Ea­monn Sweeney

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That Liver­pool’s cur­rent Euro­pean cam­paign has a fairy­tale qual­ity lack­ing in their runs to the fi­nal in 2005 and 2007 owes a lot to Mo Salah but even more to Jur­gen Klopp.

WHEN I was young Liver­pool had the power but Manch­ester United had the magic. The for­mer ruled the game —there were 10 league ti­tles in 15 sea­sons and four Euro­pean Cups — but it was the lat­ter who oc­cu­pied a big­ger space in the public imag­i­na­tion.

Back then United were of­ten a sorry spec­ta­cle. There were sea­sons when they’d have been hard pressed to win a game of blow foot­ball in an oxy­gen tent. But they were sur­rounded by a mytho­log­i­cal aura, con­nected per­haps with the mem­ory of the Busby Babes, of Mu­nich, of Wem­b­ley in 1968, of the rise and fall of Best.

Liver­pool were won­der­ful but there was a remorseless qual­ity to their vic­to­ries which made them dif­fi­cult to love. Next to Tommy Docherty or Ron Atkin­son, Bob Pais­ley cut a faintly tech­no­cratic fig­ure. We all love an un­der­dog and there was some­thing poignant about the un­avail­ing quest for a league ti­tle which oc­cu­pied United for two and a half decades.

These days things are the other way around. United’s 13 ti­tles in 21 sea­sons and two Euro­pean Cups saw them dom­i­nate the ’90s and noughties as Liver­pool had the ’70s and ’80s. These days it is their old ri­vals who are the ro­man­tic’s choice. There is a sense that a Premier or Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle for Liver­pool would some­how mat­ter more than one for Chelsea or the Manch­ester clubs.

It is Liver­pool who have be­come, as that Barcelona motto says, more than a club. United, the epit­ome of club as cor­po­rate jug­ger­naut, are the unlov­able ones. That’s the price you pay for suc­cess I sup­pose.

Why do Liver­pool seem to mat­ter more as a club? Hills­bor­ough has a lot to do with it. What the tragic tales of Mu­nich — the fate­ful de­ci­sion to make one last ef­fort to take off, Liam Whe­lan pray­ing as the plane headed to­wards dis­as­ter, Harry Gregg pulling peo­ple from the wreck, Dun­can Ed­wards fight­ing on in hos­pi­tal be­fore fi­nally suc­cumb­ing — were to a for­mer gen­er­a­tion, the im­ages of April 15, 1989 are to this one.

The spec­ta­tors be­ing despatched to cer­tain death by the po­lice, the crush at the Lep­pings Lane end, the peo­ple try­ing to clam­ber over the fence on to the pitch, the stag­ger­ing na­ture of the death toll. . . all these are seared into foot­ball’s col­lec­tive mem­ory. The cal­lous­ness of the au­thor­i­ties, the at­tempted cover-up and the tenac­ity of those who pur­sued jus­tice for decades prob­a­bly res­onate with us even more.

When you saw Kenny Dal­glish and Ian Rush cel­e­brat­ing the goals against Roma on Tues­day night it was im­pos­si­ble not to think of the night­mar­ish weeks 29 years ago when the Liver­pool play­ers at­tended fu­neral af­ter fu­neral. There is a bond between those play­ers and their old club which does not ex­ist any­where else. It can­not. That is what we think about when we think about Liver­pool.

The pas­sage of time has also lent ro­mance to the achieve­ments of Shankly and Pais­ley’s teams. At the time it seemed as if Liver­pool would win for­ever as the win­ning se­crets of the An­field Boot Room were passed down the gen­er­a­tions. Vic­tory, as it does for all re­ally great teams, came to seem in­evitable as much as praise­wor­thy. Now that the em­pire has fallen we can ap­pre­ci­ate the achieve­ments of those bygone Reds.

Above all we can ap­pre­ci­ate their achieve­ment in bag­ging four Euro­pean Cups, some­thing which ap­peared in­evitable at a time when English clubs ruled the con­ti­nent to such an ex­tent that two vic­to­ries for Not­ting­ham For­est and one for As­ton Villa in the premier club com­pe­ti­tion just seemed like busi­ness as usual. Yet only Real Madrid with their six in a row at the very start of the com­pe­ti­tion’s his­tory have sur­passed Liver­pool’s achieve­ment of com­plet­ing a quar­tet within a decade.

They did this at a time when, even be­fore Hills­bor­ough, their city was bear­ing the brunt of Thatcherism’s ex­cesses. I’m surely not the only one for whom the team’s glory years are jum­bled with mem­o­ries of Boys From The Black­stuff,

Graeme Souness’s fa­mous en­counter with Yosser Hughes seem­ing to per­fectly en­cap­su­late the link between what was hap­pen­ing on and off the pitch. Foot­ball, it’s clear now, meant so much to Liver­pool be­cause they had noth­ing else.

It is one of life’s lit­tle odd­i­ties that Liver­pool’s cur­rent hero bears a cer­tain sim­i­lar­ity to the most fa­mous char­ac­ter from af­ter Yosser, Chrissie. But that’s not the only rea­son Mo Salah seems a per­fect hero for an un­der­dog city. He is a man who has known fail­ure, mak­ing just 13 ap­pear­ances in two sea­sons with Chelsea be­fore they off­loaded him to Roma.

