‘He put us back on our perch’: What Klopp means to Liverpool

LIVERPOOL — Jurgen Klopp knew the Premier League title, and his dream of a glorious farewell as Liverpool manager, was gone. A 2-0 Merseyside derby defeat against Everton at Goodison Park last month left the team still with a mathematical chance of winning the league, but as much as he is a romantic, Klopp is also a realist.

Twenty-four hours later, defending champions Manchester City had the opportunity to take advantage of Liverpool’s slip by winning at Brighton. City and manager Pep Guardiola have been a constant thorn in Klopp’s side throughout his eight and a half year reign at Anfield, and the 56-year-old had no appetite to stay at home and watch his rivals on TV — they would win 4-0 and leapfrog Liverpool in the table — so he went to the pub.

At 6-foot-3, Klopp is an imposing figure, easily recognisable with or without the baseball cap he often wears. On this day, however, he was in no mood for selfies or autograph hunters as he walked to The Freshfield, the pub less than a five-minute stroll from his home in Formby.

The seaside town 10 miles up the coast from Liverpool makes for a tranquil spot. Klopp’s road is lined by towering Scots pine and sycamore trees all the way up to the squirrel sanctuary that butts against the sand dunes. It’s a nice escape from the intensity of the title race, that physically and psychologically draining nine-month, 38-game battle to win the Premier League. But what happened at The Freshfield epitomised the unique bond that Klopp has forged with his club’s supporters and the city of Liverpool.

“My son was here and the last thing we wanted to do is to watch City playing,” Klopp said. “So we went out and in that time we were there, I think 20 people just came to say ‘Thank you’ and I was really not in the mood. I wanted to apologize for the night before because I know what it means to the people. And the response is, ‘No, forget that. No, no, no. Thank you for what you have done.’

“It’s crazy how the people in Liverpool people are. It’s exactly what I learned here.”

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Klopp will take charge of Liverpool for the final time when Wolves visit Anfield on Sunday, and tickets are already being sold online for more than £1,400 ($1,775). The most expensive ticket, purchased through official channels for a Premier League game at Anfield, is usually £61 ($77).

Klopp has revived Liverpool since arriving at the club in October 2015. He has won every major trophy, with the exception of the Europa League, at least once and the team’s title win in 2019-20 ended a 30-year wait to become champions of England again. But his impact has gone beyond the confines of Anfield.

Liverpool midfielder Curtis Jones said in January, days after the manager announced his decision to step down at the end of the season, that Klopp was the “dad of the whole city,” while Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool City Region, told ESPN that the former Borussia Dortmund coach is “as revered in the religion of Liverpool football club as the Pope is to Catholicism.” One Liverpool source said that Klopp “made Liverpool cool again,” drawing more positive attention to the city than any of its high-profile figures since the Beatles in the 1960s.

To outsiders, Klopp can be a divisive figure, one who has been punished on a number of occasions for berating match officials during games. He can also be tetchy on camera or if he believes that his right to privacy away from the game has been denied by fans or paparazzi. But he is also perhaps unique in the Premier League era as a manager who has forged a sense of unity and affection like no other between himself, his players and the club’s supporters. Sir Alex Ferguson did not manage that at Manchester United and Guardiola hasn’t achieved it at Manchester City, but at Liverpool, you would waste a lot of time trying to find anyone with a negative word to say about Klopp.

“He lit a fire under the place when he arrived,” Dan Morgan, the author of “Jurgen Said To Me: Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool and the Remaking of a City,” told ESPN. “The best way to describe his time as manager is that it has felt like being at a kitchen party after everywhere else has closed.”

“I am the normal one,” Klopp said in his first news conference as Liverpool manager in 2015. “I am a totally normal guy.”

Due to a lack of space at Anfield, Liverpool had considered staging Klopp’s introductory news conference at the Titanic Hotel in the city, but abandoned the idea when it was suggested that launching a new era in a building named after a ship which sank on its first voyage would not be the greatest idea.

Tongue-in-cheek remark aside, Klopp had already proved himself to be something more than normal during seven years in charge of Borussia Dortmund, guiding the club to two Bundesliga titles in an era otherwise dominated by Bayern Munich. He also took Dortmund to a Champions League final in 2013 before losing to Bayern at Wembley, but on his first day at Anfield, he was smart enough to avoid the trap of echoing Jose Mourinho’s legendary introduction at Chelsea in 2004, when the Portuguese coach described himself as the “Special One.”

A year earlier, Klopp had rejected an approach from Manchester United to succeed David Moyes as manager at Old Trafford. Ed Woodward, United’s then-executive vice chairman, had try to sell the vision of Old Trafford being an “adult version of Disneyland,” but Klopp was distinctly unimpressed by the sales pitch. As someone who has never hidden his socialist beliefs, the corporate spin delivered by Woodward completely misjudged the person at whom it was being directed.

Liverpool were in a different place when they approached Klopp in 2015, a club struggling to recreate its glorious past while carrying a fanbase and history every bit as big and demanding as United’s. Michael Edwards, then Liverpool’s sporting director, had secretly scouted Klopp for months, even booking himself into the same hotel as Dortmund prior to a Bundesliga game simply to watch how Klopp interacted with players and staff.

By the time Liverpool came calling, Klopp was four months into a sabbatical following his departure from Dortmund at the end of the previous season. However, the chance to revive the club and build a new team at Anfield convinced him to cut short his planned yearlong break and take on the challenge of restoring the club as one of the best in the world again.

Klopp spoke of turning “doubters into believers” at that first news conference and said there would be a title “within four years.” He proved to be one year out, though nobody was still counting by then. “The day Jurgen was appointed, I said, ‘Fasten your seatbelts,'” former Liverpool player and manager Kenny Dalglish said. “We’re off and running here.”

Dalglish’s perspective was quickly shared by the players. Liverpool had narrowly missed out on the title in 2013-14 — they finished second, with 84 points to Man City’s 86 despite Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge scoring 52 combined league goals — but manager Brendan Rodgers had lost his grip on the squad, and belief and morale was low by the time he was fired. Klopp immediately injected energy and optimism.

“When he [Klopp] came in in the early days, things started to change in training — buzzwords like ‘counter-press’ and all the players bought into it,” Sturridge told Sky Sports. “Then the first preseason was the one when you kind of realized, ‘Okay cool, this is very different.’

“The way in which we were preparing, how fit we got … And I think as time went on, the tactics and the mindset of the team changed and they were right on point with how he wanted us to be. We were going to run through a brick wall for this guy. He gave us a tenacity that we probably didn’t have as much of before. Throughout my time at Liverpool with him, never once did we go into a game thinking we couldn’t win or there was a negative mindset on the approach.”

Klopp’s attention to detail and demand for the highest standards was evident from the outset. In his first game in charge, against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, Klopp noticed how smart and imposing the Spurs players looked in their fitted training kit compared to Liverpool’s players warming up in baggy, ill-fitting red tops. “Our boys looked like Captain Picard [from Star Trek],” Klopp said. “It was all the wrong size, it didn’t fit and I wasn’t happy. How can you already be second best before the game has even started? So the next day I asked for meeting and changed it immediately. Those kind of things are important.”

He also hired the world champion high-wave surfer, Sebastian Steudtner, to give a motivational talk to the players about taking on ever-more daunting challenges. Klopp was laying the foundations, though his team was still miles from competing for the title and would finish his first season in eighth position, losing the Europa League final against Sevilla. It didn’t matter; he was making his mark.

“Jurgen started to introduce training sessions in the early evening and a lot of players didn’t like it,” a Liverpool source told ESPN. “A couple of the senior players went to see him and said some of the lads weren’t happy and wanted a rethink. Jurgen said, ‘Fine, tell those players to come and see me and we’ll sort it out.’

“The message went back to the dressing room and not one player took him up on the offer. He’d made his point: he was the boss.”

There have been many glory days and nights during Klopp’s time as Liverpool manager. There was the club’s sixth Champions League crown, secured with a 2-0 win against Tottenham in Madrid in 2019, and an end to the 30-year wait for the title during the 2019-20 season that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Under Klopp, Liverpool fans have celebrated cup wins at Wembley in both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup triumph in Qatar in 2019, and also the unforgettable 4-0 win against Lionel Messi and Barcelona at Anfield in the 2018-19 Champions League semifinal that overturned a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 first-leg deficit.

Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and many others have become club legends with Klopp as manager and the football played by his team has been enthralling, exciting, pulsating and breathtaking, often at the same time. He’s also had a proven track record of ensuring that academy players have a path to the first team; Klopp promoted Alexander-Arnold from the Under-18s in 2016-17, while also bringing through Jones, Jarell Quansah and Conor Bradley (among others) in recent seasons, inspiring young stars to keep pushing.

But what makes Klopp so revered at Liverpool is the man as much as the manager. He has spoken out against Liverpool’s attempt to form a breakaway Super League, echoed fans’ concerns over ticket prices and fought the supporters’ corner when they were being condemned for the chaos which preceded the 2022 Champions League final in Paris — UEFA later admitted it was wrong to blame Liverpool fans for the delayed kickoff.

Klopp also backed the fans when criticised for booing the national anthem at Wembley. “When people have condemned us for booing ‘God Save the King,’ Jurgen just said that we must have a reason for doing it,” author Morgan said. “As fans, you just feel that he has got your back.”

During the pandemic, Klopp’s wife, Ulla, handed out £1,000 worth of food vouchers to staff at a supermarket in Formby as a thanks from the couple to those who’d put aside the risks to ensure customers could purchase essentials during the first lockdown. Quite simply, there is a sense within the club’s fanbase and city as a whole that Klopp “gets it” like few others.

“Do you know what will happen in a few years’ time?” Rotheram said. “Everybody, Everton fans included, will recognize fully the part that Jurgen played in the leadership of the city rather than just being a football manager. Rivalry seems to sully any thought outside of the tribalism of football, but when you get away from that and see, for instance, during Covid, the way he led and how the fans got him on side with ticket price. I just think he espouses the same sort of values and principles as the ordinary fans.

“He has a special quality. I’m just glad that he didn’t decide that he wants to be a politician because God knows what chance anybody else would have. But if he did lead the world, it would be a better world to live in.”

Klopp has also worked closely with supporters in several areas, helping them to gain support for campaigns or simply encouraging them to pursue their beliefs. In 2021, Klopp met Paul Amann, the founder of Liverpool’s LGBT+ group, Kop Outs, after games against Chelsea had been marred by homophobic chanting by some Liverpool supporters, and Amann said that Klopp’s intervention proved crucial.

“No other person in football has spoken up on the issue like Jurgen Klopp,” Amann told ESPN. “When I met him, we sat down and he wanted to know about the chant, why it mattered to us as fans. By speaking to us, and using our conversation on a video clip, Jurgen amplified our voices rather than allow others to ignore them. The impact on social media saw a 50-50 split in terms of support and abuse change to 90-10 and when a sporadic idiot chants now, the vast majority of decent fans shout them down. Jurgen unquestionably helped rid Anfield of the chant.

“He really is the very best of us. He has supported our campaign, local hospitals, the Hillsborough families. He spent time making Teams calls to supporters who were isolating during the pandemic — none of that is in his job description.

“If you look at the stereotype of a Liverpudlian, it is all about solidarity, a civic mentality and passion. Jurgen fits the archetype of the values of a Liverpudlian. But most of all, he is all of us. He acts like the maddest fan on the touchline at times, but he’s living out our joys and frustrations.”

If Klopp had won four more games over his nine-year spell at Liverpool, he would be leaving with three Premier Leagues and three Champions Leagues rather than one of each. It is a simplistic way of highlighting what could have been, but had Liverpool beaten Real Madrid in their two Champions League final encounters in 2018 and 2022, those additional European Cups would have been added to Anfield’s trophy room. Liverpool lost just one league game in the 2018-19 Premier League season and finished one point behind champions Manchester City — it’s worth noting no English team has ever won 90-plus points and 30-plus games in a single season without lifting the trophy — and they fell one point short again in 2021-22 as Guardiola’s side emerged victorious.

Such fine margins show just how close Klopp’s Liverpool have come to reaching even greater heights. They have had the misfortune to enjoy their own period of success at the same time as one of English football’s greatest-ever teams, so has the Klopp era been a story of great things or what might have been?

“I honestly believe if you start looking at what he hasn’t done, I think you’re missing the point of what this guy has done, not just on the pitch but also off the pitch,” former Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp said. “If you look at the what could have been, there’s obviously the two Champions Leagues, but he got Liverpool in the mix. He got them back from being a club that was not really getting talked about.

“He’s made people believe again that this club is a huge club, which is exactly what it is. He has been phenomenal.”

“No, I’m delighted with what we have had,” Amman said. “This has been done with a great manager, not some wannabe, but somebody who is the real deal and the football has been incredible. We have followed the rules and our success has been indisputable. The only trophy we haven’t won is the Europa League, so I have no regrets about what might have been.”

For some supporters, Klopp’s achievement in restoring Liverpool to football’s elite in England and Europe will be his legacy.

Liverpool hadn’t won the English title since 1990 until Klopp delivered it in 2020, but the club had also won just one trophy, the Carabao Cup, in the nine years prior to his arrival. Some of the team’s best players — Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Luis Suarez — had left Anfield because they could not envisage their ambitions being realised at Liverpool. Klopp changed all of that. “He puts us back on our perch,” Rotheram said.

Morgan, a lifelong Liverpool supporter, believes that Klopp did all of the above but also gave a new generation of fans their day in the sun. “Until Jurgen arrived, a lot of fans were ready to give up,” Morgan said. “We’d all heard stories from our fathers and grandfathers about the success they had seen, the European Cups and league titles, but this generation had only really seen failure and had been starved of those great stories.

“But Jurgen arriving was like alchemy at the perfect time. We had had so many false starts and nearly dawns, but Jurgen’s greatest gift has been to deliver on the promise he made when arrived, to bring success again. The only regret is that we didn’t get to watch the culmination of the title-winning season because of the pandemic. But we have had an unbelievable time under Jurgen Klopp. All eyes were on us and it’s been amazing.”

When he sat down and gave his first statement as Liverpool manager, Klopp made one viewpoint clear. “It’s not so important what people think when you come in,” he said. “It’s what people think when you leave.”

When he walks off Anfield for the final time Sunday, Klopp will be in no doubt as to what they think of him in Liverpool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *