Jürgen Klopp, manager of new Premier League champions Liverpool, is a man who transcends his sport. TONY EVANS interviewed him, shortly before his team took the title, about his politics, his background and what drives him.
Jürgen Klopp does not care what people think. He has little interest in how others perceive him. The 53-year-old does not need anyone’s approval. He is secure in his own self. Sitting on a couch at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, the German explains his thought process.
‘It sounds ridiculous but I never lacked confidence,’ he says. ‘But not in any ‘I can do everything’ way. I knew that if I made a mistake and people make a big fuss about it, I cannot change it.’
He shrugs. For now the fuss is all about his successes. Klopp has been manager of Liverpool for four and a half increasingly impressive years. Last season, his team won the Champions League, football’s most glamorous club competition. They have dominated this coronavirus-affected domestic campaign and were 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League when football was suspended in March. They became English champions last week, when a Manchester City defeat meant the second-placed team would be unable to catch them. It has been 30 years since Liverpool last won the title. Merseyside has been waiting for this moment for a long time.
Like all of us, Klopp has been tested by the limbo of lockdown, but as the spectacle of football returns, diminished by empty stadiums, he comes back enhanced, a leader who turned out to be more in tune with Liverpool – the club, the city and its passionate history – than anyone could have expected.
The lockdown means our interview has to be conducted remotely on Zoom. Klopp prefers this to telephone conversations because he likes to see the face of his questioner. He is relaxed and engaged. Flashing that high-wattage smile and quick to laugh.
This is not always the case when dealing with football personalities. A culture of suspicion and defensiveness towards the media exists in the sport and interviews can be a chore for managers who are preoccupied with the demands of their job. Before the start, a colleague jokingly gives a warning about Klopp’s tendency to talk.
‘Don’t be shy of cutting him off,’ he says. ‘He likes to go on.’ It is worth letting Klopp’s thought process run their course. He has plenty to say.
His style of management is idiosyncratic and emotional. He sometimes appears like a caricature with his pitchside antics. His energy can boil over and he celebrates like a fan, smothering his players with hugs and kisses. When things are going less well, he rouses the crowd, recognising their part in creating a winning environment. He can turn a phrase. ‘Heavy-metal football,’ a throwaway line, has become part of the game’s lexicon.
How did his approach develop? Who were his leadership models when growing up in the small town of Glatten in the Black Forest? ‘My father and my mother,’ he says immediately. ‘To be honest, I didn’t look up to any others. I had good teachers and less good teachers. I had very good coaches and less good coaches with better personalities.
‘That’s the truth. I never had role models because I think you have to find your own way. That’s the first reason for it. I never was worried that I would choose the wrong way because I was always interested in people and was always interested in the benefits of a big group; my family, my friends, my team.
‘I did not look up to anyone and think, ‘wow, that’s exactly how I should work’. I hear a lot and see a lot of people and they do a great job in different areas but it’s not that I try to get information about how they became the people they are. Life is our guide.
‘You have to take the right crossroads. We all have to make decisions constantly – left, right, straightaways – but if you are lucky enough to more often than not take the right direction then you should be fine. At least when you have my life, when you’ve grown up in a village. There were not a lot of crossroads where I could make mistakes.’
Klopp’s father, Norbert, was a sales representative and a thwarted footballer. He honed his son’s competitive instincts. ‘Early in the morning, come rain or shine, he would put me on the touchline on the pitch, let me start running for a bit and then ran himself, overtaking me,’ Klopp once explained to a German newspaper.
The regimen continued until the youngster was quicker than his father. ‘It was a far cry from being fun,’ Klopp said. Norbert, who died in 2000, was stingy with his praise. Elisabeth, his mother, was much more affectionate. Nevertheless, Klopp grew up in a happy, comfortable home.
The Swabian forest was a great place for a youngster. ‘The childhood was brilliant there,’ Klopp says. ‘Absolutely brilliant. You could do everything you wanted as a little kid. But when you become a teenager it becomes boring overnight. Really boring. If you miss the bus, you have to wait another 24 hours. It’s not that you take the next one. I knew when I was 14 that I would leave the area. I loved being there but always knew it was too small.’
This February, in the midst of a blizzard, Glatten seemed even more isolated. The locals are very reserved. A Swabian proverb says ‘Nix gschwatzt isch Lob gnuag’ – to say nothing is praise enough – but the pride in Klopp is obvious.
