IT exists to win trophies.
A bastion of invincibility, the league its bread and butter.
A holy trinity made up of the players, the manager and the supporters.
Directors? They don’t come into it.
We’re part of a family. People who can hold our heads up high and say, ‘We’re Liverpool’.
Words and phrases engrained into your being. Repeated over and over. Handed down through the generations. Sown through the thousands of words spoken and written about Liverpool Football Club every year.
They are words, phrases, ideas and ideals about the club we love that came from a man appointed as the ninth manager of Liverpool FC 57 years ago. And yet words that continue to resonate, a story we continue to tell.
Bill Shankly’s words painted a picture, created an identity and set standards that were carried through the decades by those that worked with him. It is why the Liverpool bootroom is talked about to this day, it is why we talk of ‘The Liverpool Way’ and it is why the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign that Shankly insisted was put up remains a part of the ground.
Too often in recent times, though, that story, the Liverpool story — the story of greatness and domination, of a relentless, driven, institution with commonsense and commitment at its core, felt like it should begin like those best read by a red-hot fire on a cold winter’s night:
“Once upon a time, there was a football club…”
Since Liverpool’s last league title — then the 10th won in 15 seasons — was sealed with an Anfield victory over Queens Park Rangers on April 28, 1990, there have been good times. Great times. Times that hundreds of thousands of supporters of other clubs the world over would jump at the chance to experience.
For all the wider tales to tell about their respective reigns, Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez and Kenny Dalglish in his second spell all brought silverware home to the club including, of course, the European Cup in 2005.
Liverpool remain one of only 22 clubs to win that trophy since its inception in 1955.
Yet none of those managers could spark sustainable dominance built on the solid foundation of a title. Over an over the question has been asked: is this a club keeping pace with all around it, on and off the field? We’ve wanted it and willed it but it hasn’t happened. Four second-placed finishes, the last in 2014, are the best Liverpool has achieved league-wise in 26 years.
In that time the managerial baton has passed 10 times — from Dalglish to Souness (via a brief caretaker role for Ronnie Moran), from Souness to Evans, to the joint manager farce with Houllier, to Houllier in sole charge, to Benitez, to Roy Hodgson, to Dalglish to Rodgers to Klopp.
Tellingly, every time Liverpool have come close to winning the league, they have fell away the following year: from second (1991) to sixth (1992); from second (2002) to fifth (2003); from second (2009) to seventh (2010) and from second (2014) to sixth (2015).
Throw in owners that pushed the club towards a financial precipice, a talent drain, internal politics, failed takeovers and the stadium development v stadium move epic and it left the traditional story tattered and torn. Words that once meant so much were thrown back at us. “If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.”
Consistent underachievement left the club open to accusations of being yesterday’s big boys.
Without a new chapter to celebrate, old ones have grown tired. Even now, the reality of no silverware in four years — and only two pieces of silverware in a decade — is a stark one.
Change was needed and change was made. A bold statement was required and in recruiting Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool made one.
Since his appointment in October 2015, Klopp has set about telling his own stories. It’s central to his approach.
From the moment he first stepped out in front of the cameras for his first press conference, Klopp’s charisma, confidence and single-mindedness shone through.
There was also a clear vision from day one — bullet points for the prose to be written, over and over, in future.
“Doubters to believers” — check.
“Full-throttle football” — check.
And the baggage of the title-drought? The mistakes of the past? The pressure, the hunger, the mental scars?
“It’s very important not to be weighed down by history,” Klopp said then. “Let’s not always compare with other times. This is a great club with good potential with players who are flexible.
“Let’s try to start a new way. Now everything is diferent. Here is a German guy, for the first time. I want to listen. I go to Melwood and I look at what works and what doesn’t work. And then we start to play very emotional football.”
Klopp continues to ask for his story to be judged on its own merits.
Just this week he said: “It’s a really good moment and I know that everybody compares with the past, especially at Liverpool. Three years ago, 10, five, 25 years ago – but this team is new, we are new. Our story started a few months ago so you cannot compare us with anyone else.”
“You cannot carry the history on our backs, we should feel free for creating something in the near future. If everybody wants to say ‘We wait now for 20-something years for silverware’ or whatever, we can say ‘Okay, we (have) tried, actually, only since a year’.”
He’s right. And the reasons for his message are clear. He is managing minds and relieving the pressure.
