Among many other memorable quotations, the former Liverpool Football Club manager, Bill Shankly, once said:
“At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters…”
As football becomes more global and almost unimaginable riches flood into the game, this quote seems outdated. Players are recruited globally, managers come and go, commercialisation becomes the name of the game and local communities are increasingly priced out of the games. But there was actually a second part of the Shankly quotation which, when combined with the first, is what makes it memorable:
“… Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”
Show me the money
Taken as a whole, the quote appears to be quaint and from a different era to that of the Premier League. A quick look at the ownership structure of football clubs shows that the directors/owners are no longer just signing the cheques – they increasingly define the clubs. The billionaire owners of the most successful football clubs rarely originate from or live in the country, let alone have roots in the cities or, heavens forbid, live in the local communities. They typically jet in for special occasions such as cup finals. The focus of their attention is on repaying the huge loans or leveraged buyouts through the TV rights, sponsorships, image rights, stadium naming rights, commercial rights, attendance money, shirt sales… actually just about any form of additional income stream apart for drugs and weapons, as far as I can tell.
This applies to all the top clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and indeed my own team, Liverpool (truth be told, the latter´s recent success on the field just about justifies adding it to the same league the others). It also applies to the less successful clubs – it is only a matter of degree. Given the extent of billionaire absentee landlordism and the fact that the Boards play an increasingly symbolic role focusing almost exclusively on a commercial role, the Director/Chief Executive has taken almost total control of the clubs and influence all key decisions, including who to buy, sell and the associated negotiations. The epitome of this is the Chief Executive of Manchester United, who covers pretty much all aspects of the club; all roads appear to lead to the financial wizard and single point of contact for the absentee billionaire owner, Mr Ed Woodward.
One might be tempted to bastardise the Shankly quotation as follows:
“At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the billionaire owner, the Chief Executive and the commercial income stream. Fans, managers and players don’t come into it. They are only there to fill the seats.”
David vs Goliath
So it is wonderful, from time to time, to rediscover that Shank´s quote is very much alive and kicking as it were… indeed, to the point that it almost defies logic or belief.
The case in point was the Europa League quarter-final between Liverpool and Dortmund, which was played over two legs on 07 and 14 April 2016. There are a surprising number of parallels between the two clubs, not least sharing the You´ll Never Walk Alone anthem, the reputation of having loyal fans, their ability to express their passion, the capacity to motivate their teams, etc. Another common feature is the fact that Liverpool´s new manager, Jürgen Klopp, was the manager of Dortmund until the past season. So, of all the most unlikely things to happen, the two teams were, of course, drawn to play each other. Such is football.
This was most unlikely because a bare fact separates the two clubs: a gulf in footballing quality. Dortmund is regularly in the Champion´s League, which is widely considered to be a quantum leap above that of Europa League (I personally disagree with this view). I can barely remember the last time Liverpool played in that league with distinction in the recent past. Dortmund is a cut above the current Liverpool team: it is stuffed full of world-class and globally renowned footballers. By contrast, now that Stephen Gerrard has left the club, Liverpool is merely an internationally known club with a glorious football history behind it. The last time it won the Champions League was in 2005 (it also reached the final in 2007) and the last time it won the English league was 26 years ago or before the Premier League was even established.
Small wonder that all the bookies were betting on Dortmund doing the same to Liverpool as it had done in the previous round against Tottenham, when they won 5:1 on aggregate. It was very much a case of David (the Reds) vs Goliath (the Black and Yellows), even allowing for the fact that it was a cup competition albeit one over two legs where the best team normally predominates.
The Holy Trinity at work or the Anfield Effect
The fans: you’ll never walk alone
I watched the Dortmund vs Liverpool and Liverpool vs Dortmund games and they crystallised why I love football so much and why it really is not all about the money or the owners and directors.