In a bar, the man behind the counter was delighted to find that the stranger asking questions about football was from Liverpool. ‘You are from Klopptown,’ he exclaimed in delight. Did the barman know the town’s most famous son? ‘Everyone knows Kloppo.’
The goldfish bowl intimacy was one of the reasons why Klopp was so keen to leave Glatten.
‘[It was] too small minded,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of duties you have to fulfil. On Saturday morning if you don’t brush the street in front of your house then you must be dead. That’s your only excuse – you died overnight. Otherwise everyone’s asking where you are. It’s a nice place with really nice people but I was always going to leave – to experience different things, to experience more. After I did my A-levels I went on holiday for two weeks, came home and then left. Never came back pretty much. I go there a lot of times but not to live.’
The crossroads out of Glatten took Klopp first to Mainz as a player and a manager, then to Borussia Dortmund, where he acquired the reputation as one of the world’s top managers. Finally the road led to Liverpool.
Merseyside can feel even more like a village, especially when it comes to football. The spotlight is never off players and managers. Rumours spread like wildfire. At the height of the Covid-19 emergency, Klopp was spotted on the streets near his home in Formby applauding ambulances.
Everyone in the city seemed to have heard about it within hours. When Klopp’s wife, Ulla, placed thousands of pounds behind the counters of local supermarkets to help pay the bills of essential workers, the story reached the newspapers quickly.
The Klopps were disappointed that their gifts could not remain anonymous. A private life is a luxury for a football manager and his family on Merseyside.
Liverpool is an unusual club. The supporters want success on the pitch but have high expectations of the man in the dugout. This is down to one man, Bill Shankly, a Scot who remade the football club in his own likeness during his 15 years in charge.
Like Klopp, Shankly was from a village, a mining community called Glenbuck. He became manager at Anfield in 1959 and brought glory – and the ethos of the pit – to the club. One of Shankly’s most famous quotes still resonates with the broadly left-wing fanbase. ‘The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards,’ he said. ‘That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.’
The managers who are truly loved by the Kop have connected with the mindset of a region that is frequently on the political, social and economic margins of British life. Kenny Dalglish, the greatest player in the club’s history, was in charge at the time of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and carried the emotional burden of a city.
Dalglish has continued to be a symbol of the fight for justice since then. More recently Rafa Benitez was an advocate for the area – even to the point of setting up permanent home on the Wirral – and became deeply involved with the wider community.
The Spaniard developed a close connection with the Hillsborough families and campaigners and donated substantial sums to a variety of charities.
Klopp, with his avowed left-wing instincts, was a perfect match for a support base that craves a leader with his type of views. The German did not realise what he was getting into, though.
‘I didn’t know that before I came,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know how big the role is at Liverpool. I knew about Shankly. I knew about Kenny and Rafa Benitez. But I knew about them as managers or coaches. Not about what they did for the city.
‘I don’t think it would have helped me. I’d have thought ‘wow, that’s really big if I have to step in his shoes, that’s not possible’.’
Klopp, though, has exceeded the expectations of even the most politically-minded supporters. He articulated his views in an interview with Die Tageszeitung: ‘I’m on the left, of course. More left than middle. I believe in the welfare state. I’m not privately insured. I would never vote for a party because they promised to lower the top tax rate. My political understanding is this: if I am doing well, I want others to do well, too. If there’s something I will never do in my life it is vote for the right.’
Ian Byrne, the Labour MP for West Derby and a founder of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, has been impressed in his conversations with Klopp. ‘He’s a perfect fit for the club and city,’ Byrne says. ‘He gets it. He’s politically astute and very inquisitive.
‘He doesn’t understand what’s going on in this country. He understands that foodbanks are necessary but is appalled that a nation as rich as this has people going hungry.’
The Liverpool manager pays close attention to British politics. Klopp was impressed by Jeremy Corbyn’s policies but underwhelmed by the 71-year-old’s leadership skills. He has even less confidence in Boris Johnson and recently attacked the government’s policy during the coronavirus emergency. ‘I was not worried for one second that the government could cost us the title because I was worried about the numbers who were dying – and I’m still worried,’ Klopp said.
‘I didn’t vote for this government. This government was the choice of other people. And the problem I had was that I got the news from England and the news from Germany.
‘If aliens looked at us both from the outside, they would think we came from two different planets.’
