Vincent Hogan: 'Not since Bill Shankly have Liverpool had a manager of such charisma'
Kop boss has a personality big enough to cope with club’s desperate wait to become kings again as a tipping point looms between two great rivals
Jurgen Klopp knew the Paul Pogba question was coming, packed tight with a thousand subtle trip-wires.
How would he meet it?
The football media's palpable fondness for him could be explained in the minute or so that followed. In essence, Klopp turned the question around, wondering with a grin if any of them had asked Jose Mourinho what he thought of Gini Wijnaldum?
"I am 100pc sure not!" he said, describing Pogba simply as "a world class player".
Asked next if Pogba was someone he'd like to manage "given the opportunity", the absurdity of this pursuit was already traceable in a soundtrack of spluttering laughter. "You know better than I what happens if I give an answer to that question," he said, frivolity engulfing the room. "So no answer to that question.
"If you make a story with that, cool! Klopp denies an answer!"
He understands the media game and bears journalists no hostility for playing it. So it isn't that they end up asking gentler questions of the Liverpool manager, more that those questions are met with charming disregard. With a levity that decommissions any possible tension.
Not since Bill Shankly have Liverpool had a manager of such charisma, a quality that - clearly - has won the faith of the people. All Klopp needs to do next is win silverware.
His team leads the Premier League after the best top-flight start in Liverpool's history and a win tomorrow would stretch the gap between them and Mourinho's men to a scarcely believable 19 points. Yet, they remain relative long-shots (14/5) to end that 29-year title famine, so Klopp knows he and his men have plenty still to do to reset the balance in a North West rivalry that has seen United win 13 Premier League crowns since Liverpool last won the old First Division in 1990.
That said, it feels as if something compelling is unspooling at Anfield.
They have owners who keep promises and, in Klopp, a manager who seldom looks stressed or over-stretched by a job that has traumatised so many predecessors. His personality electrifies Liverpool at a time Mourinho's seems programmed only to find fault with his surrounds.
So, if a new tipping point looms in the modern Liverpool-United relationship, perhaps tomorrow will be the trigger. Then again, Mourinho might just get a bounce out of supposedly disgruntled players and leave Anfield minds crowded with old ghosts here. Klopp's team is demonstrably better, but will that be enough?
Maybe the most galling thread to Liverpool's modern relationship with United has been a sense that so much of it was dusted with self-harm.
As television money came flooding into the game through the early 90s, United were innovative in their brand management, aggressively exploring the commercial possibilities of a Far East market that, to directors at Anfield, might as well have been a suburb of Mars.
The old 'Boot Room' philosophy was still holding sway with Liverpool, that simple idea of success on the field being the one and only imperative.
It took a long time for Liverpool to adjust to football's new reality; to the link between profit and success. In Simon Hughes's wonderful 'Men in White Suits', John Scales describes Liverpool as a club "caught in a time-warp" when he joined them from Wimbledon in September of '94.
A club still beating to a socialist pulse, one that - effectively - ended up blind-sided by the professional game's changing DNA.
"The whole approach at United was more professional from top to bottom," he tells Hughes. "Old Trafford was set up for the 21st century and was forward thinking. Liverpool looked to the past for all the answers, but did not apply those principles to what was happening in the present. Melwood was undeveloped.
"The only official merchandising at Anfield was sold from a little shop in the corner of the car-park. Whenever the team bus rolled into Old Trafford, there was a megastore and thousands of fans queuing up to buy shirts."
In the same book, Patrik Berger - a recruit from Borussia Dortmund two years later - recalls his surprise at the lack of sophistication at Liverpool, specifically what he calls the "very basic" nature of training facilities at Melwood.
"I was a little bit shocked Liverpool should have it like this," he says. "Everything was old. The only thing that was up to date was the grass, which they cut every day."
The club back then was hopelessly inward-looking, guarded, conservative. Just when it needed a fresh business model, it seemed to become an institution trapped by its own history. After the glories of Bill Shankly (11 trophies), Bob Paisley (19), Joe Fagan (3) and Kenny Dalglish (9), Liverpool accumulated just two between 1991 and 2001.
A decade in which United, under Alex Ferguson, began to stockpile.
It's maybe forgotten too that only the biggest games were all-ticket at the time. During Graeme Souness's first season as Liverpool manager, Anfield was little more than half-full for some fixtures. In fact, the day Robbie Fowler scored all five goals in a League Cup trouncing of Fulham, the Anfield attendance was a deathly 12,541.
It had taken the board three months to make Souness their permanent replacement for Dalglish, who'd stepped down in February of '91, palpably exhausted - physically and emotionally - by the aftermath to the Hillsborough disaster. And, within a month of Souness's appointment, United were lifting the European Cup Winners Cup in Rotterdam.
The balance of the rivalry had tilted in a direction that hasn't since been compellingly challenged.
Liverpool would have decent sides through the next decade, maybe most notably under Roy Evans in '96 and '97. But they became all but defined by those white, Miami Vice suits worn before the '96 FA Cup final against, of course, United. A final they lost to a goal scored by Eric Cantona, a player recommended to Liverpool by Michel Platini during Souness's time in charge.