But everything — up to and including the dressing of Melwood and Anfield with quotes, pictures and memorabilia from past triumphs — means he will be more than aware of Liverpool’s history, as will the players who pull on the shirt. Their focus, however, will be firmly in the present. Klopp’s key messages for the squad are clear: togetherness, discipline and hard work. While much of the media focus will be short term — who is in the first 11 (and who isn’t) — it would come as no surprise if Klopp is emphasising the importance of the squad away from the microphones and lenses.
“The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.”
For supporters? The past chapters remain for us more than anyone. We aren’t passing through Liverpool. We can’t pick up another story of another club and become part of that. This is our club and our story. We’re rightly romantic about it. If we see parallels – signposts of behaviour that ape past methods that led to success — then it will become exciting and comparisons will be made. It’s human nature.
When Bill Shankly arrived at Liverpool he found a club floundering in 10th position in Division Two and famously described Anfield as “the biggest toilet in Liverpool”.
In 15 years as manager, club and ground were transformed. The Second Division was won. Three First Division titles, two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup followed.
Some will say it’s too long ago to have a bearing. The claims that is a different game with different pressures will follow. Some simply want their own memories — their own tale to tell.
Liverpool though should retain its identity. History and traditions are part of that. It marks us out from another club. It’s a fantastic tale that endures. One that elicits pride. And one that demonstrates the importance of stories in football.
Without them, football becomes just what its detractors say it is: people kicking a ball about. Without stories, grounds are just concrete and steel surrounding a patch of grass.
In the not so distant past, Liverpool’s boardroom was happy to push ahead with a departure from Anfield to share with Everton in a new ground on Stanley Park. One of the obstacles was they knew fans would oppose the move.
The supporters’ story isn’t about business, maths or money. It’s the stories of what happened on that pitch, in that ground. To us. Inter Milan, St Etienne, Auxerre, Olympiakos, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund… We all have our own stories. And we retell them over and over.
“We hate Everton too…they’re shit!” Why would Liverpool share with Everton?
Stories, big and small, are sewn into every aspect of the game. They are everywhere you look, in every thing you read.
In Simon Hughes’ Ring Of Fire book, Jamie Carragher details some aspects of how Gerard Houllier mentally revved up his Liverpool team for games. He used a story:
“Gerard Houllier used to tell us that we were going to war. That stayed with me and I loved it. I’d see teams walking out for cup finals at Wembley and the players would be waving at their wives and girlfriends. When we played ours at Cardiff, Houllier used to remind us, ‘No waving at family — you seem them later.’ He wanted us to play as if it was the last thing we’d do.
“Players now, they’re hugging and kissing before a game. OK, some of them might be from the same country, so it’s understandable to a point. But for me, no: I was going to war with these people. You might think that is a strong analogy but I had to be like that. I was focused because I had to be like that.”
Similarly, in Joey Barton’s book, No Nonsense, he discusses at length how he, and coaches he has worked with, tell stories to get performances. One example he uses was the 2014 Championship Play-Off Final between QPR and Derby County.
Derby had dominated and when QPR’s Gary O’Neil was sent off on the hour Barton describes how the remaining 10 Rangers men shouted at each other to be positive and stay together with Danny Simpson yelling: “We can see this out.”
Barton wrote: “Chris Martin, the Derby striker, runs past and sniggers, ‘No fucking chance.’ There’s our marginal gain, our critical one per cent, right there. I see Simmo morph into the inspirational figure who, two years later, would help Leicester City win the Premier League. I see Richard Dunne, the man with whom I have shared so much, good and bad, fill up. I see Bobby Zamora’s face harden. I look at Martin and think, ‘You have just fucked your team-mates over’.”
Bobby Zamora scored a 90th-minute winner and it was QPR, not Derby, that were promoted to the Premier League.
In that moment, Barton and his team-mates told themselves a story. Like Jamie Carragher, they made themselves angry, they motivated themselves, they found something that allowed them to reach another level.
Shankly was a master at it. He famously told an inexperienced Kevin Keegan that he had seen Bobby Moore before the Liverpool striker faced the West Ham defender.
“Son, I’ve just seen that Bobby Moore getting off the West Ham bus. What a wreck. He’s limping, he’s got bags under his eyes and he’s got dandruff. He must have been in one of those London clubs all night, son!”
And after the game: “Aye, some player that Bobby Moore isn’t he?”
Conflict is key to the Klopp story. He demands fight, he wants passion, he wants blood up, in the stands and on the pitch.
