In an exclusive interview with Goal, the 56-year-old Liverpudlian discusses his hometown club remarkable resurgence, and his plans for his new group.
If you happen to wander into a pub inhabited by Liverpool fans in Nashville, Tennessee, then you could just run into a familiar face. One of the pints of beer and boisterous singing, an individual can often find a guy who played a significant role in assembling the historically terrific team everyone in that bar is gathered to observe.
For almost a decade, Ian Ayre was among the main men at Liverpool and, by extension, among the main men in Liverpool.
He was the managing director, then CEO, then chairman, the businessman behind the scenes charged with bringing the mighty Reds back to their glory days. Ayre was the guy behind the much-criticized transport committee, the construction of a new stand-alone and, finally, the slow rebirth of a soccer team that had fallen on hard times.
Nowadays, Ayre is among the main guys in a club far, far from his native Liverpool. He is the CEO of Nashville SC, a group which, in only a couple of weeks, will play their first-ever MLS match. However, on days where he is not absorbed by quite literally constructing a club from the bottom up, you might just find Ayre embracing another component of Liverpool Football Club: life as a fan.
“That chapter is finished, it was some of the greatest time of my life and I am pleased with my time there and thankful, but I am only a fan now,” Ayre told Target . “I really like watching them. I enjoy seeing what they are doing, I love what they are achieving.
“It is kind of nice since, for those 10 years, it is tough to appreciate it as much and it will be the exact same here with Nashville. You examine the game in another way. If a player does well, you probably feel that his agent will call and ask for a new contract. If he does poorly, you know the media will kill you.
“There’s a whole lot of things that go on about games and daily that prevent you from enjoying it as much as you would like. I enjoyed my time there but, as a fan now watching the matches, it is a lot easier to love it more.
“Today I can stand in that pub and swear at the TV! Granted, there is not much swearing right now since they’re absolutely amazing.”
When Ayre united in 2007, Liverpool were fairly close to awesome. The Reds were still riding high from the now-famous 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul and the ineffective return to this last game before that year. Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher — Liverpool were a group of celebrities that could rival any club in the world on any given day.
However, according to Ayre, there were cracks away from the area that would soon come to the light. The new ownership group of Hicks and Gillette had bought a club which was lagging far behind rivals commercially. While Liverpool were a team able to compete with teams around the field, they were quickly being crowded out by the super-powers in the company sector.
Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich were building global brands, while Liverpool was unable to remain afloat. From the 2010-11 season, Liverpool were on the brink of bankruptcy before being marketed to the current owner’s Fenway Sports Group.
And Ayre’s efforts to remedy that situation were met with loads of opposition. A proposed increase in ticket costs was met with fan protests and, finally, an official apology. The creation of the club’s transfer committee — designed to pinpoint targets that match both on-the-field and inside the checkbook — was frequently criticized.
“I could see that , the company was really poor,” Ayre said. “It was a long way behind the opponents in United and they had been losing plenty of opportunities. They won the Champions League in 2005 and didn’t really capitalize on this commercially. I truly went in there to try to transform the earnings as the significant challenge. We then got embroiled in the huge possession issue and what that did was actually tear in the fabric of the enterprise.
“It was awful in several senses and it was ironic since we were adding earnings with the significant sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered, the deal with New Balance, those were coming to the table and, at precisely the exact same time, we had been hemorrhaging cash due to the structure with possession.
“We really begun to turn the corner when Fenway Sports Group arrived in. I worked very closely with John [Henry] and Tom [Werner] and Mike [Edwards] and it was a practice of seven or eight decades, and that process still continues today. I believe anybody in there would say that they still have work to do.”
That work, in the years since Ayre’s coming and eventual death in 2017, have generated results the club could only have wanted. But, it was a slow build. Part of what makes Liverpool’s rise recently so remarkable is the fact you could trace that travel back season-by-season and see precisely how this period of dominance started.
In the beginning, the aim was top . Then, the goal was to contend. And then, finally, trophies. The Champions League title this past June was sweet, but few things will taste as sweet as the Premier League title Liverpool is apparently on their way to eventually asserting.
