Is Michael Edwards football’s first star sporting director?

Ian King
Liverpool technical director Michael Edwards during the 2018 Liverpool Players' Awards at Anfield

Michael Edwards has been at the centre of transfer gossip befitting a star player; so is he about to become football’s first star sporting director?


If Unai Emery’s decision not to join Newcastle United was at least partly motivated by the club’s lack of structure behind the scenes, then at least it now appears that the club attempted to do something about it. Eddie Howe has now been confirmed as their new manager, but it didn’t take long before attention turned to their pursuit of a name that will be somewhat less familiar to many readers.

Michael Edwards is much in demand and this isn’t remotely surprising, considering his track record. As the sporting director of Liverpool, he oversaw the signings of the spine of the team that became both the champions of England and Europe, players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Fabinho, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Thiago, and the news that he could be set to leave Liverpool at the end of the season raised eyebrows and opened wallets across the continent.

Edwards’ contract at Anfield is up at the end of the season, and there had already been considerable speculation about what he might do next, even before he confirmed that he will not be extending his contract at Anfield beyond the end of this season in an open letter.

Newcastle were definitely interested. Edwards and Howe go back a long way. They first worked together at Portsmouth in the early 2000s and are reported to have stayed close since then. Edwards joined Spurs in 2009, and then moved on to Liverpool, where his role in transforming the club from relative also-rans to having one of the strongest teams in Europe has been considered critical.

But Newcastle aren’t the only potential suitors for his services. He’s already been linked with a possible to move to RB Leipzig, where the position has been vacant since Markus Krosche left for Eintracht Frankfurt at the end of last season, and where there is an ‘internal food chain’, with clubs such as FC Liefering and Red Bull Salzburg helping to bring through young players to either sell or move on to Leipzig.

It has also been suggested that Real Madrid, whose financial problems might not be as great as Barcelona’s but are still pretty substantial, might be interested in his services, as they look to try and get better value in the transfer market than the disasters of the past. Anybody who recalls their weird pursuit of Kylian Mbappe on transfer deadline day will have some understanding of how Real could do with a little common sense being brought to their recruitment.

Newcastle could certainly do with a ‘transfer guru’, as Edwards has previously been described. Their pursuit of Unai Emery was a mess, and with one of the biggest criticisms of their position being that lack of structure behind the scenes, it would certainly make sense to bring in one of the most respected in the entire field, as well as being a significant display of strength in how they intend to wield their new-found riches.

Newcastle’s pursuit of Edwards wasn’t a surprise. Premier League status will likely be hanging by a thread when the January transfer window opens, and 31 days isn’t a long time for the wholesale reconstruction that the squad currently needs. Add to that the fact that every club in the world knows how flush with money Newcastle now are and that January is always a difficult transfer window to negotiate, and the appointment of a a solid sporting director starts to make more and more sense.

But the problem for Newcastle now is that Edwards will be staying at Anfield until the end of this season, and that won’t do Newcastle any good in January. They’re back to square one in their attempt to get a structure in place befitting of all that money. It should go without saying that all that money isn’t worth very much without the staff who know how to maximise the value that they can get from it.

The rise of the sporting director is also something of a sign of the times. The transfer market is now a critical component of football’s economy, and playing it effectively can make the difference between untold success and near-bankruptcy. Now, the latter of these is clearly not an issue for Newcastle at the moment, but the acquisition of new players most certainly is.

On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far this season, there’s little to suggest that the current squad will even keep them in the Premier League, never mind reach the lofty ambitions that the Saudis have for their new plaything. Relegation at the end of this season would cost them money, would be a blow for their credibility, and set their ultimate plans for world domination back by at least a couple of years.

As mentioned on these pages not so long ago, the role of the ‘football manager’ is constantly evolving, and in the UK the position of ‘manager’ came from a very different background to that of the ‘head coach’. The role of the manager was largely an administrative position, with team selection being decided by directors and coaching being dealt with by a separate coaching staff. This separation remains common elsewhere, with a ‘general manager’ dealing with transfers and the business of the club and the ‘head coach’ dealing with its playing side. And despite Brexit, English football is becoming more European.

Next summer will be another big summer for transfers, with Erling Haaland expected to invoke his release clause to leave Dortmund and Kylian Mbappe’s contract with PSG expiring. Will Newcastle try to muddle through until the end of this season and then go big on Edwards? And which division might they be in when they do so? Will Real Madrid persuade him that they’re more interested in moneyball now than throwing around vast amounts of money like confetti? Might RB Leipzig be able to persuade him that their structure will work best for him? That these questions are even being asked is proof of the growing status of the role. Next summer, Michael Edwards might just become football’s first star sporting director.