He has talked about fight — “Momentum is not about having the best squad ready to play. Momentum is to be ready to fight.” — and he has talked about anger: “We need to be angry against Hull because they want our points. That makes me angry!”
Aside from the obvious reason that the Reds top the league right now, one of the reasons everything seems right around the club is that Klopp’s story is so tightly aligned to the story Liverpool has written as its own. He might be a German from the Black Forest but his approach chimes with so much of the character of the city.
The Liverpool loved is a team that battles, fights and never knows it is defeated. Think of the FA Cup final with West Ham, Istanbul, Dortmund in the Europa League. That’s Liverpool. As a city, and as a group of people, Liverpool and Liverpudlians have never been short of fight. The greatest teams in red that have bore the city’s name have displayed the same attribute.
Klopp talks about emotional football and Liverpool is an emotional city. Football is consumed in a certain way that isn’t necessarily true of many other clubs. At it’s best, when the holy trinity is evident, it is a force to be reckoned with. It’s why Klopp’s focus is on supporters and atmosphere so often. He can do his bit and the players can do theirs. But when we do ours, too… Remember how it was against Manchester United in Europe? Against Dortmund? We can still do it. It’s still possible. It’s not dead. It’s just needs to be woken from its slumber more often.
Speaking at an event at The Florrie earlier this year, John Barnes was asked how Liverpool could preserve its traditional identity. Couldn’t it involve people like Barnes himself? What about Steven Gerrard?
Couldn’t the club seek to preserve the Liverpool story and keep retelling it from top to bottom and in a meaningful way? Create a legacy? Guard against the influence, present and future, of those that don’t understand what they should understand.
Barnes said Klopp had to recreate the identity his way. Tell the story how he wants to tell it. The past Liverpool has gone, said Barnes. Klopp has to make a new one.
The feel-good, the start to the season and the league table can skew considered thought but it feels like Klopp has done just that. Thirteen months isn’t a long time in the grand scheme. And, despite reaching two finals in that time, a trophy cabinet last added to in 2012 remains untroubled by new additions.
Yet Liverpool has been dramatically transformed into a different beast. One that feels like it is progressing. That feels professional. That feels like it has a leader and is heading places.
In Brendan Rodgers’ last game as Liverpool manager, the Reds drew 1-1 at Goodison Park. Liverpool were 10th in the league.
The Reds lacked spark, on and off the field. Players that now are running through brick walls were going through the motions and were too easily beaten. The vibe was bad. It was a mentally weak squad. Easily beaten. Feared by no-one.
In the stands, fans were shrugging their shoulders at best and screaming abuse at worst, with boos ringing out at full-time and the end of extra-time as the Reds toiled to tackle Carlisle United in the League Cup.
Tickets then were easy to come by. There was no buzz. The transfer policy looked muddled, responsibilities muddied and the very fact Rodgers had remained to that point — with the uninspiring Sean O’Driscoll appointed as an assistant — screamed of indecision from the club hierarchy.
Stoke 6 Liverpool 1 was the natural end of one story and the start of another. Yet — like the box set that never ends — everyone was forced to go through the motions a few more times before the inevitable happened.
Soon Rodgers himself was publicly pointing fingers, not too subtlety referencing “the tools I have to work with”. The best stories get people on board. Motivate them. Make them feel a part of it. This wasn’t inspirational, it was self-serving. An increasingly paranoid Rodgers was alienating people, even those still sticking by him.
Liverpool was a story alright, but this wasn’t the story of Liverpool.
It was easy then to worry about what came next. Another Rodgers-style appointment — a young coach lacking top-level experience without the CV to back up his actions and words — could quickly have gone wrong. The fear was the label of mid-rankers would stick for good.
Klopp now is secured long-term, having signed a six-year deal in the summer. The message is one of stability and security. Of establishing foundations that keep Liverpool in good stead for the long haul, not just a one-season title challenge flash in the pan.
This Liverpool side is top of the Premier League, scoring goals for fun and attracting the plaudits for its play. The squad looks strong and with 13 goalscorers in 14 matches, the goal threat has magnificently multiplied. No more is Liverpool a one-man team.
Opposition managers fear Liverpool. Klopp is revered. Signings have paid off and Michael Edwards’ promotion to Sporting Director has barely caused a ripple.
Klopp is trusted and that means club decisions involving Klopp are trusted.
