A TWELFTH European Final for Liverpool FC. And it’s been a right laugh along the way; well at least since the draw paired us with Manchester United in the last 16.
The word that keeps springing to my mind this fine Friday is enjoyment. Perhaps the cheaper currency of the Europa League has allowed the home crowd to rediscover its love for the team in less critical circumstances, but there’s no doubt that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool is firing the passions of match-going Liverpudlians.
Witness the scenes inside and on the approaches to the stadium. Smoke and banners everywhere; lads hanging off scaffolding welcoming the team bus; pubs teeming with people, everyone having a good time. Even Mark Lawrenson has been heard to say he’s enjoyed it.
It’s reminiscent of 2014, but it’s a far cry from the sniping and odour of Brendan Rodgers dying Anfield days. We have Klopp to thank for that, a man who has connected with people so easily through an obvious love of the game that identifies him as closer to supporter than coach.
Klopp is the Anfield rabble-rouser who has stirred the Kop from its slumber. In a more refined sense though, he’s the also the Simon Rattle of the dressing room; conducting a harmony on the field that makes watching this hotchpotch Liverpool, at least in Europe, a pleasure.
Strangely, a move away from The Kop for the Europa ties has reinvigorated my own love of the going to the match. The Kop itself has offered a superb visual backdrop, while keeping a beat in tune with the vigour of Liverpool’s football. It has been more thrash metal than samba, but that is to decry the quality required to dismiss United, Dortmund and now Villarreal.
I’ve watched on from the Kemlyn with my mate, Chris Maguire. We’ve acted like a pair of kids, up and down from our seats like yoyos, sharing and swapping whiskey miniatures and toffee liquors, scoffing at UEFA’s “dry ground”. We’ve roared our heads off and been a nightmare for the stewards. We were probably a bit over the top in the final throes of the Dortmund match, which for last night’s game necessitated a tactical move upstairs to the Upper Centenary. We would need to behave better up there, especially if we bumped into Martin Fitzgerald and his Helen.
Along this jolly little road to Basel, I’ve stopped short of wearing half ‘n’ half scarves and preferred the hostility of United to the pre-match sickliness of Dortmund, but I’ve also happily fallen into the tourist trap and taken pictures. Yes, got my phone out and taken pictures of the Kop, snapped Pyro billowing from the stands and photographed Liverpool players celebrating. I’ve just been enjoying myself.
While I sat for years in the lower section on the Kemlyn Road side of the ground, the Upper Centenary is unfamiliar territory. Last night, as we squeezed out a quick “Geoff Hurst” before kick-off, we spotted — on the brick concourse wall — a mural and row of red seats which allow you to sit with Joe Fagan’s European Cup Winners of 1984. You plonk yourself down, obscure Smokin’ Joe, and — hey presto — you’re the manager of Liverpool, parked between those wasters, Messrs Dalglish and Souness.
Giddy from some rapid post-work Peroni drinking in the hour before, Chris and I had our pictures taken; laughing like a pair of knobheads. Two old fellas managing Liverpool, not just in the same season, but on the same night. A bit like Evans and Houllier; although still friends.
Later though, looking back on the pictures while eating chips and drinking the last glass of wine in my fridge, I decided that I’m Rodgers (small and looking shifty) while Maguire, larger than life, beaming, and exuding personality is Klopp. I’m probably doing myself a disservice here, but you can see where this is going.
As my mate says when he’s about to say or do something daft, “It’s only a laugh.” Rodgers had stopped laughing. We had stopped laughing (except at the previous incarnation of Dejan Lovren) but Kloppo has taught us to smile again. He plays Kolo Toure, so he must be up for a giggle. From our elevated vantage points last night we spent at least 10 minutes wondering why Kolo’s arse is so fat.
On a more serious note, we marvelled from above at Kolo’s partner; the aforementioned Croat at centre-back a man transformed under the new manager. An absolute proactive, ball-playing colossus has emerged from ashes of the defender formerly known as Dejan Lovren.
One of the more obvious things to change under Klopp is the intensity of Liverpool’s football; ramped up quite a few notches, and tellingly the players’ improved stamina to match. It is embodied in the different personas of Emre Can; last night an absolute Rolls Royce of a player who still chased and harried through 90 minutes, and Adam Lallana, Klopp’s presser-in-chief who now hides his creative light under a bushel but works his southern balls off. Last season, for the most part, they looked like a couple of old women smoking at the bus stop.
It has taken time but Klopp’s influence is now there for all to see. In some ways, given his motivational qualities, it is surprising it took so long and European headway hasn’t been mirrored by better form in the league.
The reality is that you need lads who stretch the play and put the ball in the back of the net — something Klopp was denied in the autumn and New Year. The false nine experiment was mainly forced on us through necessity, even if it had a signature moment at Manchester City, but fit strikers on the pitch are worth their weight in gold. Goals pay the rent, as they say, and Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge — psyched and prepped by Klopp’s mind games — have done their share.
The lamentable thing about the embers of the old regime was that the crowd fell out of love with the players. Labelled farts and fly-by-nights, some good footballers were written off prematurely. Lallana, Can and Lovren to name but three were in that bracket. Klopp was left with richer ingredients than some were prepared to admit but he’s cooking up a much better stew on and off the pitch.
It’s a recipe for success and it’s one to be enjoyed.
And, before I sign off for this week — a message to the curators of Upper Centenary dickheads’ concourse entertainment. It’s a wonder those ’84 lads won a treble with no legs.