Byrne believes Klopp could prove to be an important figure on the British social landscape. ‘He’s depressed by inequalities,’ the MP said. ‘I think he’ll play a big role in highlighting the problem in the coming months. He’s the right man for the right time.’
As for life after football, Byrne thinks the possibilities are almost boundless. ‘He can do anything,’ he said. ‘He could be a future chancellor of Germany.’
That viewpoint is endorsed by a number of people who know Klopp. ‘When he arrived, someone said he was ‘a Knight,” a source at Anfield said. ‘It sounds silly but you can understand what they meant. He has an inbuilt desire to fix things. If people come into his orbit with problems he will try to help if he can.
‘His wife is the same. She was a social worker before they met. It makes sense. If they know you are in trouble their instinct is to help.’
Unwittingly, Klopp has followed in the footsteps of Shankly. It has come as a surprise to him. What brought him to Merseyside was pure footballing ambition. Yet, even within the narrow confines of the game the job was much broader than he expected.
‘The reason I came here is it was just a really interesting project,’ he says. ‘A big club with a really good team who were not playing the best football at the moment. I didn’t think for a second about what would be my role.
‘Yes, there were a few question marks in my mind because in Germany I was a head coach and you come here and it’s a manager. In Germany we think that’s just a different job description, the same thing but a different name. It’s not. But I didn’t know that before so I had to grow in this role, step by step. Again, if I had known more about it, maybe I would have said I’m not sure if want to do it like this, I want to be just a coach.
‘I didn’t ask about a budget. Maybe I should have done. That’s good for the owners because I’m from Germany and we don’t think like that. As a head coach in Germany you go and take over a team and the next question is not ‘how much money do I have to spend?’ Nobody tells us. The answer would probably be it depends how successful you are. You earn it, you spend it.
‘I was open for everything and so far it’s worked out.’
Lockdown has been the biggest challenge of Klopp’s career. People around Anfield speak with awe about the manager’s conduct on March 20, the day the Premier League suspended operations. ‘We knew it was coming,’ a club source said. ‘There were meetings with all the departments in the morning and everyone was given a chance to give their input. The way he works is like a cabinet government with an unbelievably powerful prime minister. Klopp will take the ultimate decision but he takes other opinions on board.’
In the uncertain environment the squad went out to train as normal. ‘The news that the games were called off indefinitely was shouted down from the balcony. Klopp just nodded. He knew what had to be done.
‘He gathered all staff – everyone, not just the players – in the canteen and began to speak. It was unscripted, without notes. One of the first things he said was: ‘These are extraordinary times. Let’s not be selfish.’
‘Then he went through the mechanics of what was going to happen so everyone knew clearly what the situation was. He was sitting on the edge of a pool table and he said, ‘The first person who gets Covid is not the idiot,’ making it clear that everybody’s health was the most crucial issue.
‘He then reassured the team. He said, ‘Whatever happens, we have earned the right to be champions. If we do the right things we will have the opportunity to finish the season.
‘Then he finished with the most important bit. He said, ‘No one needs to be on their own. You can call me any time. If someone needs help, call me. There is no excuse for not doing it.”
That set the tone for football’s hiatus but keeping the team focused and fit remotely has been difficult. ‘Thank god for technology,’ Klopp says. ‘Imagine what would have happened in the ’80s. We’d really be on a lockdown then and using the phone in the living room of your mother would not be too cool to contact other people.
‘We made the best of it. We had a really lively chat group. We had a lot of Zoom sessions.’
Keeping the fitness levels up was a struggle. ‘The boys worked really hard,’ Klopp says. ‘Even I started running in the lockdown. I’m used to seeing young people doing sports, these guys are used to doing sports. It’s your own impulse. You want to do something. So when they came back they were in incredible shape. But it’s difficult.’
Everyday interaction is the key to Klopp’s approach. The game is as much mental as physical to the manager.
‘I want to know how my players are pretty much every day,’ he says. ‘I watch training and I usually see smiles. If [a player] is angry I can go and ask, ‘has something happened at home?’
‘I couldn’t get this sort of contact. I missed that a lot. I’m pretty sure it was not that easy for the players either because they are used to this kind of care. We really care if they are 100% right or not. Because I can’t expect 100% performance if you are only 70% alright on a private basis. If you know, you can adjust. If you don’t know, you are just surprised. That’s why lockdown was a proper challenge for all of us. The boys were disciplined. There were no real incidents during the lockdown with our boys because we are really focused and want to come back desperately.’
