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9 December 2020updated 10 Dec 2020 11:40am

How Jürgen Klopp became the Mersey messiah

Thanks to his good humour and hard work, football fans fell in love with the not-so-cool but incredibly dedicated guy from the Black Forest.   

By Alison McGovern

When people write about football, they are often writing about something else. It is not just about 11 players versus 11, and a ball. That strength of feeling – almost without reason – can be infuriating to others, and impossible to explain for those who are captured by it. Harry Frankfurt, the American philosopher, wrote that “Love is itself, for the lover, a source of reasons. It creates the reasons by which his acts of loving concern and devotion are inspired.” The novelist and critic Anthony Quinn’s book surveys those reasons. If the love of football isn’t in you, you may not be persuaded. But as Jürgen Klopp found in June 2019 as he sat on the upper deck of an open-top bus, Champions League trophy in hand, touring Liverpool to packed crowds and fireworks, that love is in many of us.

In Quinn’s ode to Klopp – whether in his early days at FSV Mainz 05 or latterly at Liverpool FC – the words flow around the football, explaining Klopp’s journey up the leagues. His success is born of good humour, hard work and a rare temperament. Quinn points out the “alarming scarcity in British life of public figures we revere or admire”. No wonder everyone has fallen for this not-so-cool but incredibly dedicated guy from the Black Forest. While much still divides us, Klopp’s European politics has translated easily into the UK. He has spoken directly but without controversy on Brexit, the general election last year, and most recently on Covid-19.

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So, how he came by these leadership skills is of interest. Quinn talks with regret about the early part of the Klopp story he missed out on due to a lack of knowledge of German football, and how he came to find himself “wishing I had been along for the ride at the time”. It’s true: all of us know our loves only from a certain point of view, and I in turn would love to introduce the author to an aspect of supporting Liverpool now that he may not know about.

The writer places himself in Liverpool’s past, in the Huyton suburb where he grew up – a mid-century childhood that put him on a route to supporting the Reds. But this means that there is something missing: Liverpool today. The city has become a radically different place since the club’s last league title in 1990. The Premiership win in 2020 was preceded by years of the kind of cultural change you find in emerging economies: the Irish pubs are going strong but jangly guitar music is overshadowed by one of Europe’s leading contemporary art biennials. When Liverpool fans go wild in Anfield today, it isn’t with the Beatles, it is to the thudding beat of Dua Lipa’s dance anthem “One Kiss”.

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[See also: What sport teaches us about who we are and where we belong]

Near the end of the book, once Liverpool have won the 2019-20 title, Quinn uses the expression “thirty years of hurt”. This line, from the 1996 song “Three Lions”, describing the period since England’s World Cup win in 1966, was also used by plenty of journalists this year about the Reds’ league title. But it is a mistake. Of course, for both the city and for Liverpool supporters there was the very serious – the most serious – hurt in 1989, with the Hillsborough disaster and all that happened after. But in the years between league titles, there were also famous Europa League and Champions League wins, domestic cups and football of a quality others dream of. Both the football, and the change that has come to our city during that time, has broadly been good or even excellent. Liverpudlians are a lucky bunch, and we should never forget it. We shouldn’t live in the past to the extent that we fail to see the positive change before us.

Another point. The opening chapter is heavy on the cultural influence of the Second World War. I recognise its impact on previous generations of Scousers. But I am left wondering how relevant this is to Klopp’s story, or that of the modern Liverpool FC, or present-day Liverpool. I haven’t heard anyone make the kind of remarks repeated about Germans (though without malice) in this book for about 20 years. They would most likely be ridiculed or met with blank looks. Jürgen Klopp is a European, and so are we.

[See also: The rise and resolve of Arsène Wenger]

But in disagreeing, I read this account of fandom with appreciation. Many people have their own story of love for Jürgen Klopp and their own story of love for Liverpool. How wonderful that recent success on the pitch has brought these accounts into print. Football legitimises this glorious discussion of love.

In a male-dominated environment – and particularly an English male environment – love is often off the agenda; “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” as Prince Charles once said. I think, like the nostalgia often attached to football, that is sad. But Quinn’s writing shows what immense capacity for care and love men can have. Liverpool, the most un-English of all England’s footballing cities, legitimises love beyond reason, and as long as that is true, books like this will be written: pages and pages of love. 

Alison McGovern is the MP for Wirral South and shadow minister for sport

Klopp: My Liverpool Romance 
Anthony Quinn
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special