Why we all like Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp

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.




Photo: PA

From Valencia to Crewe – a search for authenticity

OVER the past couple of months, I have witnessed football in all four divisions in England and hopped across to Spain to catch a Champions League tie involving Chelsea and Valencia. As well as the contrast in climate – it was great to go short-sleeved in Valencia while everyone was rain-sodden at home – seeing football across all levels was a reminder that for all the glitz and glamour of the elite, some aspects of the game remain humble and earnest. Some are in a precarious state.

On the subject of precarious, I must admit I have never felt so vulnerable at a football ground as I was in Valencia. Not because of the fans, but after the ascent of the north face of the Mestalla. Is there a steeper, more daunting climb than the one you encounter reaching the very top of the open stand? We were in the highest but one row, a floodlight behind us and the city before us. Fantastic, but I looked around and asked my pal, “Bill, have you noticed something?…we are the only people over the age of 21 in this part of the stand.” Indeed we were, for the older folk were perched down below. We had reached the summit and after some puffing and panting – not to mention negotiating the concrete steps which are a challenge for anyone under six foot – we were enjoying the view. No surprise the lift to this section of the ground had a long queue.

The Mestalla was a wonderful experience, the vibe was pure passion and the game was excellent, a 2-2 draw amid the shabby chic of one of Spain’s most iconic stadiums. We had to admit, though, it is an arena best suited to Sherpas and mountain dwelling creatures.

Valencia, along with my trip last year to Real Madrid, has given me a taste for Spain after years of relative neglect on my part, mostly because of a few trips to Lloret de Mar as a teenager in search of thrills and spills. Not being a sun-worshipper, my wife and I tend to patronise the Nordic region, partly because as a 50% Dane, I am naturally interested, but also because we cannot tolerate intense heat. However, after years of trolling around central Europe, Germany and Scandinavia, I have suddenly got an urge to visit Spain again.

What’s not to like, especially in winter? There was little obvious evidence of the economic crisis that brought the country to its knees a decade ago, although Valencia’s new ground has sat unfinished like a hotel at a suddenly unfashionable tourist resort. The city itself looks fairly prosperous at first glance with a relaxed air and a taste for modern architecture. The weather is glorious, the oranges that provide the world’s marmalade lovers with fruit glisten in the sun and Iberico ham hangs from the ceilings of countless shops, bars and restaurants. It’s not just about football!

By contrast, my trip to Crewe came just 48 hours after the latest general election in the UK. Anyone who has travelled the country in search of football kicks has changed at Crewe at some point in their lives. Valencia’s fans, supporting a club from one of Spain’s biggest cities, are passionate, but to attach yourself a club like Crewe takes a very special fan. In the UK, we’ve got millions of people who follow the less celebrated, less successful clubs, and the fortunes of their favourite team mean as much to them as any regular at the Mestalla.

From a footballing perspective, Crewe Alexandra is one of those romantic names that once proliferated lower league football, evoking images of flat caps, rattles and cups of Bovril. The beanie hat has succeeded the flat cap, despite a renaissance in natty tweed headgear by order of the Peaky Blinders, and rattles are nowhere to be seen, but Bovril is still on sale at Gresty Road.

I was in Crewe for a couple of reasons, one was to pick-up on the mood after the election, the other was to see a club that I’ve always had a soft spot for. I was fortunate to be seated with a number of similarly-aged Crewe fans who were intrigued why somebody with a southern accent was at the game. We had a good, through-the-game conversation that left me in no doubt about how the locals feel about their club – as well as their politics!

What do fans of clubs like Crewe really hope for? Success has to be relative when you’re as small and challenged as a Crewe, a Macclesfield or a Stevenage. Little victories, fleeting triumphs and, in the current climate where the rich clubs keep getting richer and the poor long to just get through the season, survival is the thing. Crewe have Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham not so far away, which makes life a little difficult at times. Valencia, despite their good gates and high level of expectation, have to contend with Real Madrid and Barcelona in the same stable. Who really has the hardest task, Crewe or Valencia?

I enjoyed both trips immensely, one for its scale, emotion and quality, the other for the stoic way clubs like Crewe co-exist with giant clubs whose financial clout is way off into the stratosphere. But the experience demonstrated why we love football, because it is about the giants and the minnows, the rich and poor, the bold and the humble. In some ways, those that follow clubs that only briefly get a glimpse of the spotlight are those that represent the heart and soul of football.

Constant success can soon become a  little bit “everyday” – why else would fans of some of recently-monied clubs hanker for the days when success was something they strived for rather than expected? It may be something to do with authenticity. Given that we supposedly live in a time when people, tired and disillusioned by the superficial, crave an authentic experience, a trip to Valencia or Crewe provide the ideal antidote to 21st century world-weariness.


Photo: PA

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, February 2020 edition.