Someone once said that football is tribal. Tribalism relates to a large family or other group that someone belongs to or a group of people, often of related families, who live together, sharing the same language, culture and history. It strikes me that this must be true, though the “related families and living together bits” increasingly ring hollow. I am not from Liverpool, I have no connections with the city and I have never watched Liverpool play at Anfield Road. Yet, I consider myself as much of a fan as any red scouser. I grew up watching and listening to Liverpool games going back to 1977. With the advent of radio, television, satellite and now internet, it is possible to follow any team on earth from any corner on earth. I am not at all unusual in having this loyalty. You will find die-hard Arsenal fans in Croatia, Chelsea fans in Peru, Manchester City fans in Australia. You will even find Manchester United fans in Timbuktu…
As a consequence I belong to the Liverpool FC tribe and nothing brings that home more than when I listen to the Liverpool anthem being sung before the game. The hairs stood on the back on my head listening to the 80,000 Dortmund and Liverpool fans singing You´ll Never Walk Alone (YNWA); this sense of sharing something is the very definition of tribalism. Although it was half the number, the Anfield version was as powerful and intense, if not more so.
In this day and age where individualism seem to matter above all else, it is a rare but no less moving experience for it to see fans united by a song, a genuine sense of camaraderie shared by both sides and even see joint red-yellow/black scarves, something which is normally reserved for preseason friendlies.
But most of all, the games showed a bond between the respective teams. The cities were incredibly hospitable and respectful to each other, as should always be the case, but at the same time, there was no doubt where the loyalties lay or the fans commitment to winning and processing in the cup competition.
In football, allusions are often made of the crowd being the “12th man” in the football team. At Anfield, and a few other places around the globe, some would say they really are or at least can be from time to time. The fans are passionate, loyal (though they certainly can and do made their impatience known if their team and sometimes manager does not meet their expectations, such as Roy Hodgson) and create such an intense atmosphere that it can intimidate the opposition and/or referee and linesmen. The fans consistently support their team through thick and thin, but it is well know that the fervour is ratcheted up to a notch or two during special games, such as the Champions´League / Europa League. This has been evident again and again at Anfield, where reference is made to “special European nights” such as Saint-Étienne in the 1977 European Cup quarter-final and the Istanbul in the 2015 Champion´s League Final, among others.
The charge created by an expectant crowd and the intense atmosphere resulted in a chemistry at Anfield that cannot be ignored – it was even evident on TV screens transmitting across the globe. This is hard to pin down but it is fragile. It could easily have been stifled because Liverpool started disastrously by conceding two goals within 8 minutes giving the team a proverbial mountain to climb in order to get back into the game. Yet the fans never game up on their team or their manager. The fans played their part in the footballing holy trinity, especially during the Anfield Road home game.
I have previously written a piece about a German who has managed to make it acceptable to carry a German flag with pride in Britain. The man in question is Jürgen Klopp, who has been managing Liverpool for about 7 months.
The Liverpool fans are known for idolising their managers ever since Bill Shakily, but make no mistake about it: respect, loyalty and devotion must be earned. A few months ago the fans were walking out on their team in protest of ticket price hikes (the owners retracted immediately), they were increasingly dissatisfied with their manager (Brendan Rogers and Roy Hodgson before him) and were walking out on their team before the final whistle, even when there was sufficient time to possibly equalise or even win the game. A change has been evident in resent months and that is due to the new manager and only him.
The thing about Juergen Klopp is that he insists upon, no, he demands total commitment until the last second of extra time. After a game when the fans started walking out of the ground long before the end, he said: “12 minutes to go and I saw many people leaving the stadium. I turn around and saw them go. I felt pretty alone at this moment!” If this was a message for the fans, there was also one for the players: “We decide when it’s over. Between 82 and 94 minutes, you can make eight goals if you want! But you have to work for it.”
To their credit, the fans understood his point and their role in the holy trinity of football; if they give-up on their team, then what is there for the team to play for? The same goes for the players. They responded to their manager and the team has stage several improbable comebacks to draw and even win games against the odds.
