Standing in the queue for the podium, job done, exhausted, elated, Jordan Henderson waited to tread the triumphant path of the immortals.
Liverpool’s European Cup winning captains: Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Steven Gerrard. Legends all. He was shoulder to shoulder with them now.
Yet something was missing. Henderson wanted company. He wanted to share this moment with the man he believed had made it possible. Another hand should be on the trophy with his. Jurgen Klopp politely, but firmly, refused the invitation.
Jurgn Klopp’s favourite part of the win was that Jordan Henderson lifted the trophy
The Liverpool manager imbues the entire club with a remarkable sense of togetherness
‘No, Jordan,’ he told him. ‘This is your job.’ So Henderson had to wait until later, in the chaotic round of media scrums, to give credit where it was due. He was asked whether there was another out there like Klopp, another manager capable of drawing such extraordinary spirit from his players. ‘Not for me there isn’t,’ he said.
It is not as easy as it appears for players to single out one manager as the best. Most at the elite level play for two at any given time, because of international football. Later this week, Henderson will be welcomed to the England camp by Gareth Southgate. Then there are the managers and coaches they have worked with in the past, the guy who nurtured their formative talent, gave the first break, brought them to a club and might do so again.
The inclination, at least, is to be polite. Not to leave anyone out, not to risk even the mildest perceived insult. So as player after player lined up to announce Klopp was unique, the best, the only, it was plain. Just like the famed Anfield atmosphere on European nights, he is special. Truly special.
He is one of a kind.
‘Our leader,’ Virgil van Dijk called him, and he meant it as more than just the figurehead, the one standing tall on the touchline, taking training, picking the team.
When Klopp spoke this week of the pride he feels that fans from across the world see that bold, red strip and once again think only of Liverpool, it was an acknowledgement of an identity he has worked so hard to forge.
Borussia Dortmund had it, too. The famed yellow wall is still there, and still impressive enough that Tottenham based their own white bank of supporters on it at the new stadium — but so much of what Dortmund had was down to Klopp. In the days when the Westfalen-stadion was the place to go for a football away day in Europe, when it attracted neutrals to feel the vibe and power of a great, energetic team in front of a ferociously vocal, partisan, stadium — Klopp was at the helm.
Virgil van Dijk, embracing Klopp here, described the German boss simply as ‘our leader’
This stuff does not happen by accident. It is not coincidence that Liverpool should beat Barcelona 4-0 at home on a delirious night of abandon and emotion. It is not by accident that a team Liverpool’s backroom staff considered to be out on their feet going into Saturday’s match somehow found the reserves of resolve and determination to record their biggest win over Tottenham this season.
Liverpool, it was feared, had nothing left. The three-week gap since the end of an exhausting English season, the searing June heat — even the Castilians were complaining — had left them bereft of energy. There was no high press, no furious attack, as is typical.
Liverpool conserved energy, ambling over to take corners, knocking the ball around at the back to remove time from the game. It did not make for the best spectacle, but it is what European finals are about. Game management.
Once again, the players carried out Klopp’s instructions to the letter.
They will follow him anywhere.
Much was made of Tottenham’s second-half revival but the best team won. A goal down within two minutes — and it was a legitimate penalty — it took Tottenham 78 minutes to have a shot on target. Until that point, Loris Karius could have played in goal, let alone the outstanding Alisson.
Liverpool were exhausted in the heat of Madrid but managed to win ugly against Tottenham
Tottenham have not been ahead at half-time in any Champions League game this season and, ultimately, that tightrope walk catches up with a team. There was always going to be one occasion when revival was beyond them. This was it. Liverpool were the more experienced European campaigners and it showed. Klopp set them up well to shut Tottenham down, and that indefatigable spirit did the rest.
‘Blessed’ was Joe Gomez’s adjective for working with Klopp. He was, and so were all of Liverpool’s players. ‘We all have so much gratitude,’ he added. ‘He has done so much for me, and all the lads think the same.
‘It is his unbelievable energy, not just the tactical side, but as a person, that’s why there is such a connection. That is why we want to play for him, why we want to celebrate with him when we win.
He brings so much value in showing us what it means to play for this club. I am quite young but I know I am blessed to have a manager like him. I don’t think there are many out there who do what he does. We are very lucky.’
