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You don’t have to be born in Liverpool to support Liverpool FC. The brand is global, the owners are American, the fans are as likely to come from Benares as from Bootle. With the exception of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the star players also hail from elsewhere. So does the current manager, Jürgen Klopp. In the early postwar years, the presence of a German at an English club would have gone down badly: as Anthony Quinn points out, when Bert Trautmann signed for Manchester City, a crowd of 20,000 turned out in protest. Now, Brexit notwithstanding, all that’s behind us – though it helps that Klopp’s command of English (supposedly developed by watching Friends) and sense of humour have made him such a natural fit.
Quinn was born in Liverpool, and after a brief infant addiction to Celtic, because of the snazzy green-and-white hoops of their kit, he has been a Liverpool fan since his first Anfield match in 1972. His book is a love song not just for the city but for the man who has brought success to its football club (well, one of them) after 30 years without a league title. Not just success but fun, wit, passion, humanity, tactical brilliance and a remarkable set of teeth. Quinn’s wife accuses him of having a man crush on Klopp and he’s a little embarrassed by his hero worship. But how can you not love a man who, when lockdown began this year, with Liverpool top of the Premiership by 25 points but the season in danger of being scrapped, called on fans to have a sense of perspective about football (“the most important of the least important things in life”) and to concentrate on “look[ing] after themselves and each other”?
Unlike his great managerial rival Pep Guardiola, Klopp never reached the heights as a player. But he was persistent, making 325 appearances for second division Mainz, a club record: “I stuck around like a bad smell.” By the end of his 11 years there, he had learned a lot about tactics and had a diploma in sports science – qualification enough for Mainz, facing relegation, to take a punt on him as manager. He not only saved them from the drop but, after two seasons of missing promotion in the last minutes of the last game of the season, he took them up to the first division.
From Mainz he moved on to Borussia Dortmund. His impact wasn’t immediate but after three seasons a combination of astute signings, team spirit and his famous Gegenpressing method led to back-to-back league titles. Quinn expected his research into Klopp’s time in the Bundesliga to be a slog but he was captivated watching old footage and felt “distraught” at not having been part of it all. The pre-echoes of Klopp’s time at Liverpool must have resonated too: for Klopp to turn the club around would take time and there would be disappointments along the way.
Liverpool fans had grown used to disappointment. Quinn runs through the managers who followed the glory days from Bill Shankly to Kenny Dalglish: Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier, Rafa Benitez (about whom he’s surprisingly harsh), Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rogersnames checked (who came closest to bringing the title to Anfield until Steven Gerrard’s famous slip) – decent sorts, most of them, but none a winner. So it’s proper that the last part of the book should be given over to the club’s triumphs over the last two seasons, with key moments picked out – not least Alexander-Arnold’s endlessly watchable, quickly taken corner to Divock Origi that made it 4-0 against Barcelona. Liverpool played better football in losing out by a point to Manchester City (and to an unlikely Vincent Kompany goal against Leicester that Quinn can’t bear to mention) than they did last season, when opposing teams kept missing sitters. But whatever happens this season, Klopp has given the team a spine – not just the mental toughness to keep going but the spine on which every great team depends: goalkeeper (Alisson Becker), central defender (Virgil van Dijk, now sadly injured), striker (Mohamed Salah – or Sadio Mané).
Neither celeb-biography nor sports reportage, Quinn’s highly enjoyable book makes room in a short space for a lot more than Klopp: colour photographs; diary entries; a pastiche screenplay based on the film The Flight of the Phoenix; vignettes from childhood; the heretical admission that he dislikes the “mawkish” club anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”; observations on Klopp’s politics (left of centre); some terrible puns on former Liverpool players’ names (“Hamman for all seasons”, “all you need is Lovren”); and an A-Z of items that don’t fit the main narrative. He ends with a shameful confession that, in a moment of rage during a five-a-side game earlier this year, he headbutted a niggly opponent. It was a first, out of character and impossible to account for, but it has made him less quick to condemn professionals who lose it on the pitch. More important, he discovered that in his playing days Jürgen Klopp once did the same: “I was not alone in my infamy. Even Homer nods. Or nuts.”
• Klopp: My Liverpool Romance is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.