Saturday 11 May 2024

Jürgen Klopp and the leading of Liverpool

 How did the German football manager cast such a spell over the city? There was much more to it than results, writes Lynsey Hanley

Lynsey Hanley is author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’ and ‘Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide’  

The success of Jürgen Klopp’s nine years at Liverpool Football Club can be measured not in trophies, but in pies. Homebaked, a thriving community bakery opposite Anfield’s famous Kop stand, sells thousands of the ambrosial savouries each match day. Only two of its recipes are named after Liverpool managers. One — steak, bacon and mushroom — is The Shankly, in tribute to LFC’s legendary 1960s and 1970s coach Bill Shankly. The other — an umami-rich concoction of beef and German beer — is The Klopp.

To say that Klopp has a godlike status among many Scousers is almost to underestimate the German manager’s effect on their city. Since he arrived in 2015 he has shaped a team around values of unity, positivity and fist-pumping enjoyment, encouraging fans to believe in their power to change the course of matches through fierce support, loudly expressed.

How good were Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp? Simon Kuper and John Burn-Murdoch examine the data In January, his announcement that he would be leaving the club at the end of this season caused such misery that he was immediately obliged to explain himself in a 25-minute video interview. It was as if he’d had no right to go. His admirers seem caught between having the greatest respect for his decision and wondering whatever Liverpool will do without him.

I’ve been there, along with 750,000 others, when the team’s victory parades through the city have passed the bottom of my road in suburban south Liverpool. On these occasions, held to celebrate winning the Champions League in 2019 and the FA Cup in 2022 (Liverpool won the 2020 Premier League season by a mile, but the Covid-19 lockdown prevented a parade), he’s given Liverpudlians the feeling of being at once on top of the world and at the centre of the universe.

Klopp is everywhere here, in the form of giant murals; in cardboard cutouts in students’ windows; in Jürgen’s Bierhaus, a sports bar in the city centre; flashing his floodlit smile in ads on the sides of buses; and, more generally, in what can only really be described as a vibe. It can be felt as a sense that Liverpool itself has finally, and comprehensively, come back from the cliff edge of inexorable decline, just as football clubs can slog their way from the lower leagues back to the top flight.

I’ll try to pinpoint that description, in an attempt to explain how Liverpool feels about itself, and why the city so captures the hearts of those who, like me, have moved here from elsewhere. I arrived with my young family in 2012, just a few years before Klopp, and immediately felt more at home than anywhere I’d lived previously.

It wasn’t just that the city centre was buzzing with life when I’d remembered, from my first visit in the 1980s, threadbare and windswept precincts. Strangers treated me like they would a close relative. Sturdy nans outside Iceland pressed £2 coins and Mars bars into my children’s hands, passed me tissues when they saw me having a bad day, gave me the thumbs up as I crossed the road. I quickly learnt that it is a place of fundamental generosity, where hardship is taken as a fact of life and, as a result, the burden is to be shared.

Liverpool is about people: more specifically, about liking other people and finding them not threatening but inherently interesting and worthy of attention. Everyone who lives in the city is a potential contributor to the project of making it a better place to live.

From the outset, Klopp seemed to understand this, describing himself in his first press conference as “a normal guy . . . the normal one”, setting out his stall in apparent opposition to the then Chelsea manager José Mourinho’s self-description as the “special one”. Klopp also saw himself as “a romantic” about what football can do — and what he could do for football — pledging to bag Liverpool the Premier League title within four years (he did it in five). LFC fans quickly threw their weight behind him, which, in turn, seemed to lead the city into a new phase of confidence.

Joe Moran, a writer and professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, agrees. “Sport is about stories and characters,” he tells me. “Humans are meaning-making animals and fasten on meanings rather than just rational calculations of profit and loss. Klopp has given Liverpool fans a story that they can believe in, and what he says fits in with their values.”

Liverpool was already on the up when Klopp arrived: its population was growing after decades of decline, and since being anointed the European Capital of Culture in 2008 it has become one of the most visited cities in the UK. For locals, Klopp’s move to the city cemented, rather than created, that sense of a rebirth.

That’s not to soft-soap an often hard-bitten place. Liverpool is still the third most economically deprived local authority in the UK — out of 317. Some 20 per cent of its under-16s live in absolute poverty. The new wealth being created by Liverpool’s tourist, retail and culture economy isn’t being spread because people don’t earn enough money from the jobs available in those sectors. Premier League footballers and their managers can only buy so many designer T-shirts from Flannels, the flagship fashion store in town and, in any case, tend to live, like Klopp, in lush areas beyond the city boundary.

In this context, football, like music, truly matters in a city that has suffered economically for almost a century. Liverpool reached its commercial and demographic peak in the 1930s — at 486,000 residents, it now has one 18th the population of London — and yet in LFC and The Beatles it has conquered the world twice over.