Young players are getting a chance. Talent is evident at all levels and a clear pathway to the first team appears to be clearing. There is evidence of joined-up thinking and of Klopp embracing everything about the club rather than solely considering what is best for self-preservation. A new training ground, uniting Melwood and Kirkby, is being considered, and, meanwhile, things are being done differently.
Liverpool’s youngsters can play football outside of the academy — for schools, for representative sides; with their mates. It sounds a small thing but for a youngster it could tip the balance when deciding on a club. And Liverpool could end up coaching a more rounded, more wordly-wise young footballer.
There is a salary cap, but that could mean the youngsters that do ply their trade for Liverpool will do so because they want to play for the club. If they’re good enough they will get a chance. We’ll promote from within before we’ll buy, has been the message from Klopp and when it comes to offering youngsters at the club an opportunity the manager as so far been true to his word.
Stories. Good stories. Positive messages. Something building.
Can Klopp write the story we’re desperate for? Do you believe? If you don’t you’re a doubter. And wouldn’t you rather be a believer? Because that’s what Klopp wants you to be.
The crowd can help the team. The crowd should stay until the end. It should make Anfield special every game. Because the players are. They’re working hard. They’re doing their bit. You can see it. It’s measured. There are stats. Not least the one that shows Liverpool in first place. But also Klopp told you.
Stories ensure players and fans are in the right place mentally to achieve what needs to be achieved. Liverpool play without fear now. With belief. The back end of the Rodgers’ reign was dogged by fear and disillusionment. The atmosphere was poisonous and unhelpful.
Klopp constantly feeds messages about fans playing a part. He made a point about fans leaving early. Every week seemingly he asks for a special atmosphere. He wants the players to engage. He engages. He’s developing his characters, honing the plot.
Some will scoff at Shankly comparisons — not least because it’s so early in Klopp’s reign, because silverware is yet to arrive and because being romantic about football just isn’t the done thing.
But there are parallels. A charismatic, respected man; bolshy and instantly able to command respect at all levels of the club. Respected by fans — a man who has united supporters. A man who plays the media like a fiddle and — so far — gets what he wants from the boardroom. And the players love him. Read the quotes, witness the hugs.
Klopp is clear, focussed and forthright in what he wants to achieve. He talked about titles on his first day in the job. He also talked about making changes quickly. And he did.
An increased intensity in the play was evident in Klopp’s first game at Tottenham Hotspur in October 2015. Since then, training methods have changed. Players have come and gone. There is a ruthless streak evident. See Jordon Ibe. See now Mamadou Sakho, who has no future at the club after crossing the manager one too many times.
Think of all of that, then think of Shankly’s story.
“He got rid of a lot of players early on and then he brought players in who were like-minded in their thinking about the game,” says Ronnie Moran of Shankly on the club website.
“If he didn’t get what he wanted off them then they too would be away. He’d either leave them out of the team or get rid of them to other clubs.”
Roger Hunt is quoted as saying: “When Bill Shankly came he changed a lot of the training methods we had and brought a lot of new ideas into the club. Also, he got the club to spend money on transfers, which they were a bit reluctant to do beforehand. We got new training kit and altogether he brought a new way of thinking to the club. He was like a breath of fresh air.”
Klopp has quickly imposed his methods on Liverpool and 11 games into his first full season in charge, the table couldn’t look better.
To write a story like that of Shankly’s must be regarded as near impossible and Klopp’s real big stories right now — his bestsellers if you like — exist elsewhere — at Mainz, at Dortmund.
And yet at Liverpool, we’ve seen in flashes what could be over the page — the undressing of Manchester City at their ground, Dortmund at Anfield and now, this season, teams good, bad and indifferent being beaten with ease.
Early this year, after extending his deal at Anfield, Klopp said: “I would like to celebrate something each season over the next six years. Not the small thing, really celebrate something — driving on the big bus through Liverpool. That would be nice.
“I’ve said it before, but it is not important what people think when you come, it is important what they think when you leave. That is when you need to be judged.”
Fifty-seven years from now will Liverpool fans write about Jürgen Klopp?
It would have to be a story worth telling to span that time. What better than being the man to mastermind Liverpool’s first title since 1990? The man who finally proved that Liverpool do still exist to win trophies and it is the bread and butter to peform well in the league.
Is Klopp the man to do it?
A final word to Bill Shankly: “Well, I think if a manager is honest and he has this natural enthusiasm, I think whilst he can’t go on the field with the players he can convey it to the players, you understand? He’s with them and they’re with him — and they’ll be successful.”