I always knew it would come, but when it did I still wasn’t ready. The news that Jürgen Klopp was leaving Liverpool came via a text from my sister this morning, and now, six hours later, I still have the yonderly feeling of a person suddenly bereaved. I am old enough to remember other big resignation moments in Liverpool’s history: Bill Shankly in 1974, Kenny Dalglish in 1991, two great gruff Scots fighters who had carried the club to the limit and realised they couldn’t go any further. For the fans these were emotional sunderings: Shankly and Dalglish weren’t just football managers, they were protectors of a tradition, keepers of the flame, inspiration of a city.
Liverpool were League champions in 1990, Dalglish’s last full year in charge. No one could have known that, with him gone, LFC would enter long years of unrest and underachievement. These things are relative, of course. Other fans laugh at our entitlement. There were still trophies through the door at Anfield – FA Cups, League Cups, even a famous Champions League win in 2005 – but the feeling that the club had mislaid its aura, its swagger, was incontrovertible. Alex Ferguson had vowed to knock Liverpool off their “f***ing perch”, and so it had come to pass, as his United bestrode the English game for the next 20 years. It hurt. We fed on scraps. In the season of 2013-14 we got close, until a fateful slip derailed our run for the title.
Did I despair? I fear I might have done, until the day in October 2015 when Jürgen Klopp took his first press conference at Anfield and announced his intention to turn us “from doubters to believers”. I thought again today of that masterly performance of his in front of the media, his quiet, smiling presence, his modest affirmation, in contrast to others’ braggadocio, that he was “the normal one”. Arrogance would not be his way. When he twitted the assembled reporters and made them laugh I was half in love with him already. He then repeated something he had once said at his previous club Borussia Dortmund: “It’s not so important what people think of you when you come in. It’s much more important what people think when you leave.”
And now that he is to leave who would gainsay his greatness? The silverware speaks for itself. He is the only Liverpool manager to have won the League, the Champions League/European Cup, FA Cup and League Cup during his time at Anfield. Had he not been pipped by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City – twice, by a single point – he might have clinched three Premier League titles instead of one. Yet more significant than that, I think, is the command and style with which he has engineered his team. Whatever he might have done for us, the fans, he turned his players not just into believers but, at times, into world-beaters. The shock and awe of his Gegenpressing (counter-pressing) became a standard to be emulated in the Premier League. His recruitment of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Mohamed Salah formed the vital axis around which the whole side revolved. On the touchline he cuts a lowering presence, a brooding taskmaster, but ready with a bear-hug at the end. How they must love playing for him.
In the last two years we have seen a change. The laughing, genial Klopp of old has receded somewhat; there’s more grey in his beard, fewer twinkles and smiles. The baseball cap seemed to get lower on his brow. Can there be any doubt he is weary from the fight? “I am, how can I say it, running out of energy,” he admitted today. “I know that I cannot do the job again and again and again and again.” For a Liverpool fan this is hard to bear, for after the misfire of last season he had got the team’s groove back. Only last weekend on Match of the Day Danny Murphy was praising a new aspect of Klopp’s management, his ability to switch in-game formations and sharpen the angle of attack. Has any other manager resigned with his team top of the Premier League? But if Klopp taught us anything it was about perspective. “Football is the most important of the least important things in life,” he said once, quoting another great manager Arrigo Sacchi. He needs his life back. Come May and the end of the season we’ll be there with our smiles and goodbyes… but just for now please allow me to grieve.
Anthony Quinn is the author of “Klopp: My Liverpool Romance” (Faber)
[See also: The Joey Barton conundrum]