The dead never leave us, life would make little sense if they did.
Jurgen Klopp’s tears on Sky Sports last Thursday night were a reminder of this, a reaffirmation that his stamp on this Liverpool story is as much one of emotional intelligence as technical or tactical insight.
His tears communicated understanding of how the power of our present only comes from awareness of the past.
Klopp reminds us that the ultimate deafness is to see sport simply as a numbers game. As he himself once put it, “If you are only happy when you are champion, it is a poor life!”
He is cool. He is wild. He is flippant. He is crestfallen. He's a snarling drill sergeant one moment, a kid stealing from an orchard the next. He is God-like. He is human.
Above all, he is someone of little self-importance. A man with the humility to think about the consequence of words.
Remember that video he sent to a terminally-ill Liverpool supporter just an hour before leaving for Madrid and last year’s Champions League final?
“You are really with us,” Klopp told Dave Evans.
“This season or three and a half years since I am in, we share these experiences. That makes us actually friends.”
But how on earth do you then end a message to somebody who knows they have only days left?
Klopp did so in the most breathtakingly beautiful way.
“I wish you from the bottom of my heart all the best,” he said. “And I’m Christian, so see you.”
Evans died one month later.
With Liverpool as champions again, the natural thing is to think back to a life of 30 years ago, to the people in it and the assumptions we all made.
To parents still alive, children as yet unborn.
And the truth is we didn’t know what we were living through. It’s often struck me that Gerry Marsden first sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ more than a quarter of a century before Hillsborough, yet the song seems an eternal anthem now to the lost 96. The words reach out to them. Honour them. Immortalise them.
It’s a sound that stings the eyes now. One that always will.
How Liverpool won the title in 1990 will forever be a mystery to those who were a part of it. Offered counselling after the horrors witnessed in Sheffield, most of the players rejected it. And, once the dead were buried, they played eight games in a 23-day pocket, the last of which was that famous Anfield loss to Arsenal.
Michael Thomas’ goal with just 38 seconds remaining took the League crown south to Highbury, drawing the starkest of lines under Liverpool’s season. The squad duly dispersed for summer, most of them broken and emotionally lost.
Steve Nicol tells a story from the following September, five months after Hillsborough. The night before a League game against Derby County at the Baseball Ground, he went to see Kenny Dalglish in his hotel toom with a confession.
Nicol told the manager he’d been drinking too much, struggling for focus. That he felt as if the grief of the families was still on his skin. The memory of sitting at tables in the old Candy Lounge, talking to people who’d lost loved ones. Of going to the funerals. Of being pall-bearer in a traumatised world. Of bursting out crying without warning.
He expected Dalglish to deliver a pep talk, but all he got was an exhausted shrug.
You see, everything Nicol described was everything that Dalglish himself was now going through too. “The real Kenny would have told me off,” he suggests in his autobiography. “Told me to stop drinking. Told me to get my arse in gear. But this version of Kenny didn’t say that.
“Instead I got something like this: ‘Look, you’re doing fine. You might not be at your best, but you know what you need to do to sort yourself out.’
“At the time, I was shocked at his response. But now it makes sense. He was in the same boat as me. He just couldn’t let it go either.”
Nicol’s view is that counselling should have been compulsory for the players after Hillsborough. Instead, they just struggled along on auto-pilot, playing football on muscle-memory almost. Winning games they had no right to win.
Liverpool secured their 18th title by a nine-point margin in the end, but they did so as human shells.
And, for Dalglish, the human toll only became obvious when he stepped down in February of ’91. He’d won everything there was to win as a Liverpool manager, but it was through his care for the grief-stricken of Hillsborough that he won the love of the city.
A care that, in time, emptied him.
Hence Klopp’s observation to Dalglish on Thursday night “This is for you Kenny!”. Under Fenway’s ownership, the Scot has both had an Anfield stand named after him and been sacked in his second coming as manager. His experience, thus, captures two sides of the modern Liverpool. A club in which nostalgia and business harmoniously co-exist.
One holding true in other words to the same fundamental values of Peter Robinson, the old club secretary who calmly rang down to the Anfield kitchen that night of the Michael Thomas goal to have the post-match champagne re-directed to the visitors’ changing-room.
It’s true, Thursday didn’t maybe carry the tumult we’d long imagined it would.
There was no “Agueeeerrrooo!” epoch, no singular moment of rapture to send massed emotions into orbit. Ultimately, the 30-year famine gave way in steady increments, washed into history across the shingle of Liverpool’s relentlessness.
Klopp’s team was already unreachable by the time pandemic hit. And yet, until Willian’s late penalty, the arithmetic was inconclusive. The three-month silence had been agonising in the uncertainty it spawned, the fun it poked. For a time, there seemed even the possibility of a null and void verdict.
When 97 points wasn’t enough to dethrone Manchester City last season, a suspicion grew that nothing less than a concentration of naval and air firepower could get Klopp’s team over the line. Some even wondered if the heartbreak of that near-miss could metasticise into fatalism.
City, after all, won 13 games in a row to win that title, their consistency seemingly untouchable.
So how did Klopp make Liverpool so much better this season?
Some will scoff at any link between football millionaires and socialism, but – if so - they’ve just not been paying attention here. Socialism is fundamentally a spirit, a belief in humility and equality. Klopp’s Liverpool works harder than any other team in football because no player considers that work beneath them.
In this, he relates to the energy of the city, its history, its scars, its hatreds.
It’s clear that he has educated himself on Thatcher and Toryism and chancellor Geoffrey Howe’s programme of ‘managed decline’, a programme responsible for the commercial death of the city and its docks in the 80s. You suspect he knows the story too of Winston Churchill once sending gun-boats up the Mersey.
When Klopp speaks about British politics today, he speaks with that knowledge. With an understanding that, deep down, Liverpool considers itself neither English nor tameable in its deep, deep sense of independence.
Football has made him wealthy, yet – on principle - he does not have private health insurance.
Maybe the trite thing is to say that he is Shankly re-incarnate, but the charisma is so natural and un-forced, comparison becomes inevitable. Even opposition supporters seem drawn to Klopp’s communication skills. The sense of a man of authentic grace and humanity.
And he seems genuinely beguiled into the Liverpool faith now.
“When did you ever hear a better message than you’ll never walk alone?” he asks in a celebration video doing the rounds since Thursday. “It’s the most beautiful song in the world. In the darkest moments, you are not alone. I love that!”
Listening, Klopp’s greatest gift is obvious.
He makes people better. In this seething era of avarice, he has built a dressing-room rooted in decency, relentless application and humility. The statistics of the last four years show Klopp’s Liverpool committing the fewest fouls of any team in the Premier League. Yet they are the most prolific tacklers too.
Their captain, Jordan Henderson – the first major summer signing of the Fenway era – carries himself with less ego than a road-sweeper. The superstars of the team – the Van Dijks, Manes, Salahs and Firminos – work furiously for the collective.
Klopp himself was courted by Manchester United before answering the Liverpool call, but rejected what he considered Old Trafford’s ‘Hollywood’ presentation. Everything about his football life is rooted in realism and trust in the collective.
He was just 23 when Liverpool were last champions and, on his own admission, not thinking too much about anything happening on Merseyside.
Yet, his care for that past ennobles Klopp now. His recognition that he manages an institution more than a football club here. One that will forever more have grief in its soul, no matter the silverware accumulated.
Thus, even in glory, the parting words of the BBC’s Peter Jones from Hillsborough that awful day 31 years ago carry a lasting, haunting resonance.
“And the sun shines now….”