For all his smiling demeanour, Klopp is a tough character. He is an extremely hard taskmaster. One player who was transferred from another Premier League club was certain he had made a mistake during his first three months at Anfield. He struggled with the intensity of training but also the mental demands that Klopp places on his players. The individual was certain he was close to breaking point when a realisation struck him: for the first time in his career he felt like an athlete. It was an epiphany and the player understood that the effort was worthwhile.
Squad members also know it is best to stay on the right side of their manager. He can be very quick to anger, though the people around him insist that he does not hold grudges once he calms down. Unless, of course, that rage is directed towards outsiders. ‘The idea of the ‘enemy within’ is anathema to him,’ an Anfield insider said. ‘His first instinct is to trust.’
It bemuses Klopp a little how much he means to the supporters and people of Dortmund and Liverpool. ‘I have no idea how I connected with the cities because in my job it’s really difficult to go into the cities,’ he says. ‘It’s pretty much not possible. It’s more from the people’s side, I would say. It’s not too complicated to connect with people. I do that constantly with players, with people working in the club.
‘When I came to Liverpool and Dortmund I only tried to connect with the football team, to be 100% honest, and with the club. First with the players, then with the club. All the rest just happened.’
Unlike some rival managers, Klopp does not want to be seen as special and believes this makes him easier to associate with. ‘I am a completely normal person,’ he says. ‘There is no reason to see me in a different way. I have the same needs as other people, I have the same wishes as other people and a lot of problems that are the same. As long as you see it like this it’s easy to talk to people when you have time. That’s my main issue. It’s easy to connect with people. I never had a problem with that.’
In one of his early press conferences at Anfield, Klopp arrived wearing a Beatles T-shirt. His detractors used this as evidence of a manipulative personality. Liverpool fans loved it but cynics doubted Klopp’s sincerity. He laughs off the accusations and insists his homage to Merseyside’s greatest band was not pandering to his audience. ‘The T-shirt was a present,’ he says. ‘I was not for one second concerned or thought about what kind of message, or what would happen afterwards – will the people go mad, or whatever?
‘I thought it was funny: A Liverpool manager wearing a Beatles shirt. Nice. Go. I don’t plan things like this. I got a T-shirt the night before, think it’s nice, let’s wear it, done. That’s how it is. If you always think about the reaction of people, good or bad, you cannot do the things you have to do.’
The same logic applies to football. ‘Most of the time I think about things but do not know exactly how they will be,’ he says. ‘The next game, the next line-up… we can make a line-up two days before the game and throw it away immediately because so many things happen before then. So that’s my life. I don’t know what outcomes will be. I have only an idea. And that’s what I’m working with. I know nothing about the future but I have constantly to plan it.
‘And that’s [the same] with the T-shirt. If people like it, good. If not, it would not be a problem for me. I haven’t worn it since then. I’m not 100% sure why but I think I have to wear stuff from our partners and that day I didn’t. So probably somebody told me I cannot do this again so I will not do it again, no problem. It’s not a revolution. I just do what I think is right and most of the time it seems to be OK.’
There is a much more to Klopp’s methods than this ad-hoc attitude, however.
‘People talk about the charisma and the anarchic perception but you can’t be as good as Klopp is without being an obsessive,’ the club source said. ‘He’s across everything. He delegates but he’s engaged with every issue. But if he is an autocrat, he hides it superbly.’
Unusually in managers, the fan in Klopp lurks just under the surface. He once said he would have been an ultra, a loyal fan, if he had not shaped a career in the game. As a youth he travelled to Stuttgart, the nearest club to Glatten, and stood on the terraces. ‘I would have been in the stands, 100%. I was. I was,’ he says with genuine enthusiasm.
‘When I was 15, 16, 17, I went to the stadium to watch football. I didn’t have the money to sit down. It was great. I don’t think at 53 I would still try to stand for 90 minutes so probably I would sit now but, yes, I would have been a supporter. I loved the game before I could play it.’
He struggles to understand people who are not entranced by football. Klopp was elevated to the managerial role in Mainz unexpectedly in 2001 when the club were in desperate straits. He saved them from relegation from Germany’s second tier and eventually took the team up into the top flight Bundesliga and earned European qualification. When he talks about the early days in charge in Mainz, the fondness is palpable but he appears to have enjoyed the off-the-pitch events most.
