ancelotti’s recruits were deemed to be on the older side and that jarred with Liverpool’s thinking. Edwards wanted players aged 26 or under who were approaching their peak years and would still have a re-sale value three or four years later.

Howe, now at Newcastle United, was managing Bournemouth and had a reputation for developing younger players and playing attractive football.

He had also been a player at Portsmouth when Edwards was starting out at the south coast club. Their friendship, however, never came into it. Howe did not have the experience of competing in the Champions League, whereas Klopp ticked every box in terms of achievement, transfer business and playing style. Edwards made his recommendation to FSG and left them to get on with the business of making it happen.

Since then, perhaps the best indicator of Edwards’ influence is to consider Klopp’s line-up for his first Liverpool game — a goalless draw at Tottenham Hotspur on October 17, 2015 — and compare it to the team that is now taking on Manchester City and Arsenal to win the title.

Simon Mignolet was Liverpool’s goalkeeper that day behind a back four of Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Alberto Moreno. Lucas Leiva, Emre Can and James Milner formed the midfield and the front three had Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho on either side of Divock Origi. Liverpool’s substitutes were Adam Bogdan, Kolo Toure, Jerome Sinclair, Joao Carlos Teixeira, Connor Randall, Jordon Ibe and Joe Allen, who never did fulfil Rodgers’ description as “the Welsh Xavi”.

Edwards helped Klopp build virtually an entirely new XI but, first of all, he had to get the confidence of the manager and create a relationship where they fully understood one another.

“It is a very good relationship,” Klopp said. “He is a very thoughtful person. We don’t always have to have the same opinion from the first second of a conversation, but we finish pretty much all our talks with the same opinion. Or similar opinions.”

It was Edwards, for example, who pressed Liverpool to sign Salah and convinced Klopp to disregard the fact the Egyptian had struggled previously with Chelsea.

Klopp’s preference was said to be Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt, a future Germany international he knew well from his time managing Borussia Dortmund, but Edwards persisted in his belief that Salah was the better option. Klopp listened, took it in and decided to trust his colleague. Salah has since established himself as an authentic Premier League great and a serial breaker of scoring records.

Edwards’ success cannot just be measured by the players Liverpool have signed when some of his more spectacular business has revolved around the ones the club have moved out — and his ability to get some huge transfer fees.

Coutinho’s £142m transfer to Barcelona was the biggest deal, but Liverpool also raised significant sums by offloading fringe players. Ibe and Brad Smith went to Bournemouth for a combined £21m. Kevin Stewart moved to Hull for £8m. Leicester City paid £12.5m for Danny Ward and Crystal Palace paid £26m for Sakho.

All this was masterminded, to a large degree, from Edwards’ first-floor office at Liverpool’s training ground. His door was always open. It was directly opposite Klopp’s office and the poster-sized “Class of Melwood” picture on the wall was because every year the entire staff — from the security and kitchen workers to the first-team players and manager — posed for an all-in-it-together photograph.

Edwards and Klopp, the older man by 12 years, were described by one colleague as “kindred spirits”, freely wandering in and out of each other’s offices. During the transfer window, Edwards’ television would be switched on to show the rolling news coverage. The two men swapped opinions, they debated and sometimes they disagreed. They also spent many lunchtimes playing padel after getting hooked on the sport during a winter training camp in Tenerife. They even arranged for a court to be built at the training ground.

Edwards, left, Klopp and FSG president Mike Gordon (John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

The two men, it is understood, were no longer as close by the time Edwards announced his departure in the form of an open letter that surprised many people given he had never wanted to speak publicly before.

“I had always planned to cap my time at the club to a maximum of 10 years,” he wrote. “I’ve loved working here, but I am a big believer in change. It’s good for the individual and, in a work setting, good for the employer, too. Over my time here, we have changed so many things (hopefully for the better) but someone new brings a different perspective, new ideas and can hopefully build on (or change) the things that have been put in place beforehand.”

