Saturday 3 December 2016

Can Liverpool fans bear the burden of hope once more?

Tommy Conlon

Published 06/12/2015 | 11:00

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard on his knees after his slip allowed Chelsea to s;core
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard on his knees after his slip allowed Chelsea to s;core
Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool celebrats victory after during the Capital One Cup quarter final match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on December 2, 2015 in Southampton, England.

It might be perilously premature to even float the subject at this stage but, after their comprehensive thrashing of Southampton on Wednesday, there's no avoiding it now.

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Whisper it if you will, but Liverpool FC and the title are being mentioned in the same breath again.

The question is not whether the squad and management can do it, for this indeed is fatefully premature talk. Rather it is whether the red half of the city, and Liverpool's vast adoring Ummah worldwide, can actually bear once more the burden of hope. Because there must be some concern, at least among the loved ones of said adoring fans, about whether they are ready to face the emotional ordeal that may well be imminent.

After all, it is only 19 months since their dreams were brutally pulverised on the very day they were supposed to morph into Elysian reality. Their hands were on the trophy that Sunday afternoon in late April 2014, that harrowing day when Steven Gerrard slipped and darkness fell on Anfield.

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The pathos and pain of that day are now seared forever into the club's distinguished annals. The supporters have been binding up their wounds ever since. Luis Suarez and his goalscoring genius departed for Barcelona that summer and they knew in their hearts that this latest title crusade was over. The anti-climax of 2014-'15 was inevitable.

Truth be told, they needed that season in the doldrums. Another close-run failure would have been too much to take. Resignation set in early last season but at least they could relax into the comfort zone that comes with low expectations. Another rollercoaster ride would only have compounded the misery.

Two months ago Brendan Rodgers was sacked. He now joins that melancholy list of pretenders who sensed the hand of history when they took over at Anfield, only to find that ultimately the shoe did not fit. It reads like a roll call of the damned, all those managers who inherited the hallowed mantle, tasked with ending what has since become the great hunger: Souness, Evans, Houllier, Benitez, Hodgson, Dalglish and Rodgers.

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They all strove mightily to bridge the gap back to 1990. So why then should Jurgen Klopp be the chosen one? Who's to say that he will end up any different to his predecessors? Well, Klopp for one is adamantly refusing to say it. And any Liverpool supporter with an ounce of cop-on knows it is absurdly early to be even putting the thought into a sentence.

Ah, but here's the rub: the thought is there now. Even if they are scared to death of raising their hopes again, the pernicious thought is worming its way through their defences. It is the thought that dare not speak its name but it is there; it is taking root again; it is starting to germinate.

Maybe. You never know. Early doors but . . . they're not looking too bad. Nah, don't be daft. Forget about it. Not a chance. Then again . . . maybe . . . you never know.

The 6-1 battering of Southampton away from home in the Carling Cup was a statement of intent that cannot be denied. Three points against Newcastle today will leave them within striking distance in a championship that is wide open. So, you know, why not?

"Are you crazy?!" retorted Klopp, when quizzed about Liverpool's title chances after they'd beaten the champions 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on October 31. It was just the German's fifth match in charge. "I'd prefer not to have understood that question. I've been here three weeks and you think, after one win at Chelsea, we should think like this?"

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But maybe, just maybe, the time is now. Reports from Germany say that Klopp is much more than a one-dimensional manager. But they also say that his outstanding characteristic is the sheer scale of his personality: his charisma and emotional intelligence; his powers of oratory; his winning sense of humour; his ability to motivate players and to inspire an entire fan base.

In a profile of Klopp, the German football writer Raphael Honigstein quoted a television producer who'd hired him as pundit. "We realised," said Jan Doehling, "that this guy knows how to put his point across and to mesmerise people. If he had started a political party, they would have voted him into government immediately." Klopp led Borussia Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012. His aim when working with players, he once lyrically explained, is to get their "synapses to glow". And reflecting his own intense energy levels, his teams play with high-octane zeal. He demands industrial levels of stamina and pace in order to play his brand of "hunting football".

But this kind of personalised management by inspiration can have a short enough shelf life. Klopp is still in the proverbial honeymoon period at the club. He hasn't been tested at all in the transfer market. And as Liverpool FC's great post-war patriarch Bill Shankly often pointed out, the most important quality of any manager is "the natural ability to pick a player".

But right now team and manager are surfing a wave. Who knows how big the wave will become. There are many Liverpool fans who are wary about getting wet again, for fear they might end up drowning again. The way things are going, however, they might have no choice but to get back in the water.

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