Sport Premier League

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'The passion, defiance and resilient humour - there are echoes of Shankly in Klopp philosophy'


Central figure: Jurgen Klopp initially doubted Jordan Henderson’s ability but the midfielder has become a key player in this Liverpool side under the German’s tutelage. Photo: Getty Images
Central figure: Jurgen Klopp initially doubted Jordan Henderson’s ability but the midfielder has become a key player in this Liverpool side under the German’s tutelage. Photo: Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Kevin Ball tells a story of Roy Keane's time as Sunderland manager and a reserve team friendly against non-league opposition in Gateshead.

Sunderland's young side lost 2-0, a lifeless, ambivalent performance infuriating the watching Corkman and, back at the training ground, Keane's temper ricocheted off the walls like pistol fire.

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Stomping around the dressing-room, he asked each player individually if they believed they were good enough to play in his first team.

Suitably cowed, most tossed out murmured, equivocal responses. But when he got to an 18-year-old Jordan Henderson, Keane was met by the flat reply "Yeah, I will!"

The following day, Henderson - as poor as anyone in Gateshead - was included in the first-team squad for a friendly against Ajax. One of three joint-captains of a Sunderland U-18 team at the time that included Ireland's Conor Hourihane, Henderson's resolve - even then - was the quality separating him from his peers.

As Ball saw it, Keane would have admired his gumption and been energised by the opportunity to explore what, if anything, resided underneath.

Opinion, even among Liverpool supporters, tends to be polarised on Henderson today. It's certainly inconceivable that he would ever meet the technical requirements for inclusion in a Pep Guardiola midfield.

Heartbeat

A player whose very gait was questioned by Alex Ferguson in his autobiography; who Brendan Rodgers once tried to replace with Fulham's Clint Dempsey; someone who even Jurgen Klopp initially doubted; Henderson has never been someone to turn a football idealist's head.

Yet he embodies the personality of Klopp's Liverpool like few others, the socialist heartbeat of a team playing for a manager who, in his own words, would "never vote for the right".

Unwittingly or not, there are echoes of Bill Shankly in so much of what Klopp enunciates; in the passion, defiance and resilient humour so emblematic of a multi-cultural, resolutely independent city.

In this, his greatest achievement in four years on Merseyside hasn't, thus, been just to return Liverpool FC to the business end of English and European football, but to do so with Shankly-like charisma.

Football fate takes arbitrary turns even where absurd levels of finance feed a manager's wish list and, in Klopp's case, the new champions of Europe don't so much represent a lavish, expensive construct now as an unyielding philosophy.

Such suggestions, inevitably, draw indignation from City supporters who - not unjustly - interpret a broad media bias towards Liverpool in what again looks a two-horse race for the Premier League title.

Ostensibly, that should be a mystery given how Liverpool - albeit starved of success in the Premier League era - have been crowned English champions 18 times compared to City's six.

But if Guardiola's side may reasonably be considered the best, most technically accomplished team perhaps ever to win the title, their story has the feel of a uniquely expensive investment in intelligence, infrastructure and playing personnel too.

One still operating under the shadow, not just of the 'Der Spiegel' allegation that City's finances were built on "a web of lies", but the charge of bodies like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch that the vast City Football Group may, in fact, be a state vehicle for Abu Dhabi's efforts to "sportswash" a tarnished image.

Sheikh Mansour has been seen at only one match in the Etihad since the 2008 takeover, yet an investigation by 'La Gazzetta Dello Sport' last year revealed that City spent more on transfer fees in their time under Abu Dhabi ownership than any other European club, stretching £600 million past Liverpool's outlay in the same period.

True, Klopp hasn't exactly been shy in the market himself. He signed the world's most expensive goalkeeper and defender in pursuit of City, albeit the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona essentially paid for both Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk.

Under Fenway's ownership, Liverpool have become consistently the highest payers in England to players' agents, reluctantly concluding that to be the safest - and most cost-efficient - way to secure their targets.