Klopp’s ability to imbue togetherness, not just in the team, or the squad, but the club, became a recurring theme as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning. Not just from players like Gomez, that he had nurtured, or Henderson, who had been with him at Liverpool from day one.
Van Dijk, Liverpool’s player of the year and the final’s official man of the match, has not been long at Anfield. He bought the vision Klopp sold him in 2018, and has since witnessed it played out as reality.
‘You see Liverpool from the outside at first,’ Van Dijk said. ‘You see what a fantastic fanbase there is. I noticed that even before I signed, when there was just talk of me going there. I had played for Groningen, Celtic, Southampton — real family clubs. They are always going to be there for you no matter what, and that was something I wanted to have.
Supporters took to the streets in their thousands to watch the team parade the trophy
At full time in Madrid, the players swarmed their manager and he is truly adored
‘Then you come here, and the manager says a lot of things that touch us all. It’s not like you only play for yourself, you play for everyone who’s been connected to you, you play for everyone who is always there for you.
‘We keep working hard for the fans but also for the team-mate next to you, for everyone working in the club, that work for you and wants to make every day the best for you. The people at Melwood, the people at the stadium. Everyone who is connected with Liverpool, you want to make them proud and the manager put that in our heads. There is a togetherness at the moment that I’ve never really experienced before. It’s very special.’
That word again. Perhaps Klopp’s greatest skill as a man manager is to create leaders. Van Dijk is one, certainly, both in presence and status as arguably the best in his position in Europe. Then there is the absence of ego in Klopp letting James Milner give pre-match team talks because he feels certain points are better delivered by a native.
This week, Henderson also felt sufficiently empowered to call a team meeting in which he invited anyone in the squad to speak, if there was a feeling or emotion that needed to be voiced. Some coaches would fear their own authority was being diminished by this independence. Klopp is comfortable in his skin, sufficiently secure in influence to sometimes let the dressing room run itself. He knows there will be no mixed messages.
‘This isn’t possible without the manager,’ Henderson insisted, toying with his gold medal. ‘What he’s created at this club, the team, the atmosphere, the players, everything about it is unbelievable. There’s no one out there like him. We all love him — you can see that. He gets a special relationship with his players. Talk to the ones he has worked with previously and they’ll say the same.’
James Milner has acted on Klopp’s behalf to get the point across in some team talks
The manager and Henderson carried the Champions League trophy off the plane in Liverpool
The feeling is mutual. Klopp will never forget the group that delivered his first European trophy, never forget his captain, either.
Asked what pleased him most about the performance, he paused and then said that Jordan Henderson is the captain of the 2019 Champions League winners.
He singled out Milner’s team talks, too. ‘With a non-native manager, I do not think it would be possible,’ he said, modestly.
Everyone was talking about the future and without uncertainty. This is a relatively young team and Jose Mourinho is not alone in thinking it could tread this path again next season. Mourinho, a manager-in-waiting turned television analyst, underscored Klopp’s achievement by listing all the great clubs that think they have a chance of winning this title. ‘Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain…’
Liverpool get to European finals with such regularity that it is almost taken for granted. Yet each time they do, this is what they are overcoming. Clubs with greater resources and influence, who see European glory as an entitlement. The wealth of German industry, sovereign wealth. Barcelona still think they can take Liverpool’s best players, too. Maybe they can, but they cannot take Liverpool over two legs.
The Reds are well set for more trophies and there is a gaping spiritual chasm to Spurs
Contrast this optimism with Tottenham, where Mauricio Pochettino was once more talking in riddles. A polite enquiry about the future — certainly not demanding a yes or no answer — brought only more obfuscation.
‘You can interpret things in different ways,’ said Pochettino. ‘People want to be clever and give out opinions and compare me with different managers but we are in a different project in a different place.
‘After five years in Tottenham it was so clear the project. Now it’s time to be calm, charge our mind and have time to talk. Hopefully, it will be the beginning of a very successful period for the club.’
Note ‘the club’ not ‘us’. Those nuances are why there are still attempts at interpretation, despite Pochettino’s irritation.
No doubt Klopp and Liverpool are in a different place, and Pochettino perhaps envies the level of support that buys Van Dijk, but the distinction could not have been plainer. Tottenham did magnificently to reach this final, but remain a long way from Liverpool, spiritually. And that is a greater chasm than 26 points, or even two goals.
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