Whereas most modern-day foot­ballers are ath­letic mar­vels, men with bod­ies like ki­netic sculp­tures demon­strat­ing what may be achieved in the field of mus­cu­la­ture, Salah’s shape con­jures up mem­o­ries of those stubby wingers who scorched the touch­lines of my youth. While you could imag­ine sev­eral of his peers ex­celling in other sports, Salah’s skill-set seems uniquely and won­der­fully at­tuned to foot­ball. Like Lionel Messi, his style is the apoth­e­o­sis of the kid in the school­yard who just wants to beat peo­ple and score goals.

There is some­thing re­as­sur­ingly old school about Salah, as there is about Liver­pool. His un­der­dog sta­tus is ce­mented by the fact that he’s a Mus­lim in a time when his co-re­li­gion­ists are bat­tered by big­otry. Afro-Caribbean sports­men have done a lot to lessen prej­u­dice in Eng­land; Salah is surely cap­tur­ing a few hearts and minds too.

That Liver­pool’s cur­rent Euro­pean cam­paign has a fairy­tale qual­ity lack­ing in their runs to the fi­nal in 2005 and 2007 owes a lot to Salah but even more to Jur­gen Klopp. For all the doubts ini­tially ex­pressed else­where, Liver­pool seemed to take to Klopp im­me­di­ately. It is a ro­man­tic city and he is a ro­man­tic man­ager, the all-out en­er­getic style he es­pouses per­fectly suited to whip­ping up the emo­tional crescendo pe­cu­liar to big Euro­pean nights at An­field.

There is some­thing of the un­der­dog about Klopp too. At Borus­sia Dort­mund he was able to over­come the huge gap in re­sources between that club and Bay­ern Mu­nich. While Mour­inho com­plains about not hav­ing as much money as Guardi­ola, Klopp cracks on with much less than ei­ther. The sale of Philippe Coutinho, like that of Luis Suarez, seemed al­most an ad­mis­sion of de­feat at the time. Yet Klopp has proved a mas­ter of get­ting the best out of what he has. The plunge for Vir­gil van Dijk was a rare ex­am­ple of ex­trav­a­gance. By and large he has worked with the kind of ma­te­rial Guardi­ola might be too fas­tid­i­ous to han­dle.

Alex Fer­gu­son’s mock­ery of Jor­dan Hen­der­son as the kind of player United would be too clever to sign rings hol­low. As, in the week that James Mil­ner broke the record for Cham­pi­ons League as­sists, does that ‘vi­ral’ clip from a cou­ple of years back of some Ir­ish clown com­plain­ing about him. The emergence of Trent Alexan­der-Arnold, teenage, home­grown and al­to­gether mag­nif­i­cent, also seems symp­to­matic of Klopp’s abil­ity to make a virtue out of ne­ces­sity.

So does his pa­tience and per­sis­tence with the oft-ma­ligned Loris Kar­ius. Kar­ius was pre­vi­ously at Mainz and his ar­rival from unglam­orous des­ti­na­tions is some­thing of a com­mon theme with Liver­pool. Roberto Firmino was signed from Hof­fen­heim, Sa­dio Mane and De­jan Lovren from Southamp­ton, An­drew Robert­son from Hull City. This too echoes an ear­lier era.

We can over-ro­man­ti­cise Liver­pool. Had the at­tack on the Manch­ester City bus hap­pened in Turkey or Rus­sia, the head­line would have been all ‘Sin­is­ter Gaunt­let Of Hate’. At An­field it was pretty much ex­cused on the grounds of ‘pas­sion’ and ‘fer­vour’. And the in­sis­tence that said pas­sion and fer­vour is driv­ing Liver­pool on to Euro­pean vic­tory over­looks the fact that the same qual­i­ties don’t seem to do Celtic much good. It is man­agers and play­ers who win games. Still, it’s hard not to have a soft spot for The Kop. The slurs aimed by Tory Eng­land at Liver­pudlians, that they’re vi­o­lent and work-shy and like feel­ing sorry for them­selves, are strik­ingly sim­i­lar to those di­rected at Ir­ish peo­ple from the same quar­ters.

That’s hardly a co­in­ci­dence. One rea­son Liver­pool has al­ways been re­garded with a cer­tain sus­pi­cion by the pow­ers that be is that it is the most Ir­ish of English cities. In 1977 Liver­pool play­ers ar­riv­ing in Rome for the Euro­pean Cup fi­nal won­dered why they didn’t see many of their fans around the city, only to dis­cover a lot of them had gone to the Vat­i­can to see the Pope. That mightn’t hap­pen to the same ex­tent on Wed­nes­day but the qual­i­ties the Scouser prizes most about him­self — ver­bal dex­ter­ity, open­ness, so­cia­bil­ity and a ha­tred of snob­bery — are also the best Ir­ish ones.

A lot has changed since the days when Liver­pool were the best foot­ball team in the world. These days the ma­jor clubs in­creas­ingly re­sem­ble ma­jor US sport­ing fran­chises. Yet there is still some­thing dif­fer­ent about Liver­pool, a club for which tragedy and tri­umph will be in­ter­min­gled for as long as the game is played. Liver­pool remind us of the time when the foot­ball pro­duced by a club seemed like a re­flec­tion of the char­ac­ter of the com­mu­nity it rep­re­sented.

They do though, don’t they though.

Foot­ball meant so much be­cause they had noth­ing else

Mo Salah scores his sec­ond goal against Roma last Tues­day night. Salah seems a per­fect hero for an un­der­dog city. He is a man who has also known fail­ure. Photo: Pe­ter Byrne

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