And yet, three members of Klopp's preferred starting defence - Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip and Andrew Robertson - cost a combined £8.5m. Midfielder Fabinho was twice offered to Manchester United who chose to sign Fred instead. And none of Klopp's celebrated front three were exactly coveted by other European giants before exploding into life at Liverpool.

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Trent Alexander-Arnold in action against City

Rodgers, after all, preferred Christian Benteke to Bobby Firmino; Mo Salah cost a little over half of what Guardiola paid Leicester for Riyad Mahrez and even Klopp himself equivocated when presented with the opportunity to bring Sadio Mane to Dortmund in 2014.

As such, the unspooling Liverpool story feels neither sanitised nor, as some journalists described City's march to a unique domestic treble last season, "inevitable".

And, if large swathes of empty seats can be seen at the Etihad towards the end of even tight Premier League games, the experience at Anfield - where City have not won since 2003 - retains a convulsive, elemental feel.

Asked on Spanish TV to explain Barcelona's extraordinary Champions League semi-final collapse to Klopp's team last May, Guardiola candidly observed: "The motto 'This is Anfield' is no marketing spin. There's something about it that you will find in no other stadium in the world.

"They score a goal and over the next five minutes you feel that you'll concede another four. You feel small and the rival players seem to be all over you.

"We've all gone through what happened to Barca. They were laughing at me when we were losing 3-0 after the first 15-20 minutes of the (2018 Champions League) quarter-final.

"It's a bugger of a ground."

Klopp, undeniably, has accentuated the sense of Anfield as a restored fortress, doing so by demanding an intensity from even his most creative players that means no visiting team gets either time on the ball or space to consider more than a single option.

If some of Liverpool's football is mesmeric, technical beauty is less important to him than it seems to be to Guardiola. As Simon Hughes reveals in the terrific 'Allez, Allez, Allez: The Inside Story of the Resurgence of Liverpool FC, Champions of Europe 2019', Klopp's message to his players before the Champions League final against Tottenham was a stark: "We make this as horrible for them as it can be. They won't recognise us."

Maybe nobody answers that kind of call more consistently or urgently than Henderson, his captain, who - as Hughes points out - was suspended for the last three games of the 2013/14 Premier League season, the games that gave City the title.

Had Brendan Rodgers delivered Liverpool to the mountain top back then, chances are that Klopp would never have made it to Merseyside. An almost unthinkable scenario today given how perfectly club and manager seem to complement one another emotionally.

Above all, Klopp is palpably at ease with the scale of the job and the intensity of a support base inclined to place inordinate weight on their manager's words.

If Rodgers did a fine job coaching that near-miss Liverpool of Suarez-Sturridge-Sterling, he always came across a little dry-mouthed and anxious at press conferences, endlessly prefacing his sentences with the expression 'As I said...' even when he hadn't.

Klopp's personality is bigger, bolder, stronger.

Natural

Yesterday, he would have known a question was coming about Sean Cox's return to Anfield tomorrow for the first time since that devastating, unprovoked attack outside the ground by Roma supporters in April 2018 left him so seriously injured. Yet his reply sounded natural and heartfelt.

"When it happened to Sean, it was probably really the lowest point for me in my whole time at Liverpool," he said. "Because something like this should not happen in general, in life. But it happened around a football game. The love that Sean and his family has for this club and for football... I hope that it gave them all the strength and power in the recovery time.

"We all know it's not finished, we all know there's a long way to go. But that we can give them the opportunity to come back to watch a really big game, that he wants to do that, that's for me....coming from a really low point....is one of my highlights since I'm here.

"And I'm really looking forward to it and I hope we can organise that I can see him for a couple of minutes before the game. I really want to. Because how the Liverpool community dealt with it, I hope that he feels that we don't only sing you'll never walk alone, we live that."

For the game itself, offering the extraordinary promise of a nine-point lead should Liverpool win, Klopp spoke about the "absolute imperative of bravery" from his team tomorrow, insisting that, without it, there was "no chance" against City "not even for a point".

And this son of Germany's Black Forest sounded like someone who believed implicitly that his players would summon it.

  • Liverpool v Manchester City, Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports, 4.30

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