Edwards went on to eulogise about his assistant, Julian Ward, who was taking over as sporting director, while praising his other colleagues in the recruitment department as “geniuses… without doubt the best in their field in world football.” And Klopp? “Being manager of Liverpool is probably harder than playing (the shirt hangs heavy, so they say), but he has delivered so much joy to the fans and reasserted so many of the club’s historical values that he will go down in history as one of the club’s managerial greats.”

Rodgers, in contrast, had seen Edwards as a threat to his authority at a time when the workings of Liverpool’s “transfer committee” had created all sorts of politics behind the scenes. It was an awkward title and an awkward time. Rodgers was not a fan of the setup and it became a source of regret inside Anfield that the club’s owner had ever coined the name.

In reality, it was the kind of operation that could have been found at just about every major club, where there was an understanding that the manager was too busy to go on overseas scouting missions himself and become embroiled in negotiations that could take months. Edwards was part of a group that included the then chief executive, Ian Ayre, along with the analytics team, senior coaching and scouting staff and sometimes representatives of the club’s commercial department.

Rodgers still had the power to veto transfers and, early on, was probably entitled to question Edwards’ knowledge. Liverpool had made a flurry of signings — Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Tiago Ilori, to name but three — who passed through Anfield without making a favourable impact. Lazar Markovic was the most expensive failure, costing £20m, and not everyone appreciated Edwards’ occasionally blunt, very matter-of-fact manner.

Markovic cost Liverpool over £1m per league appearance (Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Scouts were moved out, some unhappily. Mel Johnson, the talent-spotter who had recommended Jordan Henderson, claimed in one interview that Liverpool missed out on Dele Alli because the club relied on their “computer and stats-led” approach. The sport, Johnson complained, was “not played on a computer”, pointing out that experienced football people were being edged out. “Some of these IT guys have come straight out of university and landed jobs at top clubs, despite having no football background whatsoever.”

The politics eventually contributed to Rodgers, now at Celtic, losing his job on Merseyside. Ultimately, though, he might have to accept that he underestimated Edwards, particularly when it came to the £29m signing of Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim.

Rodgers had not been keen on Firmino whereas Edwards and the scouting team were certain the Brazilian would be an ideal wearer of Liverpool’s colours. Chief scout Barry Hunter had tracked him in Germany and the numbers showed how, by being involved in 45 league goals in the two seasons up to 2015, Firmino was the second-highest performing Brazilian in Europe, second only to Neymar, then at Paris Saint-Germain. Rodgers remained unconvinced and, to begin with, Firmino was used on the right wing.

But it didn’t work out badly. “One of the questions I always get asked is: ‘Who was/is your favourite player?’,” Edwards wrote in his open letter. “That’s a really difficult question to answer, so I won’t even try. All I will say is my dog is called Bobby.”


‘He made us smile’: What Firmino means to me – by team-mates, coaches and his dentist

When Barry Fry was asked if he had any particular memories of Michael Edwards, the former Peterborough United manager had to apologise.

“I’m embarrassed to say no,” Fry, now the League One side’s director of football, told The Athletic. “I don’t remember the boy at all, I’m sorry.”

Edwards had been part of a junior football academy in Southampton before being recommended to Peterborough for their youth system, going on to sign a two-year apprenticeship at London Road.

“Probably not the most talented, but he worked hard,” is the verdict of one former team-mate. “A proper squad player, who made the best of what he’d got. He was never going to be a star but he was always quite dependable. And very clever. He was probably old for his time, the way he thought about everything and the way he spoke. You could tell he had a good head on his shoulders.”

Edwards was a right-back who would occasionally be moved into a holding midfield role and, though he was not regarded as loud or a shouter, there was one occasion when he turned on two team-mates and accused them of thinking they were “big-time”.

“There were two colleges in the area,” another former Peterborough player says. “Some of us — the ones who never got the better qualifications — went to Huntingdon College. Michael went to Cambridge to do leisure and tourism with the more intelligent lads, one day a week. Academically, he was very able. On the pitch, you could see he understood the game.”

It didn’t work out, though. Edwards left Peterborough without making a first-team appearance and had to make a new career for himself. He went back to college and enrolled for university, obtaining a degree in business management and informatics. He returned to Peterborough to start his first teaching job in the town, but colleagues say he missed being around football and was not enthused by his new profession.

His breakthrough came in 2003 when Portsmouth agreed to take on Prozone, the football data company. Other clubs had already signed up and Simon Wilson, one of Edwards’ former Peterborough team-mates, was in the relevant department at nearby Southampton.

“I said to Simon we had won a contract with Portsmouth and needed an analyst,” Barry McNeill, then Prozone’s business development manager, says. “He rolled off a few names and said, ‘There’s one guy I know who’s probably not happy where he is, why don’t you have a chat with him?’.”

Edwards was in his early twenties. “We found him working as an IT teacher,” McNeill says. “He clearly had pretty low motivation for that vocation. I interviewed him at a service station between Peterborough and the M1. I explained Prozone, showed him the technology and within a month he was on-site at Portsmouth’s training ground.”

Though Edwards might not have enjoyed teaching, McNeill thinks the experience hardened him for the football business. “The first few years (of teaching) are the toughest because you are totally out of your depth. You need a spine. That was probably great preparation.”

This was a time when data was still relatively new to football and, all these years later, it is strange to hear one of Edwards’ fellow analysts say that “it was only the Sun on a Monday that had passing and possession stats”.

Redknapp had been persuaded by his assistant, Jim Smith, that Prozone was worth a go. Smith had been the first-ever manager to take it on at Derby County. Steve McClaren, one of Smith’s assistants at Derby, then took it to Manchester United. Sam Allardyce, then at Bolton Wanderers, was another advocate. And, as soon as word got out that Sir Alex Ferguson was using it at Old Trafford, other clubs started to follow.

“I would be in Sam’s (Allardyce) office after games,” McNeill says. “If they had beaten Portsmouth, Sam would say to Harry, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Why have you not got this? Why don’t you have it? It is as expensive as your cheapest squad player’. He would almost embarrass people to jump on the bandwagon. Harry would have taken a lot more of that from his peers and Jim Smith would have been having a word in his ear.”

Even so, it took a while for Redknapp to get to grips with it.

“There is a famous story where ‘Eddie’ is trying to get through to Harry,” one of Edwards’ former associates says. “This is folklore in analyst circles. Harry said, ‘Does your computer say we are going to win today?’. Eddie said ‘yes’ quite flippantly. They lost and Harry quipped, ‘Maybe your computer can play next time’. Nobody even knows if it is true, but we all repeat it.”

Smith, left, convinced Redknapp that Prozone was the future (Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

In Edwards’ early days, Redknapp called to ask why he could not get anything out of a CD-ROM filled with player data. It turned out Redknapp had put it into the CD player of his car.

Edwards had his own office at Portsmouth and was of an age when he could mix with the players without it seeming unusual. “On the team bus, for example, he would be with the lads and we would play Mario Kart,” Gary O’Neil, their former midfielder, says. “You might have an eight-person league and Ed would be in it. He didn’t overstep the line, though. He wouldn’t be on lads’ nights out because he was, technically, staff. We were good friends and he came to my wedding.”

O’Neil, now the manager of Wolves, remembers Redknapp never previously being stats-oriented, but something must have gone right because Edwards followed Portsmouth’s manager to Spurs in 2009.

“Michael came to Portsmouth as a very young analyst,” Redknapp says. “I remember a massive game, the year we stayed up (2005-06), at Fulham. We were second-bottom and he put this video together to play on the coach. He was scared to show it because it took the mickey out of me. I thought it was a great laugh. He was a smashing lad and when I went to Tottenham I took him with me.”

Edwards stayed at White Hart Lane for almost two years before Damien Comolli, then Liverpool’s director of football, headhunted him as part of FSG’s instructions to implement a new data-led approach, in keeping with their management of baseball’s Boston Red Sox.

Comolli had previously been at Spurs, whose chairman, Daniel Levy, was dismayed to discover Liverpool had taken away another of their key men.

