There's only one way to understand the emotion that Jürgen Klopp - the heir of Bill Shankly - has unleashed. The German set the tone for their first title in 30 years... he has brought a radicalism back to Liverpool
In the last years of his life, Bill Shankly spent his holidays at the Norbreck Castle Hotel on the Queen’s Promenade in Bispham, on the northern edge of Blackpool, where Edwardian holidaymakers once came to take the air.
It was the late Seventies and the place had seen better days but Shankly still loved it. Sometimes, he organised kick-abouts with a couple of waiters and his old mate, Jack Dodds, who had played centre forward for Blackpool and Sheffield United.
Every summer, Shankly would ring Peter Robinson, the Liverpool chief executive, to invite him up. The two men would walk across the tram tracks to the sea front, settle into their deckchairs and talk about the old days when they built the club into the best in England and laid the foundations for their European glories and Shankly’s charisma and instinctive populism made him so beloved and cherished by the club’s supporters.
And then the clouds would start to scud across the sky and the sun would disappear. And Robinson would notice the promenade emptying as the wind got up and other holidaymakers hurried back to their hotels. But Shankly would not move. The rain would come and the wind would howl but he remained resolute. ‘He told me sitting out there in that weather would set me up for the winter,’ Robinson remembered, ‘and how well I would be.’
It is only really by charting the course of Liverpool’s long winter over the last three decades that it is possible understand the emotions that were unleashed when Shankly’s spiritual heir, Jürgen Klopp, and his runaway league leaders brought the league title back to Anfield for the first time in 30 years last week. It is only possible to appreciate the scale of the achievement when it is set against the disappointments that went before.
Winter came to the football club in 1989 when the Hillsborough Disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans and left the club, its supporters, its manager, Kenny Dalglish, and its players emotionally spent. The following year, they won the league title for the 18thtime but the clouds were gathering, the city was under siege from a hostile Conservative government and the club began to crack and creak under the strain.
When I arrived on Merseyside in the autumn of 1990 to work as a trainee on the Liverpool Echo and the Daily Post, the city was in the grip of a bitter political struggle between the Labour Party and the Militant tendency. I spent more time reporting on cases at the old Magistrates’ Courts building on Dale Street than at the football club but it was not difficult to draw comparisons between the strain the city was under and the stresses the club was dealing with.
I spent days in the Dingle, trying to track down absconding criminals or huddled in red phone boxes calling in reports of road traffic accidents or going to council meetings or taking copies of the Echo to give to the coroner before each day’s hearings or sitting in the press seats in Dale Street, marvelling at a car thief laughing and joking with his mates even as the magistrate was attempting to admonish him. I had never seen that kind of bravado before.
I went to as many matches as I could at Anfield and stood in the crowded little press room in the Main Stand when Dalglish would walk in through the door after the match, stand against the wall looking drained but combative, put his head down on his chest and answer the questions that were asked of him.
On February 22, 1991, with Liverpool still top of the table but their manager on the verge of a breakdown, Dalglish quit.
In the city, the political civil war reached new levels as Labour’s ‘vile Kinnockite’ Peter Kilfoyle and Militant’s Lesley Mahmood contested the Liverpool Walton by-election and at the club, decline began to set in. Another former great, Graeme Souness, was appointed Dalglish’s successor but his reign was undermined the following season when he sold the story of his recovery from heart bypass surgery to The Sun.
The publication of the story coincided with the third anniversary of Hillsborough. The front page headline of the Daily Post the next morning said, simply, ‘Souness and The Sun’. Liverpool beat Sunderland in the 1992 FA Cup Final but the sight of Souness, still frail after his surgery, at the old Wembley felt like the personification of Liverpool as an ailing football institution.
There were some signs of hope in the young players being brought into the side. Things were still more relaxed between players and reporters then and I sat with a teenage Jamie Redknapp in his car outside the old canteen at the club’s Melwood training ground, talking about what it was like living away from home for the first time for a feature for the Daily Post. Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were emerging at the same time.
They were fine players. Actually, they were brilliant players. Fowler was a goalscoring natural, McManaman was a superb ball carrier, Redknapp was a beautiful passer of the ball. But collectively, they were part of teams that were never quite good enough to dethrone Manchester United, who had taken over as the new power in the game.
And so Liverpool became a good team. Not a bad side, just not the best any more. As year followed year, they enjoyed lesser triumphs but their identity became about striving to recapture something that had been lost. And because of that, there was a habit of concentrating not on the qualities they possessed but on what they were missing.
For a while, they were portrayed as the flash kids who did not have the hunger of United’s Class of 92. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs: these were boys who were made of the right stuff, who shunned the bright lights and only cared about winning. That was the narrative.
Liverpool wore cream Armani suits to the 1996 FA Cup Final, which they lost to United. It was if they were parodying themselves but they were not. Not intentionally, anyway. They gained a reputation for flying to London after home games to enjoy the nightlife in the capital. They were nicknamed the Spice Boys. It was shorthand for style over substance.
Liverpool tried to summon up the down-to-earth spirit of the Boot Room and appointed Roy Evans as manager. Then Gerard Houllier joined him and superseded him. There was a Cup treble. They were close in the league but never close enough. In time, Fowler gave way to another goalscoring prodigy, Michael Owen. He had an FA Cup Final named after him before he left for Real Madrid.
The years ticked by. Steven Gerrard emerged as the best Liverpool player since Dalglish and for a while after Rafa Benitez became manager, it seemed Gerrard would be good enough to win the league on his own. He had an FA Cup Final named after him, too, and the club enjoyed one of the most famous nights in its history when, inspired by Gerrard, it came from 3-0 down in the 2005 Champions League Final to beat AC Milan in the Miracle of Istanbul.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be there that night have never experienced anything quite like it before or since but as more years ticked by, the glory of that evening seemed to fix attention on the one thing that was still missing, the one thing that had to be ticked off before Liverpool could say that they were the best again.
Great European nights had come to define them but now winning the league became the club’s obsession and when Benitez was forced out in a bout of internecine warfare with the club’s hated new owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and Roy Hodgson quickly came and went, it felt as if they were falling further and further behind United and the new financial superpowers in English football, Chelsea and Manchester City.
All this time, the club and its supporters were dealing with the suppurating sore of the injustice that had been meted out to the families of those who died at Hillsborough when an inquest returned a verdict of accidental death in 1991. ‘Justice for the 96’ became the club’s rallying cry, making their fortunes on the pitch seem trivial by comparison.
The fortitude of the bereaved families, their refusal to give up in the face of intransigence and obstruction from the authorities, began to define the club as much as the efforts of their players. In April 2016, the jury at new inquests determined that the 96 people were unlawfully killed.
The struggles of fallen clubs and their attempts to regain lost glories show that a coalition of powers needs to be in place to put recovery in train and the journey to the celebrations that broke out all over Liverpool on Thursday night began in earnest in 2010 when Hicks and Gillett were ousted and the club was bought by John W Henry, Tom Werner, Mike Gordon and the Fenway Sports Group.
They knew all about ending sporting droughts. When they bought the Boston Red Sox baseball team in 2002, they had not won the World Series for 84 years but two years later, they swept the St Louis Cardinals to break the spell. They had spent big when they had to, they had parted ways with club legends when they felt it was for the long-term good, they had hired a 28-year-old general manager unencumbered by the past.
After turning briefly to Dalglish, who has come to represent the soul of the club, they replaced him with Brendan Rodgers, a brilliant young coach, who harnessed the autumn of Gerrard’s career and matched it with the sublime attacking talent of Luis Suarez to bring the club within an inch of the title in 2014. Only Gerrard’s cruel slip, which led to a Demba Ba goal and a crucial defeat to Chelsea, deprived them of the championship.
Rodgers’ influence waned after that and in October 2015, FSG appointed Klopp as manager. Klopp, a smart, clever manager who had faced down the might of Bayern Munich while he was manager of Borussia Dortmund but also a manager who fed off emotion and passion and the communion with the crowd like no other manager English football had seen since…well, since Shankly.
Klopp’s teams at Dortmund had been characterised by fluency and skill but also by a fierce desire for retribution whenever the opponent had the ball, particularly in the opponent’s half. The insistence on closing down the space an opponent had in their own half with furious pressing was known as gegen-pressing in Germany and has underpinned Liverpool’s success, too.
Even as they led Crystal Palace 4-0 at Anfield on Wednesday evening, analysts noted the tenacity with which the Liverpool forwards harried their opponents in the closing minutes of the match. Under Klopp, Liverpool have an energy that never dies. When other teams might relax and when we might forgive them for relaxing, Liverpool remain relentless. It is the characteristic that defines them.
That relentlessness has been aided by Klopp’s recruitment, too. It has been close to flawless. Sadio Mane, Gini Wijnaldum and Andy Robertson, Joel Matip and Mo Salah all arrived within the first two years of Klopp taking over. In January 2018, the Liverpool manager sold the club’s star player Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142m and used the money to complete his jigsaw, buying Virgil van Dijk from Southampton and goalkeeper Alisson from AS Roma.
For the first time in Liverpool’s history – perhaps in any club’s history – winning the Champions League against Spurs in Madrid last season became a stepping stone. It was the last building block, the triumph that gave Liverpool the confidence of winners at the highest level. Beaten by City in a titanic battle in the Premier League last season, many thought Liverpool would wilt this year. They could not have been more wrong.
It was that relentlessness again. English football has never seen anything like it. Liverpool won 26 of their first 27 games this season before a 3-0 defeat at Watford on February 29thended their chances of an unbeaten campaign. By then, they were already more than 20 points clear of a City side that had itself been heralded as the best English club side ever when they became champions the season before.
Liverpool have been mesmeric this season. Alisson has been their rock. Their full-backs, Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, have been irresistible attacking forces as well as superb defenders. Van Dijk has been a colossus in the centre of defence. Jordan Henderson has been an inspiring captain and an anchor in midfield, Roberto Firmino has provided so much beauty and creativity, Salah and Mane have been prolific in front of goal.
And Klopp has set the tone for all of it. Even denied that communion with the supporters which has been his life-blood because of the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown, he has been the conscience and the dignity of the club, telling fans there will be a time when they can all celebrate together, growing tearful in front of the cameras on Thursday night when he paid tribute to the contributions of men like Dalglish and Gerrard to this proud moment in the club’s history.
Klopp has brought a kind of radicalism back to Liverpool and moulded it to iconoclasm and a relish for the challenge to authority. He may have grown up in Germany in the Black Forest but his recent criticism of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus crisis was another reminder he is straight out of Liverpool’s tradition of antiestablishmentarianis
‘The socialism I believe in isn’t really politics,’ Shankly said when he was Liverpool boss. ‘It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.’
It feels very much like the way Klopp sees football and the way he sees life, too. Winter is over in Liverpool and maybe after all these years of striving for that thing that was lost, the manager and his players might rest a little. But a voice inside, a voice that knows the history of the man and the history of the city that he has made his home, says that they will not.https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-8466831/OLIVER-HOLT-Theres-one-way-understand-emotion-Jürgen-Klopp-unleashed.html