The man is passion incarnate. So much so that one of the TV channels actually decided to introduce a Klopp Cam just to record the manager throughout the first match. He is a walking, living drama during a football match. He demands everything of himself and thus also of his players. It is hardly surprising that he also insist upon the same of the fans. He has a genius for tapping into the vein of feeling and he obviously gets the importance of getting the team and the fans working alongside him, as one of the three important cogs in the wheel.
So when you have a passionate manager, an experienced manager, a tactician, a motivator and a successful manager that could have gone to almost any club on the planet that he chose to, this is a powerful concoction. He chose to come to Liverpool, effectively a mid-table team too often glorying in its increasingly dim and distant past. You have someone who instantly connected with the club, its traditions and its fan base.
The effect on Liverpool F.C. as a team and as a club has been electric. What you get, without a shadow of a doubt, is Shankly mark II. They are different yet cut from the same cloth. One was a Scot, the other a German. Both passionate and at one with the fans. Both with a gift for memorable one-liners and hugely charismatic. One built the foundations for a club which became the most successful English club (now exceeded by Manchester United) and one of the most successful European clubs. The other has rebuilt two clubs, firstly Mainz into a successful team and Dortmund into an elite international team. Both also know that there is a price to pay for the degree of intensity that they generate. Shankly retired abruptly after 15 years of managing Liverpool and Klopp resigned from both his former clubs after 7 years. No footballing holy trinity can last for ever, though 7 years is an eternity in modern football management, Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger aside.
When the manager “gets” the club they manage, understands the history of the club and connects with the fan base, something starts which defies logic. He may not have won a single thing yet, but there is no doubt that Liverpool will. It is only a matter of time and faith.
The two teams were mismatched in quality and experience. The Liverpool team that won the Champions League in 2005 and lost in the final in 2007 is long gone and was arguably never a top quality team, though it did have an excellent manager and a sprinkling of top players such as Gerrard, Alonso, Carragher, etc. Dortmund has consistently qualified for the Champions League and was a losing finalist in 2013. It has won the Bundesliga twice and is almost invariably second (except for last year, who is why it is in the Europa League this time around). It has been playing spectacular, high intensity, entertaining football for years, turning it into a globally recognised team stuffed full of world-class players, even if the cream of the crop is regularly poached by the Bayern Muenchen, Real Madrid and Barcelona. It is known and appreciated by neutral fans the world over and Klopp is the main reason for that. Liverpool does not have a single world-class player, just a global reputation based on unparalleled success in the 1970s and 1980s – a good quarter of a century ago.
But Liverpool now has two parts of their holy trinity: amazing fans and an astute manager – motivator. If you can combine this with a team willing to do whatever the manager required and the fans insist upon, just about anything can happen. And it did.
In the first leg, Dortmund played sluggishly and below par. Liverpool more than matched them and scored the first goal. Dortmund equalised and the draw was a fair result. The Liverpool team was praised in England and the Dortmund team was hammered in Germany. Their impressive manager, Thomas Tuchel, the success of Klopp both at Mainz and at Dortmund, implied that the media build-up to the game had affected his team. The return of Klopp to the city and club that loved him and made him one of their own, to his stomping ground for 7 successful years, to the fans that will always idolise him and to the team that he put together was the reason for Dortmund´s poor performance. I believe this. If a footballing holy trinity had been established in Dortmund, it leaves emotional currents and eddies that can have unpredictable effects. At the same time, Tuchel promised that this would not be the case in the return leg at Anfield. They would play attacking football.
The fact that football has the capacity to defy logic, rhyme or reason became apparent in the return leg at Anfield Road. Liverpool had taken home a slender away goal advantage from the 1:1 draw (if there is a draw, the club that scores the most goals away from home wins the game). However, when Dortmund´s attacking trio comprises players such as Reus, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang who between them had scored zillions of goals leading up to the game, this was never going to be such of an advantage, and so it proved.
Dortmund scored after 5 minutes, blowing away LIverpool´s slender advantage. After 8 minutes Liverpool imploded by conceding a second goal. This meant that Dortmund were 1:3 up on aggregate. Because of the away goal rule, to progress to the next stage Liverpool would have to score 3 goals before the end of the game. The Dortmund fans were jubilant and with good reason. Their team had not been beaten in 18 games and had tossed aside all challengers, including Tottenham. Just to illustrate the point, it is extremely hard but not impossible to reverse a three goal deficit in a game, especially against a top 5 team in the world. Dortmund had not lost a game in which they had led by two goals for over 20 years.
Liverpool fans are knowledgeable. They knew the odds were stacked-up against their team. Yet they did not give-up on either team. The same applied to the manager; watch Klopp´s body language throughout the game. Disappointment is there for all to see when Dortmund scored but so is the passion, the determination and the absolute desire to win.
Origi, the outstanding player over the two legs of the match, said: “The manager was very calm, surprisingly calm. That’s the class of a big manager, you could see no panic, no stress, he believed in us and in the end it helped. He gives us belief and we tried to reward that, the belief of the fans, everything. The manager just said that we lived to play in evenings like this. We had nothing to lose. We just had to go. We had to play and show our qualities and believe in ourselves and at the end we could win … At half-time he told us we just had to do everything to make it a special evening to tell your children and grandchildren.”
Two parts were solidly behind the team but would the team form the footballing holy trinity? The answer came shortly after the break.
Miracles do happen… more than once
With the manager willing them on maniacally and the fans attaining an almost unbelievable level of intensity, the team responded. Within a few minutes they had scored a goal. But a Dortmund team packed with experienced international players did not wilt. Reus scored a superbly executed goal that would have deflated almost all teams and fans.
Once again Liverpool needed to score three goals in less than 30 minutes, normally mission impossible. Cometh the hour, cometh the footballing holy trinity. The only player that comes close to earning the “world class” label, Coutinho, scored. The score now at 2:3 required another two goals for Liverpool to come on top, with 24 minutes left.
The decibel level went up. The players, the fans and the manager could sense something, something indescribable but no less real. The Dortmund players feel it too but instead of energising them like the Liverpool team, it achieved the opposite. It unnerved them and they entered a phase of the game that they will probably will never be able to explain to themselves of anyone else. They became nervous, they lost shape, they were incapable of taking advantage of the increasing risks that the Liverpool team began to expose themselves to in the search for two more goals with time running out. The next goal was critical and it fell to a Liverpool defender, Sakho, who has only ever scored one goal of the team years ago. It was now 3:3 but this was not good enough. The away goals rule meant that Dortmund would still win.
The fans sensed that a footballing miracle like Istanbul was on, as did the manager and the team. The Dortmund team, a highly organised, tactically astute and hugely experience team that would normally close down a game had no answers for what was happening. Belief drained from them and it was inevitable that the wining goal would come during extra time. Another defender with only one goal for Liverpool, Dejan Lovren, scored the winner in extra time.
Cue pandemonium, ecstasy, disbelief. Some things just cannot be explained or rationalised. Thomas Tuchel, magnanimous in defeat, as were the Dortmund fans and team, said in the post match interview: “It was not logical. I can give you a description, but not an explanation” for what had just happened, adding: “The stadium seemed to know what would happen… It was as if it was meant to be.”
A team full of superior players with a huge lead had just been blown away by Liverpool within less than 30 minutes. There is no need to explain anything: Dortmund simply could not resist the power of the Liverpool holy trinity. The game did not reflect badly on the Dortmund team. The team, the fans and the manager are a class act… this was one of those days.
Of course, moments when the three elements of the footballing holy trinity gel in this manner are few and far between. But miracles do happen and they happen more frequently for some than for others, in some stadiums more than others. And they certainly happen more frequently at Anfield.
This game will live in the memory of Liverpool and Dortmund fans. Winning the next game or wining the Europa League is not important, or at least not for now. The Liverpool footballing holy trinity is back in fine working order and hope soars again.
© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU