Liverpool, Wilderness and The Promised Land

Thirty years. In the more impoverished parts of the world, that’s half a life. The Old Testament tells us that it’s just ten years less than Moses and the Israelites spent in the wilderness before they came to the Promised Land. It’s long enough to go from cassette tapes to CDs to Spotify, and from the twittering of birds to social-media outrage.

I was still a month away from turning 16 the last time Liverpool were crowned champions of England. Kenny Dalglish, then managing the side after the most storied of playing careers and the nearest thing most Liverpool fans have to a presiding deity, turns 70 next year. Graeme Souness, captain of the first Liverpool side I watched, is 67. Of the old Boot Room staff that Bill Shankly gathered together, only Roy Evans remains, and he’ll be 72 this year. Two generations have grown old waiting for something that was once considered inevitable.

I’ve watched a few clips of fans celebrating across the world, and all I feel is envy. I tell myself that might have been me 15 or 20 years ago. After this long, the predominant emotion is relief, closely followed by sadness. I saw the post from Steven Gerrard, who turned 40 during the lockdown. He never won it. Neither did Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Steve McManaman, Emile Heskey and so many of the others who gave us the hope to walk on in the lean years.

The most moving thing I’ve watched since the celebrations began is an animated clip of a boy who starts going to Liverpool matches with his father/guardian. It shows the passing of the years, the relative lack of success, his guardian growing older and eventually being taken to the games in a wheelchair. Then, he’s gone and all that the grown man now has left is a scarf. More time passes, and we arrive at the present day, to see him celebrate with his child on his shoulders.

One of my father’s closest friends, who shared my love of sport, was also a fan nearly 40 years. He passed away last year, a couple of months before the Champions League success. My nine-year-old doesn’t even understand the concept of 30 years. It’s just ineffably long as far as her life and experiences are concerned. She doesn’t understand why I’m solemn and brooding, instead of jumping around like a bean.

She’s too young to be told about three decades of ghosts, of the near-misses that lacerated far more than any other heartbreak. The implosion at the end of the 1996–97 season, Arsenal winning 14 of their last 15 games in 2001–02, the post-New-Year slump under Rafael Benitez in 2008–09, which meant that even the unforgettable 4–1 romp at Old Trafford was in vain. And then the spring of 2014, when one hand seemed to be on the trophy until Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea.

The Champions League was won in 2005, and again last season, but that’s always been a bonus. Jurgen Klopp was brought to Anfield to restore Liverpool to the European elite, but his emotional response when interviewed last night should tell you just how much more it means to end what has at times seemed an interminable wait.

I heard Jamie Carragher say on television that there were times towards the end of his career when he wondered whether Liverpool would ever win it again. Millions of others know that feeling. Ten years ago, after Benitez was sacked and Roy Hodgson appointed, the club was a joke, fit for nothing more than mid-table mediocrity. The likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City were streets ahead, both in terms of performances on the pitch and decisions in the boardroom. The fact that that’s no longer the case is the greatest tribute you can pay to the club’s owners, who assumed charge in October 2010.

For me, the most emotional aspect of the night was seeing the reaction of my childhood heroes, and others I loved as I got older. Players come and go, but it appears that Liverpool and the pull of the club doesn’t leave anyone. When you read the tweets from Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina, the depth of affection they feel for the club is very apparent.

Like Torres, Owen and McManaman also left Liverpool under a cloud, with some supporters questioning how much they cared. But seeing both on TV over the past week, their delight at the impending coronation has been transparent. Owen won a title with Manchester United late in his career, and McManaman won two Champions Leagues with Real Madrid, but they still have the Liver bird over the heart.

And finally, what can you say about Klopp himself? The weight of expectation crushed several that went before him, even the flint-hard Souness, but Klopp managed to use the history to his advantage. He told the players to forget about it and create their own, while making sure the club’s legends felt wanted enough to function as mentors when required. And now that his team has started winning trophies, he’ll doubtless remind them that the Liverpool way is to reset, consolidate and start over.

Manchester City will respond next season. Chelsea and Manchester United will be much stronger. Arsenal will push if the board gives Mikel Arteta the backing he needs. For now, though, none of that matters. Klopp has woken a sleeping giant, much as Bill Shankly did over 60 years ago. Apart from the sheer love of the game, the other thing they have in common is the bond with the supporters. I remember a poster from the Champions League final in Istanbul 15 years ago, which had pictures of the great Liverpool managers, and the tag line: They made the people happy.

Klopp certainly belongs in that gallery.