‘When I was a player there were no supporters, only a couple of people who didn’t know what to do on a Sunday afternoon so they went to watch a bad football game,’ he says.
‘When I’d been manager for nearly a year we had a game where if we won we would be top of the table for the first time in ages and there were only 6,000 people there.’
Klopp could not comprehend the lack of interest. ‘I went in the newspaper and said I had no idea what the people were doing at home. I don’t understand it. What is more important than watching this football team at this moment? If it’s not burning down at home, if it’s not a proper emergency, you have to come and see. I went to the university and spoke to thousands of students. I said, ‘where were you last Sunday? Tell me. What are you doing next Sunday?’ We had nothing and had to try and do everything to make us kind of sexy.
‘We had no money, nothing. We created each job in football by ourselves. We found somebody who looked like he could do the job – you look smart enough to do it so you are the new press officer, you are the new marketing director. That’s how we built that club. That was amazing. That creates special memories. We started winning all of a sudden. No one expected that. From that moment the city was flying. We went from nobody in the stadium to you could not get a season ticket in one year. Someone had to die before you could get their season ticket. That was a nice story. I like it as well.’
Moving to bigger clubs meant that level of interaction would be possible again but he relished the memory. He laughs out loud at the story of a Mainz taxi driver becoming emotional at the thought of Klopp’s time in charge. ‘Kloppo gave me the happiest days of my life,’ the cabbie said.
The same sentiment was echoed across the Liverpool fanbase when the team finally won the Premier League. They will build a monument to Klopp outside Anfield one day. He dismisses the idea.
‘When I die, I’m not interested in whether people still talk about me,’ he says. ‘I don’t want a statue. But if you spend time together with people or time within a club – at Mainz 18 years, at Dortmund seven and Liverpool going on five – if you don’t have a relationship with a lot of people during that time it would be a really sad story. Saying goodbye is not nice. It must hurt because then you see the time you spent together was really valuable. It really gave both sides something. As long as you are there, give whatever you have. Don’t hold anything back. You are 100% in this town, this club. If it was good, people will remember you. You don’t have to tell them ‘don’t forget’.’
This has been an unforgettable year on Merseyside. Why have Liverpool been so superior this season?
‘We only face super teams,’ Klopp says. ‘They are all brilliant. We are better than some of them, but certainly not all of them. How can you make the difference if each team is perfectly prepared? They all have good coaches. Football is not rocket science. You cannot reinvent the game every day. They are well prepared and physically fit. There must be a reason why you win.’
The answer, for Klopp, lies in collective effort. ‘The closer you are together, the more you [work] for each other. The more you love to suffer for each other, to sacrifice for each other, the better you will be. That’s common sense.
‘Everybody needs to feel responsible and important. For this you need super characters. Normal characters become super characters because we are all like this. We want to have help until we decide to make our own decisions. But most of the time we have questions and it is nice if someone can tell us, yes, this is the right decision.
‘But of course there’s a moment when you think ‘I’ve heard enough, I’ll do it by myself.’
‘You only create this freedom [for players to] make decisions by giving advice and information in the right situation. That’s not football, that’s life. It’s about togetherness. It’s about everything. It’s actually our daily life.’
Some have filled the gap left by football’s absence these past three months to suggest the record books should be marked by an asterisk if Liverpool get the title in an interrupted season. The scope of the team’s achievement his been underestimated, Klopp believes.
‘This is the most difficult year to become champions,’ he says. ‘If it needs an asterisk it’s not because it’s tainted but because it’s so special. From my point of view it will be most special because it has been the most extraordinary year I’ve had in my life. From a success point of view of course but from a crisis point of view as well. We never had a situation like this. To deal with the situation and still become champions? That’s massive, 100% massive.’
The Liverpool manager is not concerned about whether critics want to talk down his team’s feats. In the end, Klopp boils down his philosophy to two simple sentences that apply to football and life in general.
‘How do you treat others? If you treat them like you want to be treated you should be fine if you are not a complete idiot.’
The man at the apex of the People’s Game cares. Not about the fripperies of fame but about people. No wonder the people love him.
• This interview was originally published by Tortoise. Tortoise is committed to open, inclusive journalism and helping it members make sense of the world around them. Try it today. Download the Tortoise app and you can get your first 30 days for free.