How Klopp Got to the Kop

How Klopp Got to the Kop

Liverpool’s owners were impressed with ‘the enormity of substance’ they detected behind Jürgen Klopp’s toothy smile and supersize persona.

KloppOn April 11, 2014, at 10 p.m., Jürgen Klopp met Hans-Joachim Watzke for a drink at Munich’s Park Hilton Hotel and told him that he had made up his mind. He was staying put.

Earlier that day, ahead of the team’s departure for an away game at Bayern’s Allianz Arena, the Borussia Dortmund coach had still been undecided. He’d received a tempting, hugely lucrative offer from the northwest of England, a chance to take over and revolutionize one of the biggest clubs in the world. “We first met in my kitchen,” says Watzke. “Without going into details, it was an interesting talk. I think it made a difference because he said to me on the plane that we needed to talk again in the evening. I was due to have dinner with my daughter, who lived in Munich, so I could only see him at 10 p.m. He straightaway said: ‘I can’t deal with this pressure anymore. I’ve turned them down.’”

Not long before, Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward had flown out to see Klopp in Germany. David Moyes’s short tenure at Old Trafford was coming to an end, and Klopp was United’s favorite to replace him, to bring back a sense of adventure to the Red Devils’ game. Woodward told Klopp that the Theater of Dreams was “like an adult version of Disneyland,” a mythical place where, as the nickname suggested, the entertainment on show was world class and dreams came true. Klopp wasn’t entirely convinced by that sales pitch—he found it a bit “unsexy,” he told a friend—but he didn’t dismiss the proposition out of hand either. After almost six years in the job at Dortmund, perhaps the time was ripe for a change of scenery.

Aware of United’s interest, Watzke had intended to insist that Klopp honor his contract, which had been extended to 2018 only the preceding autumn. Sensing that the 46‑year-old was quite conflicted, Watzke changed tack and opted for a very risky strategy. If Klopp wanted to go to Man Utd., he wouldn’t stand in his way, he told him, playing on their mutual trust and a connection that had long since crossed from business into the territory of friendship. After some deliberation—and the conversation at Watzke’s kitchen table—the BVB manager came to the conclusion that his work at the Signal Iduna Park was not yet done.

United, however, felt there was still a possibility of luring him away. When Moyes received his inevitable marching orders on April 22, Klopp was quickly installed as the bookmakers’ favorite to succeed the Scot. Incessant media speculation in the U.K. prompted the Swabian to release a statement via the Guardian the next day, to kill the rumor. “Man Utd. is a great club and I feel very familiar with their wonderful fans,” it read, “but my commitment to Borussia Dortmund and the people is unbreakable.”

Klopp continued to attract interest from the Premier League, regardless. Six months after he had turned down Woodward, Manchester United’s local rivals Manchester City made an approach. Tottenham Hotspur, too, inquired about his services. At the same time, Klopp used an interview with BT Sport ahead of Dortmund’s Champions League game at Arsenal to make his long-term intentions known. Asked whether he would be coming to England once his time at Borussia was over, the answer was unequivocal. “It’s the only country, I think, where I should work, really, [after] Germany,” he said, “because it’s the only country I know the language a little bit. And I need the language for my work. So we will see. If somebody will call me, then we will talk about it.”

The writing was very much on the wall then, Watzke says. Dortmund were having their first—and only—poor domestic campaign with Klopp in charge, and an escape to rainier climes all of a sudden held more attraction than before. Watzke: “Our season was already in the toilet, and you got that distinct feeling. … For me it was clear that he wouldn’t go anywhere else in Germany after Borussia, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. He always said he didn’t study English, but I’m pretty sure he polished it a little bit. I could observe that he had. It was obvious that he’d go to the Premier League. That’s his game.”

A football romanticist, Klopp had long been an avowed fan of the real, no‑holds-barred version of the sport played across the Channel. At a Spanish winter training camp as Mainz coach in 2007, he had devoured Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (and chased a lizard around his hotel room with his toothbrush in front of a TV crew); much of the inspiration for his brand of muscular, passionate football, as well as the idea that his teams could feed off the electricity of a fanatical crowd, derived from the sport’s motherland. Both at Mainz and at Dortmund, the crowds belted out passable versions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” conjuring up fervent atmospheres that took conscious inspiration from (idealized) English traditions. “I like what we in Germany call Englischer Fußball: rainy day, heavy pitch, everybody is dirty in the face and they go home and can’t play for the next four weeks,” he said to the Guardian in 2013. That year, his young Dortmund team had gate-crashed Europe’s elite competition, bursting all the way to the final of the Champions League, while he was wearing a baseball-cap that had the word P.hler imprinted on it—Ruhr area slang for somebody playing football the old-fashioned way, “on a Sunday morning on a lawn, the basics, loving the game.”

Klopp_4Klopp_6Klopp_2Klopp_3Klopp_5Almost exactly one year after Klopp had said no to United, his bond with Dortmund turned out to be breakable after all. He announced he would resign at the end of the 2014–15 season, making sure to add that he didn’t intend to take a sabbatical.

In an Art Nouveau villa in Bremen’s leafy Schwachhausen quarter, the phone started ringing a few weeks into the new Premier League season. As Brendan Rodgers’s time at Anfield came to a slow, drawn-out end, a number of people contacted Klopp’s agent, Marc Kosicke, promising to make an introduction to Liverpool. One, a German football agent, said he knew Kenny Dalglish really well. Kosicke preferred to wait. Eventually, somebody purporting to be Liverpool FC chief executive Ian Ayre called. Could they have a conversation about Klopp coming to Anfield? They could, Kosicke replied, but only via a video Skype call. While Ayre hung up, ahead of calling again over the app, Kosicke did a quick image search of the Liverpool official. Just to be sure. Too many pranksters and time wasters out there.

“Once you’ve been at Dortmund, where can you go as a coach?” Martin Quast, a friend of Klopp since the early ’90s, asks. “In Germany, there’s only the national team left for Kloppo. Everything else would be a step down, even Bayern. Kloppo gets off on emotions, on empathy, on rocking the house, on being a part of something really big. Compared with Dortmund, Bayern doesn’t really give you that. I could only imagine him taking on a club abroad, a club like Liverpool.” Christian Heidel says Klopp had only one reservation: his English. “We talked about it for a long time. He asked me: ‘Should I do it?’ I said: ‘The spoken word is your weapon, you know that. You have to decide if you can get across what’s important in English. If you let others talk for you, it won’t work. You’re only 70 percent Klopp then. You need to be sure.’ And then he said: ‘I’ll manage it. I’ll study now, and I’ll get there.’ And since he’s very intelligent, he got there, very quickly. I think at the time [of LFC’s approach], no other club would have stood a chance with him. He’d always been keen on them. He was excited by the emotional dimension of the job. I don’t think he’d have gone to Manchester City or a club like that—even though they really wanted him.”

Klopp’s name had first cropped up at Anfield in the spring of 2012, as possible successors to Dalglish were being sounded out. A middleman got in touch with the Dortmund coach but was told in no uncertain terms that Klopp had no intention of leaving. He was on the way to winning a historic double.

In September 2015, things got much more serious, rapidly. Rodgers’s poor start to the season had prompted Boston-based Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Liverpool FC’s owners, to scour the market for the next manager. “We were thinking about someone who had experience and success at the highest level,” FSG president Mike Gordon, 52, explains. “Jürgen had done that domestically, obviously in the Bundesliga. He really had done that, apart from maybe one or two kicks, in the Champions League, too. I think his credentials as one of the best managers, if not the best, were apparent for all. And we liked the type of football he played. Both the energy and the emphasis on attacking: high-electricity, high-wattage football with an appeal. So from a football sense it was a relatively easy and straightforward decision.”

While there were “obvious grounds for support” for Klopp, as Gordon puts it, FSG’s point man for Liverpool conducted due diligence on the German to see whether the hype was borne out by reality. “I tried to set aside his popularity in the football world and his charisma, for an unbiased analysis,” says the former hedge fund manager, who started out selling popcorn at baseball games as a kid. “I did a fair amount of research along with the people inside the club, determining how he should be evaluated, purely in an analytical and football sense. The process was much the same you would undergo in the investment business before taking a big position. I am happy to say—and it is self-evident at this point—that however high and elevated his reputation was in the football world, the facts were actually more compelling and more persuasive still.”

