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MacKenna On Monday: Liverpool, A Rose Among Football’s Many Thorns

Back in November, after Virgil van Dijk had scored the Netherlands’ last-gasp equaliser against Germany in the Nations League, what followed quickly took over in terms of both headlines and chatter.

Well-known now due to the reaction then, he went to referee Ovidiu Hategan at the final whistle, put his arms around him, and offered the weeping official his sincere condolences.

It made sense. Hategan’s mother had just sadly passed away.

The outpouring of praise in Van Dijk’s direction for doing what used to be the most basic and the most common of decency – the sort that should be knee-jerk to most, and clearly was to him – would have been baffling were we not to incorporate modern sociology. But we must, and such an act being celebrated as heroic surmised two elements of a new and grim global community. Firstly, there’s the need to go over the top with celebrities, exaggerating good and washing away bad due to parasocial relationships. Secondly, the bar has been falling so far and fast that suddenly this was deemed newsworthy rather than something so normal as to bypass it.

None of this is on Van Dijk. He did what ought to be so usual as to be dull. No more and no less.

However, his maintaining of such standards has come to surmise his club of late. For sure on the pitch, where he best represents what they do well via his command of the old defensive traits around being water-tight and hard-nosed, and via his brilliance in the new-defensive traits of starting phases of play with his passing and vision. However, it’s off the field he surmises them too.

Just as is the above case, football has been subjected to the same falling standards. Many clubs have been dragged to new depths and how could they not be, with the greatest sides usually a front for a money-making operation nowadays? The drivers of this plunge are major companies that set the trends and big business has been at the forefront of what is happening, them included.

That’s not to say such clubs were bastions of something great before, but they were places of something much better than at present.

As proof, take a walk through the usual suspects and annual Champions League contenders. It’s hard to wish the best on many.

There’s Bayern Munich and their president, who fresh from hammering Mesut Ozil and straight from a three-and-a-half year sentence for tax evasion cited the constitution and morality of media for their mere criticism of his team’s performances; all the while their fans rubbish the likes of Leipzig when in fact their fifty-plus-one covers over the fact that it was the same big money that saved them from obliteration.

There’s Juventus who not long ago were using any and all legal loopholes to crawl past the punishment for their decision to turn their corner of Turin into a chemists in order to cheat; and more recently, despite not knowing the details, were happy to publicly pronounce that Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t have raped a woman as alleged, due to professionalism and sporting prowess.

There’s Barcelona and the selling of the sacredness of their colours until they could sell them for oil shekels instead, and that general mes-que un-club nonsense when behind the scenes they stink as bad as the rest. There’s Paris Saint-Germain and their artificial construction looking to turn a run-of-the-mill side into not only winners but some bizarre fashion brand incorporating everyone from Rita Ora to Beyonce to sell their cause. There’s Manchester City and the shocking proximity of the boardroom to the creation of famine and infanticide. There’s the half-and-half scarves on the matchdays in London as the city became that awful phrase, a football destination. There’s Real Madrid and their pseudo-crisis and moaning upon the end of one era of domination when they’ll just reload in the market and win again. On and on it goes.

Of course, you can pick flaws in anything, but is any of that something to want to get behind?

It’s a tour of everything from self-serving hypocrisy to out-and-out evil.


But then there’s the curious case of Liverpool.

* * *

The older boy in 23 Graysland, a nondescript housing estate on the outskirts of Athy, always raved about them. In the early- and mid-90s it was nothing new, as most nondescript Irish towns were pockmarked by the same. Their fans of that age used to claim it was because of some Irish connection, but it was never that. Like Leeds United before them and Manchester United after them, it was about being associated with winners and that was too easy as a choice to swallow. The rest of us had to endure the teams of our parents or some off-the-grid selection to stand out. Thus this wasn’t fair. At least that Irish part could be burst with news Everton were once the Catholic side in the place but on they went regardless.

Sanctimonious. Smug. Unrelenting.

Louder and more cocksure, they carried an arrogance that ought to have evaporated given results, and a desperate and needy sense of entitlement that explained why it ought to have evaporated. The saying goes that the shallower the brook, the more it babbles.

It all came to mind again watching them last Tuesday in Germany. For so much has changed.

When you sit down to take in a game as a neutral and find yourself more and more drawn to one side, it’s a good sign as to how they play the game. They were always favourites to go through against a Bayern team that have aged like an alcoholic, and that lack the ability to sustain pressure that was only evident in short and not-very-sharp bursts. And still, to go there, Liverpool’s win reminded of the superiority of the Italian sides in their golden age in the 1990s. That’s because of the smothering nature of a side once criticised for not being able to defend, the speed of their breaks, the width of their attack, and the general movement and danger from players far below the quality of Mo Salah. Plus there was an assuredness that they’d always win with a group of players that Jurgen Klopp hand-picked so well and that allows them to swarm teams in his favoured and entertaining style.

Still, this was Liverpool and to will them on when not a supporter takes something more.

So let’s go back a few years. Barely more than a decade has passed and with Tom Hicks and George Gillett over the club back then, they’d become everything they hated about other major sides. So much so that, on one hand, was the idea of a break-away club that would start way down the divisions and be about what they perceived real football to be. On the other hand, they refused to give up and formed the Spirit of Shankly group. Over time this would achieve many of its aims including new ownership while implementing some of their values, the sort that didn’t seem to belong to modern football. Take the Hicks and Gillett experience as an example.

When over the club, they’d been buying up houses to allow for an expansion of Anfield but left them abandoned as a waiting game drove down prices, and crushed what was left of the community around the stadium. One residence was set alight with smoke seeping in on top of the elderly couple next door; locals told of three burnt to death on one occasion; on another, a prostitute renting a place was found murdered. Since then not all has changed around the situation and a lot more needs to be done, but the fact it’s started bucks the trend of so many major clubs.

Little wins are to be acknowledged, if not celebrated.

If there’s been chairman Tom Werner’s input as well as John Henry’s involvement helping to steer the ship, that’s only part of the puzzle as to why they’ve become so likeable. The other is Klopp.

It’s refreshing that his goofy and amusing madness is merely a mask for his real quality. Hold that up against others like Jose Mourinho whose grumpiness once co-existed with his strengths, but later had his outright misery cover-up for his increasing weaknesses. Or Pep Guardiola who for all the deservedness around pride and pomp, still carries a know-it-allness that sees him project himself as some moral authority when he’s the exact opposite due to his choices and words.

Klopp has done this with a side not really at the top table either. During the week Four Four Two ran a graphic that showed net spending since the 1990s. When the German took over, Liverpool slipped outside the top 10 and, while recently returning, they are still dwarfed by the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, not to mention the major continental clubs. This shouldn’t be a surprise as when Barcelona want Luis Suarez or Philippe Coutinho, or Manchester City want Raheem Sterling, there’s no stopping them.

This can be overstated as well. But in the seven transfer windows since Klopp has been there, they’ve had a net spend of £126.3m. If that sounds like a little, consider that in the same period, Chelsea have lost £28m in the transfer market, Tottenham have paid £18.65m more than they’ve taken in, while Arsenal maybe unsurprisingly have profited to the tune of £48.6m from their wheeling and dealing. But if Liverpool’s outlay sounds like a lot, consider in the same period Barcelona if including add-ons have a net spend of €269.35m, Manchester United are at £323.4m, Paris Saint-Germain are at €348.2m, while Manchester City are at £354.52m. In otherwords, Liverpool in the realm of the heavy hitters spend an average amount. Only they aren’t an average team.

Nor will they be any time soon. While others like Ajax are set to be picked apart because of their exploits, and if Porto being picked apart has just started with Eder Miltao moving to the Bernabeu for €50m, that won’t be the case in Anfield. They’ve too much going for them. On top of this, there’s something old-school in what they are doing it for. Sadly the top level of the game has reached the stage where a club like Red Star Belgrade invade the pitch just because they’ve made the groups of the Champions League. So much is sanitised and in the corporate world of the game at such heights, it’s cold and surgical. But there is, at least at times, still a raw throwback passion at Anfield. We saw it last year against Manchester City and while some fans did go too far, it sadly meant that wonderful atmosphere providing glorious intimidation was completely overlooked. It makes Liverpool that little bit different.

Given the sphere we are in, too many will read a headline and judge this based on who their team is and their relationship with the Merseyside club. Write anything positive about a side and the point is usually missed for so many skip to the comment section, celebrating or having a go while missing the point. But don’t think of this as Liverpool’s success.

Think of it as how they’ve gone about achieving that success.

Would you not wish your club were in their position?

It’s as if in a realm of a lot of Dublin and a little Kerry, there’s a strong whiff of Mayo off them. They may not keep up the pace as the marathon in the Premier League reaches the closing miles. They may not have the quality to go all the way in Europe either.

But that you want them to says a lot about how they’ve gone about it.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.