When you’ve been thrown under a bus and the wheels are heading towards you, there isn’t a lot of time to think. You act on instinct. Which is what Jurgen Klopp was forced to do at Elland Road on Monday night when he had to face the cameras before the Reds played Leeds.
Less than 24 hours earlier, without Klopp knowing a thing about it, Fenway Sports Group signed Liverpool Football Club up for the proposed breakaway Super League. Despite the inevitable – and completely justified – anger and outrage it sparked, FSG then left Klopp to face questions on live television about a flawed, greed-led, anti-competitive concept that he personally detested and played no part in trying to create.
That’s not so much throwing Jurgen Klopp under a bus as throwing him onto a freeway full of Greyhound buses. At rush hour.
So when Klopp gave his pre-match interview at Leeds, not long after being genuinely shocked by the pitchfork waving, abuse-hurling, shirt-burning reception the team coach received on arrival at Elland Road – which is half what you expect at Leeds away anyway – it was blatantly obvious that he was still trying to get his head around an unfolding crisis.
For me, Klopp handled that difficult interview brilliantly. He made it clear that he was still against Super League – having first said so in an interview two years earlier – despite being put in the impossible situation of having to publicly speak against his employers. He made his point in a calm, measured way when inside he must have been seething.
He was, however, angered by the Leeds players warming up in ‘Champions League – Earn It’ t-shirts and even more so with the fact that someone had laid them out in the Liverpool dressing-room before the Reds arrived. Yes, they were trying to make an anti-Super League point, but directing an ‘Earn It’ message at Liverpool’s manager and players was akin to blaming the car for drink driving.
Marcelo Bielsa, Patrick Bamford, Peter Ridsdale, Chris Moyles and the bloody Kaiser Chiefs had as much to do with Liverpool signing up for Super League as Jurgen Klopp and his players. Zilch.
Jurgen did get something wrong when he expressed his annoyance at Liverpool supporters – essentially Spion Kop 1906 – for announcing they would be removing their banners from the Kop in protest at the Super League plans.
Klopp mistakenly perceived that gesture as support for him, his players and the club, which he distinguishes as different to the owners, being withdrawn by Kopites. And it stung, because he regards the relationship he has built between himself, the team, the club and Liverpool supporters as his biggest achievement here.
For the last 12 months or so, in his mind, the banners on the Kop have been symbolic of that bond – ‘we’re not here, but we’re still here for you’.
I’m preaching to the converted (but you never know who else is reading) when I say that the connection between Liverpool supporters and their manager is different to elsewhere. It’s undoubtedly due to the Shankly effect. Bill Shankly took the power away from the club’s directors and that awoke a slumbering Second Division giant and its success-starved followers.
From 1892 to 1959, the Liverpool board picked the team. They chose which players to sign and sell. They were in charge of everything. The Liverpool ‘manager’ was, in reality, little more than a coach who carried out the board’s wishes.
I believe that’s why the likes of George Kay – who led the Reds to a league title in 1947 and is credited by Bob Paisley as coaching the players to pass the ball on the ground rather than in the air – have never been as revered by Kopites as Shankly and (most of) his successors. It was largely felt that their influence was minimal with the adulation focussed on players like Billy Liddell.
Liverpudlians saw the glory that Shankly brought to Anfield while at the same time harnessing their own passion and desire to improve the team’s chances in home games. They realised it was not only a model for success, but the most enjoyable way to achieve it. They felt part of collective achievements – promotion in 1962, champions in 1964 and FA Cup winners in 1965 – and ever since the Liverpool manager has been viewed by Kopites (or should I say legacy fans?) as the club’s only figurehead, no matter who owns it or runs the administrative side.
Klopp has massively bought into that. He’s the Shankly of a new generation. Not only does he have the charisma to inspire players and the managerial ability to bring success, he also gets us. He understands the mentality of Liverpool supporters plus the unique, quirky nature of the city, making him unquestionably the right man at the right time to manage our club.
That said, there can still be misunderstandings. When he heard about the prospect of those Kop banners being removed – banners that he stood amongst when Jordan Henderson lifted the Premier League trophy – his instinct was that the club as a whole, himself and his players included, were under attack from the inside as well as elsewhere.
Having now had time to understand what the true motivation was for that gesture by Spion Kop 1906, i.e. to tell Fenway Sports Group that your biggest asset can also become your biggest problem if you do the wrong thing, Klopp has used his notes in the Official Liverpool vs. Newcastle Matchday Programme to apologise.
Before reading what he says, it is important to remember that Klopp – and Jordan Henderson – use their programme notes to set their own agendas and speak directly to every Liverpool supporter.
Unlike every other time you see Klopp speak, his programme notes don’t come from an interview or in response to questions. He chooses the subject matters so when it includes an apology that he has not been asked for, you know it is reflective and heartfelt.
“When I found out that the flags were being removed from the Kop in protest it hurt me and I reacted in a way I wish I hadn’t. Of all the things that we have achieved at Liverpool I would argue that the bond between this team and our fans is arguably the most important because without it none of the success we have enjoyed would have been possible.
“So seeing a division appear was very difficult for me to accept. I now better understand the reasons why the supporters groups felt it necessary and I respect them but I would hope that we are never in this kind of situation again. They are always the solution and never the problem.
“It is always up to you to decide the ways in which you do or don’t support us, but I also hope you see it as a compliment that even in an empty stadium the flags and banners – that you bring – mean so much to us. This is why I am so happy that they will be there again today. Thank you and sorry if my clumsy words caused you hurt.”
He’s easily forgiven. He was scrambling out from beneath the bus he’d been thrown under at the time. Perhaps if those who threw Jurgen Klopp under it had spoken to him in the first place this whole sorry saga could have been avoided, but then some people don’t ask questions when they already know they won’t like the answer.
* Chris McLoughlin is Senior Writer for Reach Sport, publishers of the Liverpool FC Matchday Programme. You can order a copy of the Liverpool v Newcastle programme or subscribe here.