Gordon’s research pointed to Klopp having had “a decidedly positive effect, in a quantifiable sense, relative to what you might otherwise expect” on Mainz and Dortmund. Put more simply, the Swabian had outperformed. The appeal to Liverpool, whose strategy is based on a smarter use of resources, in comparison with some of their more financially potent rivals in the Premier League, was clear. “In a football sense, it was pretty straightforward,” says Gordon. “But of course, I didn’t know if philosophies and personalities, that of the club and Jürgen’s, would mesh. It had to be a mutual fit. We also needed to know whether Jürgen wanted to lead the football program and project of Liverpool. Those were very important pieces that needed to be determined.”

A meeting was scheduled in New York on Oct. 1. Klopp’s and Kosicke’s attempt at secrecy got off to a very bad start, however. In the Lufthansa lounge at the Munich airport, one of the staff asked Klopp—whose baseball-cap didn’t make for much of a disguise—why he was going to JFK. “We’re watching a basketball game,” he replied. A plausible explanation, except for the fact that the start of the NBA season was another four weeks away.

An hour after their arrival in Manhattan, the two Germans were rumbled again. As luck would have it, the receptionist at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue hailed from the coach’s footballing hometown. “My word, it’s Kloppo!” he exclaimed in broad Mainz dialect. Somehow, news of the clandestine trip never leaked.

FSG’s principal owner, John W. Henry; LFC chairman Tom Werner; and Gordon met with Klopp and his agent at the offices of law firm Shearman & Sterling on Lexington Avenue, a few blocks to the east. “My first impression was that he was very tall. And I am not,” Gordon says, laughing. “It was very late but we had this very lengthy and substantive talk, and then we adjourned until the next day and met for more lengthy and substantive talks at the hotel. I want to emphasize: These were very much two-way conversations. This was about Jürgen being right for Liverpool FC and Liverpool FC, us as owners, being right for Jürgen.” Klopp’s charisma, as suspected, was of a similar size to his frame (“He uses his personal skills, and his way of relating to people, to get across his message”) but what Gordon was struck by most was “the enormity of substance” he detected behind the toothy smile and supersize persona. “It wasn’t about ‘Boy, this guy is really charming. He is going to do wonderfully at press conferences and as a representative of a club.’ Very quickly, what came across was his breadth of talent: not just the personal side, but the level of intelligence, the kind of analytical thinking, the logic, the clarity and honesty, his ability to communicate so effectively even though English was not his first language. That side I think he doesn’t always get full credit for because people are so taken with him as a person in the flesh.”

Klopp told the FSG executives that football was “more than a system,” that it was “also rain, tackles flying in, the noise in the stadium.” Most of all, he said, the Anfield crowd had to be “activated” by the style of performance, to spur on the team and vice versa in a self-amplifying cycle of exuberance.

Gordon: “It was very hard to find anything that was in any way deficient, and that is the honest truth. What I am saying is: It was clear that Jürgen, as a football manager, really was on the same level as a corporate leader or someone you would choose to run your company. I say this as someone who’s spent 27 years as an investor, engaging with some of the very top CEOs and leaders of business in America and Europe. At that point it was obvious to me that he was the right person. So we decided to discuss parameters, and that’s when Jürgen excused himself.”

While Kosicke continued to discuss remuneration, Klopp walked around Central Park. The stroll would last longer than anticipated. Both sides were initially rather far apart financially, but the outline for an agreement was eventually found.

After Klopp had returned to Germany, Gordon sent him a text message. “Words cannot express how excited we are,” it read. In his reply, Klopp apologized that he didn’t have the right vocabulary either. But he did know one word that summed up his feelings: “Woooooooooooow!!!”

From the book Bring the Noise by Raphael Honigstein. Copyright © 2018 by Raphael Honigstein. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc. New York. All rights reserved.

Illustration by Ben Kirchner

 

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