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.

 

@GameofthePeople

 

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.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

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

Woodward attack underlines irrational culture

Manchester United’s fans may be frustrated, but the extraordinary high expectations at the club and the air of [relative] decline that surrounds Old Trafford is also partly a symptom of a corporate culture that has built up over the past 30 years.

While anonymous, shadowy figures hurl abuse at Ed Woodward, the Glazers and possibly the media, United’s unhappy fanatics have to realise that success should be cyclical and the club’s success in the 1990s and 2000s was built on the advantages United accumulated from becoming Britain’s first capitalist club. United floated on the stock market in grand style (I remember the prospectus) and this set them apart from their peer group. But at the same time, being a public company meant they were also vulnerable to takeover or merger. Free market capitalism resulted in the Glazers buying the club and from that point, Manchester United moved into a different business paradigm. US owners like to make money from their sports businesses.

Of course, football fans, historically, don’t like change and the arrival of the Glazers saw the creation of FC United of Manchester as well as the protest Newton Heath scarves. It is doubtful the owners had ever heard of Newton Heath, possibly assuming it was the name of a Republican politician.

Success should be a cyclical thing – there’s nothing more boring than football monopolies

At every stage of United’s evolution, it is a fair bet their supporters have been unhappy, the forlorn cries, “the club belongs to the fans” highlighting just how ill-informed they are about the true ownership model of modern football. With the exception of a handful of supporter-owned clubs, most belong to businessmen or women, oil barons, sharp entrepreneurs and, in a number of cases, financial speculators like private equity groups and hedge funds.

It has been proven that clubs cannot prosper without the generosity of billionaires, for whatever reason they choose to invest in a club, be it soft power plays, relationship building, politics or philanthropy. In most cases, owners do not make money out of their investment, you just have to see reference to “going concern” in club accounts and the capital injections to keep clubs solvent that characterise football balance sheets.

Football’s elevation into a global, multi-faceted industry, like it or not, is down to the involvement of financial and marketing profesionals. The old local businessman model, a la Bob Lord at Burnley, has been superseded by “experts” who have finessed huge broadcasting deals, globalised the sport and attracted unprecedented wealth. The clubs themselves could not be further away from being “belonging to the fans” than they are today. It’s tantamount to heresy to suggest it, but football fans are customers, consumers and emotional stakeholders. Rarely are they partners and owners.

You would like to think that most football fans understand this modern dynamic, which is truthfully not a million miles away from the old. In the past, the wealthy butcher or car salesman underpinned his local club. Today, the oligarch or sheik is doing the same. It’s hard for Manchester United fans to get to the owner, so the public face, the highly-paid former investment banker that is Woodward, is in the firing line. Coming from the world of international high finance, Woodward will appreciate the importance of “the bottom line” more than most. He is an employee of the Glazers, not the fans. He’s made some bad decisions, but not necessarily on the commercial front, it has mainly been on the succession of Sir Alex Ferguson and a series of ill-informed hirings. This is the side of the club the fans are really only interested in, they derive little satisfaction about being at the top of the Deloitte Football Money League.

But… and it is a big but, Woodward does not warrant cowardly attacks on his home, no matter how ineffective the fans believe him to be. No football club has the right to be successful, not even Manchester United. God only knows how the fans that laid siege to his house would have reacted in 1974 when United were really poor and found themselves relegated. At present, they are fifth in the table but they are living in the shadows of a better-run, better-resourced neighbour in Manchester City.

This incident, which is worrying beyond the game of football, is another example of how fans demand that wealthy benefactors fund their passion. For the price of their season ticket, they insist on success that is funded by others yet sneer at any club owner who wants to make a return on investment. Yet United’s position in global football has been built on that very objective. The contradictions are manifold, the attack on Woodward unacceptable, but let’s hope it does no set a precedent. United, like others, will have to wait for their next bout of success. Get over it and show some dignity.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA