Tuesday 6 December 2016

German with the beer-hall laugh honours Shankly's evangelist way without making mistake of trying to bring Anfield ghosts to life

Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly established a legacy at Anfield that looks sure to continue in the shrewd hands of current boss Jurgen Klopp who already has made his own mark. Photo: S&G/Alpha/EMPics
Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly established a legacy at Anfield that looks sure to continue in the shrewd hands of current boss Jurgen Klopp who already has made his own mark. Photo: S&G/Alpha/EMPics
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Nigel French/PA

Bill Shankly never believed in admitting to mistakes, not literally at least. To him, fallibility was tantamount to weakness and the evangelist in him could have no truck with that.

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Shankly had the self-awareness all great managers have, an understanding that football people will always choose fantasy over humility or contrition. Supporters want someone with an aura in charge of their dreams. They need to believe the manager sees things that they can't.

Of course, he had a lot more to his game than just clever oratory. Shankly got Liverpool to win when they had no real history of doing that. But the statistics don't fully explain his place in the heart of the city. He won three League titles, yet Bob Paisley won twice that number as well as three European Cups. Shankly was Manager of the Year just once. Paisley? Six times.

Paisley was reticent, plain-speaking, undemonstrative. Statistically the greatest manager in Liverpool's history, he left the entertainment to his team.

There is, as yet, no Paisley statue at Anfield, there are no Paisley Gates, there is no Spirit of Paisley supporters' union. It is always to Shankly that the modern narrative of Liverpool FC returns because his was the personality that, essentially, gave the club identity.

Jurgen Klopp has never given the impression of being pre-occupied with that history. It isn't really his style to name-drop ghosts or defer to their achievements. If Brendan Rodgers felt a need on his appointment as Liverpool manager to broadcast awe of the club's past, Klopp seemed instantly drawn to, as he sometimes puts it, "writing our own story".

In this, it is as if he has followed the Shankly way without being cowed by it.

Klopp seems perfect for Liverpool just now in a way that is largely indefinable. It's not simply because he has guided them to a Europa League final with the possible bonus of Champions League football next season. This story isn't and never can be strictly about football. It is about other things like community spirit, self-respect, humour.

Even in his second language, Klopp seems to effortlessly communicate all of these often diverse energies that can make the game in Liverpool feel, as Shankly put it, more important than life or death.

Two years ago, it being the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, it was maybe too easy to believe that Liverpool's implausible push for the Premier League title might have had a celestial wind at its back. Then Steven Gerrard slipped, laying the essential conceit of that thought brutally bare.

Now that the truth is out and the dead can finally rest in peace, it is perhaps natural to think of the 96 again as having some hand on what fate will deliver in Basel on Wednesday week. But follow that narrative and you risk a conclusion that defeat to Sevilla might, somehow, dishonour their memory.

Folly

Maybe an hour after Liverpool's game with Villarreal ended last Thursday, BT Europe broadcast an interview recorded some days earlier with Klopp.

In it, he talked of the folly of living in the past, of how "maybe for old people" it was nice, but that for young men "in the middle of our life", living in the moment was "the only possibility to get better".

Listening to him speak, the thing that struck most was just how many of his sentences - even in broken English - could almost have been recycled as wall mottoes. More pertinently, nothing sounded rehearsed or contrived. His lyricism of thought was remarkable.

Some samples:

His approach to man-management? "I love human beings, what can I say? I think we are quite a nice species most of the time."

What he looks for in a player? "Character, I think, is never finished in development." The bond with supporters? "We have to respect this and give them the possibility to celebrate with us or to suffer with us. Both is better when you do it together."

He name-checked only a single role model, the late Wolfgang Frank, "a great guy, a good teacher, a strange person, but we all loved him", who twice managed at Mainz, the club that gave Klopp his first job in senior management.

And, of course, much of what he said was punctuated by that booming, beer-hall laugh now so familiar on our TV screens, that default setting of his whenever the questioning grows too solemn or sentimental.

You can see why players play for him. Because nothing about Klopp feels like something taken from a text book.

His management style, plainly, isn't that of a dictator in the way of an Alex Ferguson or Fabio Capello. He seems a small galaxy removed from the egomania of Jose Mourinho too, yet he will never quite embrace the collegiality of a Guus Hiddink either.

On Friday last, someone invited Klopp to pay tribute to the positivity shown by Danny Ings and Joe Gomez despite the cruciate knee injuries that wrecked their seasons. He seemed faintly puzzled by the invitation.

"It's absolutely helpful," he agreed of the players' attitude, "but, to be honest, I'm a really nice guy!" As laughter erupted in the press room, Klopp remained unusually stern. "But if you complain in the wrong moment with the wrong words, that's pretty sure maybe the only possibility to get a real problem with me. "Because it's all about the team. And, as long as you understand this it's brilliant. The other way wouldn't be helpful... especially for the players."

Those last four words communicated a multitude. Klopp likes being liked but he doesn't necessarily need it. He won't trumpet his authority, but neither will he feel a need to retreat from the power it conveys. Ings and Gomez working hard in rehab was hardly a revelatory image given professional footballers' salaries. And Klopp just wasn't of a mind to play that game.

On Thursday night, his team had been everything that Manchester City failed to be 24 hours earlier in Madrid. And the way they went after Villarreal made you wonder what a Klopp team might achieve after a full pre-season on his watch and with some strengthening in key positions.

Lacking

He has never bought into the idea that this Anfield squad might be lacking, but would City, Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United have a place in their starting line-ups for an Alberto Moreno or a 35-year-old Kolo Toure? Would Villarreal?

Even with Pep Guardiola set for Manchester now, with Mauricio Pochettino building something real in North London, even with Mourinho - potentially - headed for Old Trafford and Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge, even with the looming novelty of Leicester City trying to follow up a fairy tale, there is the sense of something quite thrilling building at Anfield.

Guardiola may live up to the hype, or he might just find the crudities of Premier League football an affront to his Catalan sensitivities. Tottenham could grow further or revisit the immaturities shown in West London last Monday night. United, Chelsea or Arsenal? Who can honestly say what's over the horizon?

But Klopp and Liverpool has the frisson of a union that feels like it might last. "He made the people happy" reads the inscription on Shankly's statue.

With his booming, anarchic spirit, Jurgen Klopp looks set to do the same.

Irish Independent

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