RIGHT NOW, if there is one manager you would love to see at your own club it is surely Jürgen Klopp. Not because Liverpool are on the brink of the Premier League title, not even because he knows how to win the UEFA Champions League and not for his ability to assemble an exciting set of players. Klopp has charisma in bucketloads, the most engaging manager we’ve seen in English football since Brian Clough. The difference is, Klopp is a transparently nice guy whereas Clough was a decent fellow wrapped in a protective outfit of awkwardness and agitation. Possibly like José Mourinho.
Klopp has not only brought a breath of fresh air to England, he has also reminded us of the many decent qualities that Germany and Germans have. They do things properly, without too much fuss and they expect others to do the same. Little wonder that they have come through the coronavirus better and generally, their public services and hygiene standards seem to be away ahead of most countries.
In this xenophobic age in Britain, it is ironic that the most successful managers are Klopp and Pep Guardiola and the teams they represent are almost entirely drawn from outside the UK. Football normally reflects life, but in insular, pitbull-eyed Britain, this is no longer the case.
Klopp was meant to change Liverpool’s fortunes and he’s achieved that goal. Interestingly, in 2016 while watching the Europa League final in the city, I was told Klopp could become the “new Shankly” but after the game and a Liverpool defeat, the same scouser commented, “what does he know about this club?”. It is all about winning and Liverpool are on the verge of regaining their position at the head of English football with possibly the most admirable team they’ve produced since the Barnes – Beardsley – Aldridge combination of 1987-88.
I will admit, I would wearily yawn during the Liverpool era of the late 1970s-early 1980s, not because their team was one to hate, as they were generally a credit to the game, but due to the sense of entitlement that seemed to emerge from every discussion with a Liverpool fan. I wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 1989 that Liverpool would be tested in the years ahead because their 1988 side, as excellent as it was, appeared to be a case of cheque book team building yielding profits, which wasn’t particularly their traditional style. Two years on, they won the league and they haven’t achieved it since – until this season. I was [sort of] right about the club’s immediate future, although I would not have envisaged Liverpool would have to wait 30 years for a title.
The problem was, Liverpool hung on to their mythology for too long and the momentum of the club, built up since Shankly passed the baton to Paisley, to Fagan, to Dalglish, seemed to have been decimated by the tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough. They became an average top half outfit for years and no matter how they tried to rekindle the flame, too often hanging their hopes on over-rated players, they could not find the right combination. In 2005, they demonstrated pluck and character in winning the Champions League with the best manager they had hired post-Paisley, pre-Klopp in Rafa Benitez, but it looked like a one-off team for a one-off occasion.
Klopp brought a new type of Euro-savvy to the club and the concept of gegenpress to our footballing lexicon. Here was a manager who had won the Bundesliga and taken Dortmund to the Champions League final. He was a manager on the way up – arguably the best was still to come when he arrived at Anfield. Liverpool would, if Manchester City were not around, be starting a period of dominance to rival their history, but as it is, they will have to share the winners’ podium. Liverpool and City could become England’s Real-Barca over the next few years.
Klopp’s personality makes it hard to dislike him, even if he can make ill-judged decisions such as fielding a scratch team in the FA Cup. For a start, he’s got incredible presence with his gates of the city teeth shining like a beacon. He’s intimidating in a benign way and appears to put people at ease with his constant grinning, laughing, gesturing and eye contact. He also gives the impression that he understands football is not the most important thing in life – it’s a job for him and his players, not a vocation, not a calling and certainly not social work. When he’s asked about things that need expert opinions, he tells people to go seek them out from those that know. And rightly so.
The sceptic might say that it’s easy to be an all-singing, all-dancing top bloke when your team is winning, but winners can also be bastards and “poor victors”. Klopp is neither of these, but he does react when he feels he is being treated unfairly or asked loaded questions.
There’s no doubt that Liverpool deserve the accolades coming their way, and that’s down to Klopp and the people behind him. He is, arguably, the most popular manager in the world at the moment – we laugh along with him, we smile at his enthusiasm, his sprints across the pitch and along the touchline, the intimacy he shares with his players and his bond with the fans. He’s the sort of manager who you’d like to drop by for a beer to watch the match with you.
Alas, one day, it will end and he will be sacked or “released” by Liverpool. That seems impossible at the moment, but even the world’s greatest managers eventually see their eras come to a close. Before that happens, Klopp and Liverpool have got more winning to do – starting with the Premier League title 2019-20. They both deserve it.