United's goalkeeper that day, Peter Schmeichel - who would win 15 trophies under Ferguson - had written to Liverpool while Souness was manager, offering to pay his own expenses if the club he'd supported "all my life" granted him a week's trial. They didn't.
In terms of talent, the Liverpool team of 96/'97 wasn't far off United's, but their failure to win trophies earned them that 'Spice Boy' moniker and a reputation for fecklessness and careless social habits.
That 1996 Fa Cup final was, perhaps, a sliding doors moment in the North West rivalry then.
It turned history on its head, Liverpool now branded a team lacking the sobriety and self-discipline of their Lancashire neighbours, the very accusation tossed towards United a decade earlier. How much of it was real and how much imagined? In both instances, exaggeration probably skewed the truth.
Yet, in Paul McGrath's book, 'Back from the Brink', Frank Stapleton expresses disdain for the suggestion that Liverpool's players under, say, Paisley or Dalglish drank as enthusiastically as United's under Ron Atkinson.
"Everyone keeps talking about Liverpool being just as bad for drink and I don't really believe it," Stapleton told this writer in '96.
"I mean I'm sure they had drinkers, but I don't think they went on huge binges. Just go through the individuals.
"You didn't see Hansen out. You didn't see Lawrenson on a binge. Dalglish didn't drink. Souness liked a glass of champagne, but he was a dedicated footballer. You're talking about the mainstay of their team there. Binge drinkers? I don't think so."
Stapleton's view was that, in players like Ray Wilkins, Bryan Robson, Remi Moses, Steve Coppell, Norman Whiteside and McGrath, United had men who "should have won the League".
That they didn't was largely down to a Liverpool team programmed, it seemed, to win relentlessly. A decade later, that had become United's profile, their Mersey neighbours left floundering against a depiction of almost casual dysfunction.
Jamie Redknapp's view, simplistic perhaps, is that Liverpool might have been propelled into a period of new dominance had they beaten United in that '96 final. Instead, they became the butt of ridicule.
Ferguson had begun the process of graduating the famous (FA Youth Cup winning) class of '92 to senior status at Old Trafford, players like the Neville brothers, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes getting their first taste of major glory.
United boys, in other words, grew to men that day. And Liverpool?
"We needed that experience of beating one of our rivals to a trophy," Redknapp tells Hughes. "But it never happened. It's a frustration of mine even talking about it now. It makes me angry. We were close."
So much of the modern history of Liverpool and United can be condensed then into how they saw (and see) one another. The season Ferguson guided United to their first League title in 26 years, Liverpool finished an impoverished sixth whilst slumping to early exits from all cup competitions.
A deep-set Anfield tradition of always making managerial appointments from within (or in Souness's case, from someone with a glorious Liverpool past), only ended in July '98 when Gerard Houllier became the club's first foreign manager. The legendary 'Boot Room' from which Shankly, Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans had emerged was long gone now, demolished to make room for a bigger media work-room.
Houllier would change a lot at Liverpool, yet his football was seen as functional, safe and over-structured. Even winning a Cup treble in '01 (League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup), indeed beating United in the Charity Shield that August too, couldn't quite seduce the supporters.
Rafa Benitez, his successor, encountered much the same stone in his shoe. Liverpool supporters wanted the League above any other trophy (including the Champions League won so improbably in Benitez's first season). They still do today.
Benitez and Brendan Rodgers both came close and now Klopp inspires enormous hope in the Anfield faithful at a time when United's lack of a post-Ferguson plan looks more calamitous by the day. In Mourinho, they have a manager endlessly hostile to the financial reticence of his board now.
Someone inclined to sullenly lament that reticence rather than address mounting evidence that players, especially young players, cease to develop in his care.
Across Manchester, Pep Guardiola justifies exorbitant spending by making footballers better.
And down the M62, Klopp's work with the likes of Trent Alexander Arnold and Joe Gomez has been a model of patience and nurture, an essay in human care as distinct from the suspicion of what life at Old Trafford has become for the likes of Pogba, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
For all that, Mourinho's record at Anfield will surely concentrate Liverpool minds now.
His charmless gloating after the Chelsea victory in 2014 that, effectively, killed Rodgers's chances of ending Liverpool's title drought left a bad taste, given the result was of real benefit only to Manchester City. And when Klopp was invited to express frustration yesterday at the dearth of ambition shown by Mourinho's United in sucessive scoreless draws at Anfield, he did what he does better than anybody in football.
In other words, he returned the focus to Liverpool, specifically to their failure to score against Louis van Gaal's United at Anfield too, losing to a Wayne Rooney goal in January 2016.
"So it's time!" he boomed, instantly neutralising any semblance of solemnity with that familiar chainsaw laugh.
Three years into his Anfield reign, Klopp has yet to win a trophy, whilst Mourinho - seven months fewer in Manchester - has claimed both a Europa League and League Cup.
Yet the German, somehow, still feels custom-made for Liverpool. Clear-eyed, passionate, tactically aware, humorous, self-deprecating, human.
A big enough personality to live and even thrive in an environment of often wild hope rippling on the edge of desperation. That won't last forever, he knows that.
But, for now, it feels as if Liverpool have just the manager they need.