I’m talking to Phil Thompson about how Jurgen Klopp seems like a perfect fit for Liverpool when, unthinkingly, I use the phrase ‘the people’s club’.
Anfield legend Thommo stops me in my tracks. “Well, we can’t say that, can we, because it’s a club close to Anfield who use that phrase.”
As you might expect from a man who was a no-nonsense defender, it’s a well-timed and, indeed, timely intervention, since Liverpool will, of course, see that very slogan emblazoned on the opposition stadium when they make the very short journey to Everton’s Goodison Park tonight for the Merseyside derby.
But, my schoolboy error apart, Thompson has no problem with the notion of Liverpool as a global brand which still retains deep roots in its local community — a reality, he suggests, which also makes Anfield a fitting home from home for a manager who comes across very much as a man of the people.
“Listen, when you look at getting Jurgen Klopp in the first place, the timing of it was perfect,” says Thompson. “Wenger was under pressure at Arsenal, Mourinho was under pressure at Chelsea, Van Gaal was under pressure at Man United – for any one of those clubs their first port of call would have been Jurgen Klopp. But he chose Liverpool football club even though it was going through a difficult period because I think he saw something he recognised.
“He began at Mainz, who he played for and managed, and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was their anthem. He went to Borussia Dortmund who have their own Kop, ‘the yellow wall’ and their anthem is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. So you’d have to think he looked at Liverpool and thought, ‘this was meant to be’. It was a real coup for Liverpool to get him and it’s looking like a match made in heaven.”
Even to the extent, Thompson believes, that team and gaffer are already virtually indistinguishable.
“They say in the game that the team echoes what you are as a manager and this Liverpool is Klopp,” says the Sky Sports pundit. “Energetic, charismatic, passionate, full-on. Heavy metal. You’ve seen him on the touchline calling on the support of the fans, reminding them of their responsibilities, of what it means to back your team.
“I think he’s something of a throwback in that respect. I think Conte is too. Yes, we’ve always had some passionate people on the touchline — Ferguson was. But these guys seem to be different. They see things and can change things at any given time on the pitch and it seems to work. Now Jurgen is still in his honeymoon period, which is why he can tell the fans off if they’re getting on the players’ backs. It’s more difficult to do that if you’re going through a consistently hard time.”
And consistency of the more positive kind, you feel, will be the key to Liverpool sustaining a title challenge this year.
“I believe the league is harder to win than a couple of years ago under Brendan Rodgers, but I think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody and a better chance than most,” Thompson reflects.
“I think we might be the most clinical of all the teams at the top.”
However, as they ready themselves for the derby, the absence of Philippe Coutinho – who, before his injury, had supplied six goals and six assists this season – continues to be a source of concern for the Red faithful.
“He’s a vital cog in the side,” Thompson agrees. “I love (Roberto) Firmino and (Sadio) Mane but it’s that little bit of craft Coutinho brings - he’s one of those who make the magic happen in between the lines of the opposition defence and midfield. Him and (Adam) Lallana – it might sound daft to say this about two such attacking players – but they’re both very good defensively. They set the patterns in closing people down.
“But with Coutinho out it’s giving other players a chance. It could be a big break for Daniel Sturridge. One door closes and it opens for somebody else. Not that Daniel has anything to prove but it could give him the opportunity to have a run and stake his claim.”
The latest renewal of neighbourly hostilities on Merseyside comes against the backdrop of a now 17-year-long wait for Liverpool to follow up their last title triumph, in 1990. Thompson, a seven-time winner at the club in the 70s and 80s, is acutely aware of the comparison with that other Red Empire which suffered its own even more protracted title drought between 1967 and 1993.
“Twenty-six years for Manchester United,” Thompson muses. “If you’d talked to that Best/Law/Charlton team of the 60s, I’m sure they would never have thought it would take that long to win another league.
“We’re in a similar situation now. When we won the last one in 1990, we’d have said you’d be crazy to think Liverpool would not win it again for 16, 17 years. We’ve won cups in Europe and in England but not the league. It eluded Man United and it’s still eluding Liverpool. And it’s become even harder in the last ten years because of the new money coming in with Chelsea and Manchester City.
“I’m a Liverpool fan,” he adds, not that anyone would need any reminding. “I’ve been there since I was a foetus, for goodness’ sake. So for us to have a chance this year is brilliant. Somebody who brings this home, he will be to Liverpool what the Beatles were, what Bill Shankly was. I hope that it will be Jurgen, if not this year, then soon.
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