Spurs had an exclusive agreement at the time with a data company called Decision Technology and Liverpool wanted to see if they could muscle in. Edwards, however, persuaded his new bosses to leave Decision Technology alone and target Dr Ian Graham, the data scientist who helped run their operation.

The two men were on the same flight to an analytics conference in Boston, Massachusetts. It was an eight-hour flight and, 37,000 feet in the air, Edwards convinced Graham to join him as Liverpool’s head of research. The task was aided by the fact Graham was a boyhood Liverpool supporter. Graham, who held a Cambridge doctorate in theoretical physics, informed Spurs when he returned to England and that began a working relationship that continues to this day.

Graham took a key role at Anfield until quitting in November 2022, Liverpool’s worst season of the Klopp era, to start his own venture. A couple of months later, he launched Ludonautics, a sports advisory business, and was reunited with the man with whom he had shared so many professional highs. Edwards took a consultancy role, giving him a level of independence that was not always there during his years at Anfield. 

What people sometimes forget about Klopp’s title-winning season at Anfield is they did it while spending considerably less than the majority of Premier League clubs.

Liverpool’s net transfer spend of £92.4m from the previous five years was less than Watford’s, not even half that of Brighton & Hove Albion or Aston Villa and a fair bit behind Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United. There was only Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, Southampton and Norwich City from England’s top division with a lower net spend in that time. Manchester City’s total was £505.6m, Manchester United’s £378.9m. And that, in no small part, was due to Edwards’ expertise.

All of which makes it easier to understand why Liverpool have been almost obsessive in their attempts to persuade him to return to the club.

As one person with inside knowledge of analytics told The Athletic in 2020, speaking anonymously to protect their relationships: “They have barely had a failed signing. I don’t think that can continue, I don’t think anyone is that good. If you get 15 out of 15 transfers right, it can’t always be that way. He (Edwards) is over-performing and it will regress to a mean at some point.”

It was certainly a far cry from the time, in 2017, when an online petition was set up by a disgruntled Liverpool fan campaigning for Edwards to be sacked. The petition rustled up 36 votes and the first comment — “he’s useless, just useless” — did not age well.

It was Edwards who convinced Liverpool about the potential of Andy Robertson at Hull City to flourish at a higher level and become one of the outstanding full-backs in world football.

It was Edwards again who insisted when Barcelona signed Coutinho in 2018 that a one-off clause was written into the deal to stipulate that the Catalan club would have to pay a £100m premium to sign any other Liverpool player over the following two years. He knew Barca might come after their elite players and had the foresight to make sure it could not happen unless it meant some mind-boggling sums.

Colleagues talk about the period in 2018 when Edwards had it in mind that Real Madrid, their opponents in that season’s Champions League final, might increasingly be attracted to the idea of signing Salah, Firmino or Mane. Liverpool’s response was to tie all three to new contracts, none with release clauses.

Michael Edwards (circled) in the 2019 Champions League celebrations (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Edwards can be tough. He was unflinching when Can, coming to the end of his contract, told the club he would sign a new one but wanted a release clause in it. There was a stand-off. Edwards refused to budge and Can was allowed to leave on a free transfer rather than the club setting a precedent.

What will never change, it seems, is Edwards’ reticence when it comes to letting us hear what his voice sounds like.

“You’d never imagine the guy sat in the tiny Prozone portakabin at Portsmouth would go on to be the guy who plays such a big role at the biggest club in the world,” says O’Neil.

Good luck, too, trying to find a photo of Edwards on the pitch with the Champions League trophy from the night Liverpool beat Tottenham to become six-time European Cup winners, adding Madrid, 2019, to the list of Istanbul, 2005, as well as Rome, 1977 and 1984, plus Wembley, 1978, and Paris, 1981.

Klopp invited all his staff onto the podium to join in the celebrations. Edwards, however, preferred to keep to the edges and take photographs of the jubilant Liverpool supporters. He consoled some of his former colleagues from Tottenham, including Levy, and helped make sure Liverpool’s kit man got a picture with the trophy.

Then the quiet man of Anfield disappeared into the background, just the way he likes it.

(Top photos: Michael Edwards, left, and John W Henry; by Getty Images)