Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp still asks himself why. He wonders how it would have felt. He tries to imagine the look on his son’s face. Because a father wasn’t there at the school gates that morning for his boy’s first day at school. The unfashionable striker-cum-defender instead spent his day training with 2.Bundesliga outfit, Mainz 05.
He’s always regretted taking that decision to follow orders. But from each and every one of his misadventures, Klopp seeks to learn, to grow. So, a decade later, when Klopp himself was the boss, midfielder Fabian Gerber was instantly granted the day off for his mother’s birthday party, despite the inevitable furore that would follow in the machismo-infused Bundesliga of the mid-Noughties.
Klopp does things his way. And that includes making others feel comfortable. He wants them feel free - free from the urge to seek external affirmation. It is a key tenet of his managerial outlook.
“The business part of football isn’t nice [for players] every single day,” the 50-year-old tells Goal.
“If you feel like a number, that you’re only liked when you’re at your best, it doesn’t feel good. That’s why I try to make them independent of criticism from outside.
“Criticism is important. But it has a tendency of being either too negative or too positive. You score three times, and everybody says, ‘Fantastic! How did it feel?’ and so on. Nobody is interested in the guy who played the pass or made the goal.
I, as a manager, already know that player won’t score three goals again in the next game. You have to deal with that. That’s why helping them to be an independent, confident person is a really important part [of working] with my team during the day.”
Blocking out the chorus of doubt or indeed cheers is something Klopp himself had to learn over the course of a 17-year-career on the bench that has brought many triumphs - a historic promotion with Mainz, back-to-back Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund - but also a fair share of pressurised moments, like heading into the 2014/15 winter break with Borussia in the relegation zone. “It was awful,” he bristles.
But Klopp’s conviction in his own methods never wavered. “I said: ‘I don’t think I’ve made a lot of mistakes.’ People said: ‘Now he’s completely lost his mind’. I also said I was a better manager than three years ago. Nobody wants to hear that but it doesn’t matter. We were convinced [that what we were doing was right] and we stuck together until it clicked again.”
Dortmund rebounded strongly to finish in 7th place, high enough to qualify for the Europa League, and Klopp’s relentless self-belief was vindicated once more a few months later, when the stats department at Liverpool showed him that Dortmund had suffered “the strangest season ever” in that horrific first half of the campaign. They had created the second-most chances and allowed the second-fewest chances, but inexplicably failed to score the corresponding number of goals and conceded goals from almost every single shot the opposition had taken.
“No doubts,” he emphasises. “You should always ask questions but never have doubts. We also ask questions when we win. I don’t expect perfection from myself or my team, but it’s normal to have questions.
Even after a win, we immediately ask ourselves how we should start the next game, how we can keep the shape and so on. I don’t see that as doubt. It’s never come to the point where I thought, ‘My god, what can I say to them now?’ There are always explanations and answers.”
Inspiration for such a stoical mind-set has come from an unlikely source. As a teenager, Klopp used to love reading ‘Mort and Phil’, a comic strip about two secret agents who constantly suffer terrible mishaps and grave mutilations without any lasting damage, appearing as good as new in the very next panel.
“The [little] time needed for regeneration by those characters was brilliant,” he told reporters in Mainz in 2005. “It didn’t matter whether you were flattened by a steamroller or fell off a cliff 800 metres high – things simply carried on!” In other words: There’s always the next game to get it right.
But surely there are days when that inherent positivity wanes, just ever so slightly? Isn’t there an element of showmanship to being a manager, of projecting a constant optimism?
Klopp, who honed his talent of telling jokes as a youngster listening to tapes of satirical comedians and was later a member of his Black Forest secondary school’s theatre group, denies that there’s a need to play a role in the dressing room, however.
“I never act,” he says, recalling the day in February 2001 when he went from being a player to being a manager at Mainz overnight, in the middle of a seemingly hopeless relegation battle. “I remember saying that this was the best Mainz team I had ever played in and that it would be difficult for me to get into the side as a player. I was really convinced about the quality, therefore I didn’t have to act. I only had to tell them what I truly believed, and eventually they started believing me.”
After Klopp had re-installed the then revolutionary zonal-marking system of his mentor, Mainz’s former coach Wolfgang Frank, FSV avoided the drop that season and only narrowly missed out on promotion two years running before they made it to the Bundesliga at the third attempt.
“I realised I had no experience [as a coach] but was so excited about the opportunity that the thought of getting sacked never crossed my mind. I only realised years later that nobody would have ever given me a second chance if Mainz had sacked me. It was a bit of suicide mission.”
Listening to Klopp’s enthusiasm for the game, it’s hard to believe there was a time when he didn’t enjoy it all. Playing as a modestly-talented, lowly-paid striker and defender for Mainz in the nether regions of Bundesliga 2 in the 80s and 90s, he mostly experienced football as a “battle of survival”.
“I had no other job. I had to learn to deal with that pressure, and also face up to that inner battle of being constantly frustrated about my own lack of skill,” he says. Having shone during childhood and adolescence at his local village club TSV Glatten in the Black Forest and nearby TuS Ergenzingen, Klopp had soon realised just how big the struggle of making it as a pro would be.
“I went to a trial at Eintracht Frankfurt and looked around. ‘Oh, they’re good’. I saw Andy Moller. Same age as me at the time, 19-years-old. I thought, ‘if that’s football, I’m playing a completely different game’. He was world-class. I was… not even class.”
Klopp only found his true calling after trading in his boots for a tactics board, and creating what Germans call a Gesamtkunstwerk: a highly flammable concoction made up of thrilling attacking football, a special bond in the dressing room and supporters screaming their hearts out. It happened in Mainz, it happened in Dortmund, and it’s happening at Anfield, too.
“To create a situation where everybody feels important, enjoys themselves, knows their jobs, feels respected and feels needed - that’s how life should be,” Klopp says about his attempts to bring the whole club together, in a joint effort to achieve greatness.
“That’s how the time you’ve had at a football club should be remembered. I understand life as a collection of experiences, bad and good. I get goose bumps thinking about the good ones. That’s really cool. Maybe that’s a kind of survival skill. If others feel the same, then we are on a big journey together, and looking back, we can’t avoid having a smile on our faces.
“That’s why you need to give everybody chance to feel really part of the project. It’s easy for me because I know [the supporters] are very important. Perhaps other people see things differently and sometimes forget them, but I never forget the people who are important for us. It’s easy for me to show them the respect they deserve.”
Jurgen Klopp features in the New Balance Fearlessly Independent Since 1906 campaign. Click here to see more.