It can be hard to square the fact that the city is recognised around the world on the back of these names with the knowledge that, elsewhere in England, Liverpool has for 40 years been the butt of jokes about poverty, crime and victimhood, not least from the mouths of senior politicians.

Without question, these tropes are out of date, recalling the time in the early 1980s when the city was in a desperate state following the automation of its shipping industry and multiple factory closures, and ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s government urged a policy of “managed decline”.

It endured the shame of LFC supporters’ involvement in the tragedy of the 1985 European Cup final, when 39 people died after a fight between Liverpool and Juventus fans at the crumbling Heysel stadium in Brussels led to the collapse of a wall on a section of terracing. Four years later, a crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield caused by police funnelling a crowd into an inadequate stand led to the deaths of 97 Liverpool fans.

“I really admire him as a person and he’s been the best Liverpool manager of my lifetime,” says Andrew Beattie, chair of Homebaked Community Land Trust, which is working to bring back into use the formerly derelict homes adjacent to the bakery, for affordable housing and local businesses. “In the past few years, I’ve noticed much more of a community spirit around the football club,” he says. “[It] lost that for a while, I think, before Klopp joined. I think the club is making more of an effort to connect with the community about being a better neighbour.”

This is a marked change from the mid-1990s, when the club began purchasing terraced houses around the stadium in order to expand its Main Stand, a project that left dozens of homes empty and boarded, or “tinned” up, for two decades, causing untold distress and decline in the neighbourhood. The long struggle to reverse that decline embodies the “other side” of Anfield — the everyday reality for most in this part of north Liverpool, rather than the fortnightly match-day high.

 Abi O’Connor is a longtime LFC fan whose work as an urban sociologist casts an unforgiving light on Liverpool’s harsh inequalities. She believes that, although “‘Klopp made us fall in love with supporting Liverpool FC all over again”, the club “have a lot to answer for with regards to the treatment of the community they’re situated in. Match-day chaos, traffic, queues and litter is normal here, so you may ask why one of the richest clubs in the country doesn’t place some of their profit aside to genuinely invest money to support these communities. I’ve lived here for over a decade and I’m yet to find a real answer to that.” 

While she doesn’t expect Klopp to have that answer, O’Connor is concerned that “saying he has changed the city for the better is to ignore these material realities” for many of the people who support his team — although, “considering his politics, I would be surprised if he didn’t agree”.

By contrast, football writer Dan Morgan credits Klopp not only with helping him to view his home city in a new, less jaded light, but with directly changing the course of his life, inspiring him to leave his job in the legal sector to become a contributor to publications including The Anfield Wrap, a website and podcast dedicated to LFC and its supporters.

“The memory he leaves will be ultimately a sense of effervescence and life, and the sense of a place being really alive,” Morgan tells me. “I think that marries really well with the complexities of Liverpool as a place. At the beginning it was like he said ‘you need me to help you so we can achieve this together, we can climb this hill our way.’ What I’ll always take from him is his ability to delegate and to insist that the responsibility is shared. That, to me, is the true essence of community.”

It is, but at the same time Klopp isn’t alone in his understanding that modern-day management is more about communicating well — and being seen to communicate well — than merely giving out orders. Gareth Southgate, while lacking Klopp’s high-wattage charisma, has refreshed the England football squad’s image in a similar way. Both have made an impression on people who aren’t necessarily big fans of the sport, through their articulacy, emotional intelligence and their ability to transmit authority without being authoritarians.

Klopp’s confidence in his own values, consistently expressed, has meant that he’s been able to reveal where he stands on certain issues without risking mockery from those who believe football managers should stick to football. Two years after Britain voted to leave the EU, he commented: “History has always shown that when we stay together, we can sort out problems. When we split, then we start fighting.”

Equally, when awarded the freedom of the city of Liverpool in 2022, Klopp noted that he and Scousers “care about similar things, have similar political views and we like to be very open, that’s how it is . . . people are really open, nice, kind and friendly. That’s what I want to be as well.”

Note that he said he aspired to be more like Scousers, rather than suggesting that they should be more like him. The magic inherent in Klopp’s leadership, then, has come not from concentrating his power, but by sharing it with people he assumes to have the same interests at heart, rather than simply winning every title going.

Shortly before Liverpool’s disastrous April derby, in which his team lost 2-0 away to its city rivals Everton and, in so doing, saw their chances of winning this year’s Premier League title wither away, he spoke plainly about the exhaustion that led to his upcoming departure: “I work all the time while you just watch the games. I’m constantly in it. Even when the game is over I can’t switch off. It’s not great to be in this situation all the time. Maybe other people enjoy that more than me. But that’s something I definitely will not miss.”

Good luck to him. He will go, but the Klopp pie, the Jürgen murals — though perhaps not Jürgen’s Bierhaus — will remain, as will that intangible yet energising feeling that when we work together, anything feels possible. For that, Klopp in Liverpool has meant more, so much more, than winning.

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