Many credit Jurgen Klopp for this increase, and the German director’s introduction were certainly the turning point. However, Ayre says the changes really began well before Klopp came to Liverpool.
Those modifications included the additions of a range of now-legendary figures; players such as Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. They included those who have since left the club, such as Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho. All the titles mentioned above were introduced in under Ayre, and each played a role in turning Liverpool to the juggernaut we see marching towards a first top-flight name since 1990.
“Jurgen is amazing and I am his biggest supporter and brought him into the club, but that transformation on the management side, it began with Kenny Dalglish,” Ayre said.
“Bringing Kenny back to stabilize the boat when it had been in turmoil. He is one of those exceptional unicorns that could get everyone to buy and realign very fast, and he did an extraordinary job, took us to two finals in his first year, and then to transition to the form of coach that knew the game well and would play and develop young individuals.
“Afterward, Brendan comes in and does an excellent job and gets us to second place and, finally, transitions all of the way to Jurgen, who’s a phenomenon really. None of that stuff happened overnight. We had a plan, we needed to get with the plan”
He added: “On the pitch, when you consider the team that plays today, I’d guess there are six or seven players such as Jordan Henderson who were there through that journey I was there for others that came during that timeline such as James Milner, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, along with others who’ve come and gone just like Luis Suarez or Coutinho.
“This notion that somebody can take over a club at the level today and just transform it with a couple of players, I do not get that. You’ve got to have a system and a process and you must build the company on the field in addition to the business off the area.”
Nowadays, Ayre’s challenge is finding the system is effective for Nashville SC. It’s a completely different project than what he confronted Liverpool, 1860 Munich or another club he has worked with. With those groups, it was all about building on a base. In Nashville, it is about building it from the bottom up.
That includes tons of different facets, and Ayre is included in them all. From hiring executives to creating a roster to deciding what sorts of chairs to place in the club’s potential arena, Ayre has his hands in just about everything. Nashville SC is a far different challenge than Liverpool, and Nashville is a much different city than Liverpool.
It is a challenge and a town that Ayre has fallen for. He has been tasked with developing groups, but not like this. He’s lived in various cities before, but none like this.
“The best analogy I can think of is it is like buying your first home,” he says of his experience with the expansion team. “You are literally involved in everything.
“I just had a meeting next door to check at a load of chairs for the stadium. It is like choosing the rug or the furniture to your property. It’s outstanding. I did that to a degree at Liverpool when we built the new stand but to do it to get an entire arena and a training ground, it is outstanding.”
He added:”From a personal perspective, I have never lived or travelled in the south of america, and you hear that word’Southern Hospitality’ and you find it in spades here in Nashville. The warmth of individuals, real warmth, people are really great.
“I live 30 minutes south of town in the countryside using a very outdoor lifestyle. The food is extraordinary. If I wish to see a live band tomorrow night in Nashville, I have 200 venues to select from. There is always something happening here. It is like living in New York or London, but without the concrete jungle and visitors and bad things. There are plenty of things happening here, but in a rural setting with very friendly individuals. What is not to love actually?”
And, on some days, there are Ayre mixed up with these friendly folks cheering on his still-beloved Liverpool FC. On others, you will find him working with government officials to lock down the proposal for Nashville’s future arena. Ayre is the enthusiast and the CEO, all in one.
On June 1, 2019, Ayre watched the club he helped build win a Champions League title. Despite invites from the club, he bought his own ticket. He made the flight from Nashville to Madrid, met his son and lots of friends and watched decades of hard work finally come together.
And on February 29, Ayre will reach another milestone when Nashville SC sponsor Atlanta United from the club’s first MLS game. A continent away from his boyhood club, Ayre is excited about starting a new heritage with a new club.
“I have tried to have plenty of the things we used there and bring them here,” he said. “How we do recruitment, how we approach revenue generation, how we create our brand. We are trying to become an authentic club in the U.S. and MLS, but we also make it work for the U.S. market.
“There are things you can do here that you would get taken for if you attempted to do at Liverpool, but there are plenty of similarities in how we are approaching it.
“I loved my time there in Liverpool. Nobody is happier than me to see them doing this well.”