LARRY RYAN: Blessed are the brand builders

With the Champions League revenue stream secured, there was still business to take care of for Liverpool this week.

Alongside Jurgen Klopp and his players on a 36-hour brand-building exercise in Australia were Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Steve McManaman and Daniel Agger.

When Gerrard and Carragher came on as substitutes against Sydney FC, the ovation was rapturous.

Watching it, the antics of John Terry during his Chelsea farewell last Sunday seemed a bit more reasonable.

It is a curious thing now, the brand identity of a Premier League giant. For the local match-goer, loyalty might still be about place. About family ties. But when you’re “expanding into new territories”, you need something else to represent what Juventus president Andrea Agnelli described, during the club’s recent rebrand, as “our way of living”.

So, as a carousel of super managers take turns to pilot international squads on three-year projects across Europe, the global marketplace leans heavier on the brand ambassadors to distinguish clubs. Men who can help cultivate bonds that will outlast transient meaningless ephemera such as glory and trophies.

Club heroes, local lads, top Reds or true Blues. Stevie G, Giggsy, Lamps and co could be kept busy as symbols of a way of life for the next 50 years. There might even be a manager’s job in it, somewhere along the line.

At a club like Chelsea, where the next era is rarely more than 18 months away, it’s worth cultivating carefully your centrality to the global image. Your place as a lasting symbol. It’s an asset to sweat long after you finish playing. Some would argue the sweating began some time ago with JT.

With all that at stake, why leave it to chance that others will organise your farewell properly, get the finer points of their spontaneous tribute to you just right? JT has always been a hands-on kind of guy.

The key to understanding JT is to establish precisely why he slipped the shinpads under his socks for that famous Champions League celebration in 2012. Simply swept up in the joy of the moment? Or carefully ensuring maximum authenticity for the snaps? I think, deep down, we now know the answer.

The ‘controvassy’ around Terry’s choreographed exit at Stamford Bridge probably bemused Antonio Conte, a man who has seen more profound threats to the integrity of football in his time.

Conte has seen big fusses before too. His celebration of a first Scudetto with Juventus had to wait until Alessandro Del Piero, playing his last home game, had departed in a ceremonial substitution, with the Juve players gathered in the centre circle for tearful goodbyes. Del Piero then embarked on a lap of honour while the game proceeded.

Del Piero had only contributed two league goals that season, but Conte handled delicately the phasing out of a captain, leader, legend.

That might be the greatest of his considerable achievements this season too. Terry could persuade two football clubs and a referee to down tools on his precise command for the cringiest, most self-serving spectacle this side of politics — at least until Jose Mourinho ordered his players to hold up three fingers in recognition of the ‘treble’ they secured on Wednesday night. But JT couldn’t persuade Conte to give him meaningful minutes on the field. And yet there were no evident repercussions in the dressing room, whatever about for the brand.

The Italian will still be entitled to a sign of relief Monday, whatever the result today.

Back in Turin, meanwhile, Paulo Dybala is more coy about his ambitions to represent the Juventus way of living. When Juve rebranded in January, men like Del Piero and Nedved and Zidane and Platini took centre stage.

Dybala is currently wearing Zidane’s 21 but Del Piero’s iconic 10 is vacant. “I’ll never ask for the number 10, if the club offers me it then we’ll talk. I want to be a Bianconero symbol,” is all he’ll say.

That 10 shirt was vacated when Manchester United announced a merger with the Pogba corporation. Perhaps mindful they had squeezed as much ‘brand heritage’ as possible out of the Class of ‘92 business, United went big on brand awareness last summer. Now they are beautifully poised, with a dabbing viral sensation to offer those Champions League eyeballs.

Other ambitious men wait in the wings. Jesse Lingard looks a lad with his eye on a slice of the Top Red ambassadorial work one day. Though he showed a touch of JT’s judgment by posting online a video of himself and teammates roaring expletives about Man City on a night when Manchester was meant to be united.

JT has bounced back from worse. Though Michael Owen’s precarious stint as a Liverpool ambassador will come under more pressure after fans noted his liberal use of ‘we’ during BT Sport’s Europa League final coverage.

With all the other Premier League giants safely into next season’s moneyball, out in the cold are Arsenal, with Arsene Wenger still telling us he doesn’t know if today’s FA Cup final will be his last game in charge.

While there is growing appetite for change in North London, it might be a risky moment to jettison the very core of the modern Arsenal identity — Wenger.

Their big brands — Sanchez and Ozil — are probably off. Efforts to build a distinctive ‘British core’ never took off, due to the flakiness of those involved and injury to Jack Wilshere — the London Lingard.

They play in a soulless bowl without the lure of Highbury. And of recent legends, Adams is in revolt, Wrighty wavers, Vieira is City, Henry is Sky, Bergkamp is Ajax.

Wenger appears to have put some distance between the club and much of its recent glories. So unless there is a guru out there who can build a brand around Steve Bould, the most distinctive thing about the Arsenal way of living is Wenger. Embracing the unknown, while out of the Champions League, would be risky. It may just be that the Arsenal brand needs Wenger more than ever.

Perhaps JT isn’t the only one with a keen eye for the long game.

Beware Corkness rising

Ah, isn’t it lovely all the same to see the Corkness rise in them. The text soon landed from Donal O’Grady, with a nod to last week’s column: “Summer Bay was hit by a huge wave”.

That’s the beauty of them, they are not one bit afraid of enjoying it, of revelling in it. No such thing as walking aisy. By Sunday evening, they were back; by Sunday night, they were never really gone.

By the end of the week, they were a unique, blessed people again. They were compiling lists. Ringy, Jack Doyle, ROG, Roy, Rob, Derval, the O’Donovans, Sonia. And wondering what is in the water that makes them so great. And so versatile. The phone-ins were jammed with wonder. With theories. Even Sonia herself was putting all her feats down to the Corkness.

“Now it feels like everything is possible again,” Sonia wrote in The Irish Times.

And it probably is. Because Corkness doesn’t need much encouragement.

How the Villa was built

More than 10 years ago, I stood at the side of a hilly field in Innishannon and listened to a few lads wonder if they’d be able to keep the thing going at all for another season.

I wasn’t much help to them, but they kept it going alright and you could see people like Noel Ryan and Sean Lynch and more like them had the vision and determination to eventually build something very special.

They bought land, laid two beautiful pitches, built dressing rooms, began to field seven or eight teams, won cups, climbed the league, opened an academy, and now Innishvilla gives more than 150 youngsters from the parish football.

Grief bit deep when they tragically lost young Jake O’Donoghue, who gave his name to the pitches. And there was fierce pride when young Charlie Lyons went away to Preston North End this year.

Tonight they face Park United at Turner’s Cross (7pm) in the AOH Cup final, the Cork AUL’s FA Cup final. You could call it their greatest day, but maybe that would be wrong, because all of what they’ve done is great.


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