From Liverpool to Nashville, Ian Ayre is building an MLS empire from the ground up

Exclusive interview: The former Reds managing director now meets with a supporters group to watch matches in the early hours between steering Nashville SC’s rise to Major League Soccer

Friday 18 October 2019 11:26
Liverpool victory bus greets thousands of fans in city centre

For a city synonymous with music, this weekend could provide the inhabitants of Nashville with another opportunity to trumpet the achievements of its fledgling soccer team.

Currently a point behind the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Nashville go into the final game of the regular season with the chance of topping the USL’s Eastern Division before the annual bunfight of the play-offs.

One point behind with one game to play? Fans of the current Premier League table-toppers won’t need reminding of that particular scenario and neither does Nashville’s chief executive.

“It’s a bit like Liverpool, isn’t it,” says Ian Ayre, the former Liverpool chief executive who is still licking his wounds after watching his beloved club miss out on a first league title since 1990 to Manchester City back in May.

Ayre left Anfield February 2017 and took up his new post across The Pond last May. And although the biggest challenge of competing in the MLS awaits – Nashville enter the league in 2020 – the prospect of success look promising for a club that is 124 years younger than Liverpool. The age difference apart, there is plenty to remind Ayre of home.

“Sometimes when I say that Nashville reminds me of Liverpool and home, people kind of look at me sideways,” he says. “To look at, no. But the music heritage is a big thing and cultural heritage too. It’s also the people. One thing that people in Nashville are known for in the south is their friendliness – they will talk to anyone and make you feel welcome. That’s something I grew up with in Liverpool. It’s difficult to go into a bar in Liverpool and be on your own. Even if you want to be.

“It’s the same here. People are very laid back, it’s a very chilled out city. There are a lot of similarities, in a good way.”

On the pitch, Nashville are managed by Gary Smith, last seen in English football with Stevenage. Off it, under the guidance of Ayre and owner John Ingram, the club is attempting to build a fan base and a football culture that will provide a platform for Nashville to rub shoulders with the likes of the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United.

It is, as Ayre acknowledges, a unique challenge. One that was too good to turn down.

“It was the opportunity to build something from scratch,” he says. “That’s really exciting and challenging at the same time.

“It’s quite unique. Not just in football but in sport generally. From a career point of view, having finished at Liverpool, which was incredible, I didn’t imagine going and running a big team in England or in Europe – not a big, big team like Liverpool. I wanted something different.

Ian Ayre (right) with Tom Werner and Jurgen Klopp

“For Nashville, it was a case of – do we have the raw ingredients? You need great ownership, you need good investment and you need a good city that really has a lot of civic pride. That’s another similarity with Liverpool, people are hugely proud of being from Nashville. If you create a team that has Nashville on the shirt, you know for sure that the city is going to embrace it.”

With the biggest soccer-specific stadium in the US currently under construction – a ground that will be capable of holding 30,000 people – Nashville is developing the infrastructure it needs to sustain itself.

With Liverpool flying high at the top of the Premier League with eight wins from eight matches, Ayre is also confident that Liverpool can sustain a title challenge that could see the Premier League trophy hoisted aloft at Anfield for the first time after last season’s heartbreak.

“More than anything I’m a Liverpool fan,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in the era when they won everything. It has been a while.

“I was over there a couple of weeks ago and I managed to catch up with Jurgen [Klopp] and some of my other former colleagues, and they’re feeling good. You look at some of the games and they haven’t looked as slick as they did towards the end of last season. That’s a good thing in some ways. If you’re really easing yourself into it but still winning every game then that bodes well for the rest of the season.

Ian Ayre meets with a Liverpool supporters group in Nashville at a pub to watch matches

“[Living in the US] there are a couple of things you have to get used to – one is getting up early and the other is drinking beer at 6:30 in the morning. There’s a Liverpool’s supporters group here in Nashville. They meet at a bar on a Saturday or a Sunday depending on when the game is. It’s a whole new experience, being in a pub at that time.”

The late afternoon kick-off against Manchester United on Sunday, means Ayre can watch Liverpool attempt to extend their winning run at a more sociable time. He can then turn his attention to Nashville’s evening fixture against Atlanta United’s second team.

Both United and Liverpool are currently under American ownership, of course. Although supporters of these two great institutions will give you rather different perspectives of how their clubs are being run.

At Nashville, meanwhile, there’s a strong belief that whoever is running the club is only managing it on behalf of those who invest so much emotionally in its successes and failures.

“There’s no better football culture to grow up in than the one in Liverpool, where the team is so important to everyone in the city,” he says. “It has such an influence on daily life and how people feel day-to-day.

Luis Suarez signs a new Liverpool contract with Managing Director Ian Ayre in 2012

“I was at Liverpool around the time that football club’s grounds were defined as ‘community assets’. I think that was a really interesting development because in any city or in any country, that’s exactly what these clubs are. People spend a huge amount of their disposable income on the team and give so much of their time to the team as well. Football clubs have such a massive influence on their life.

“Our owner here is incredible. He doesn’t need to build or team, or make money. From the outset, though, John Ingram said to me that he didn’t see himself as the club owner, he sees himself as the club’s custodian.

“I’m pretty sure, from memory, that’s something that John Henry said when he took over at Liverpool. These are community assets – they do belong to the supporters in a certain sense. You need good people with good intentions to run these things because if you don’t then you’re taking something away from the people who give these clubs so much.”

After the progress made by Ayre so far, that sentiment will be music to Nashville ears.

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