I bike and run three times a week. Every trip ends on a long, dreadful hill. Yet, no matter how exhausted, there has not been a day when I did not make it to the top.
A self-made rhyme plays in my head when it gets tough:
At the end of my run there's a steep hill
At the end of my fun there's the run of the mill
Bring a stun gun it won't kill my way to the top
When I spill at the end there's a Klopp hug
That is right: I believe in a man I cannot see. It is probably the closest I will get to ascribing to any religious affiliation. Except, my hero is not celestial. He is likely more down to earth than most people I have met. Why do I imagine that a football manager who does not know me is cheering me on during workouts? To understand this, we need to rewind the tape. As a teenager, I briefly performed with a dance group. We got invited to an event, and part of our performance was to link arms and dance in a circle. During practice, the fast pull forward meant that we could not hold on to each other.
The circle broke. Ironically, the faster I ran to close the gap in front of me, the further I pulled the arm I was supposed to catch away from me. It did not smell like team spirit - more like poor leadership. A sensible dance teacher would decide that we needed one more person to complete the circle or a different dance routine. When I tried to talk to our dance teacher, she yelled at me, 'You are not here to talk - you are here to DANCE!'
And, so, we danced like broken puppets and fell apart multiple times in front of a live audience. Work life can present you with some harsh experiences. Once you encounter the kind of people you wish you had never met - once you leave the kind of buildings you wish you had never entered - only then do you understand the importance and rarity of great leadership. How extraordinary a self-proclaimed 'normal' person can be. Follow me through this thought experiment: Imagine a manager so confident that he invites expertise and encourages people to grow next to him because he sticks to what he knows and is not afraid to talk about his limitations.
Imagine a boss who sees it as his most important job to bring out the best version of you. Not to make himself look good. No - to help your team succeed. Imagine a coach who comforts the opponent when his team has just won a major tournament. Imagine a person who meets every challenge with seemingly effortless optimism. There is not anything you can tell him that he will tell you is as bad as you have decided it is. Imagine a top professional sportsman pausing press conferences while the world is watching to sing birthday songs to a reporter. Have you ever had a manager like that? In an unparalleled combination of confidence, humility, integrity, optimism, and humour, experiencing Jürgen Klopp feels like discovering a new element for the periodic table. There is no one like him. Football runs in my family, but I had not found my team. That changed on a chilly Tuesday evening in early May 2019. Liverpool completed one of the greatest comebacks in football history, beating Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield and 4-3 on aggregate to reach the Champions League final. From that moment, I was a Red and a Klopp fan. The next thing I knew, the pandemic hit and pretty much cancelled my life. While the world looked unbelievably bleak, the return of Premier League football in the fall of 2020 jumpstarted me like a defibrillator.
My life turned into a stream of Liverpool matches rushing through a burning red aorta. Although I was at home, I donated fan blood at stadiums throughout England and Europe, and nothing else mattered. First-team matches wrapped in pre- and post-match press conferences would roll in like transfusions during the week. Soon Liverpool FC broke down my concept of time and place, and their schedule became the rhythm by which my heart beat. Jürgen Klopp would sit down with the press to answer questions before and after games, on live, public video calls. I would pause work, worries, and walks in the woods to tune in. Better than any therapy session and unbeknownst to himself, Klopp slowly took my confidence to new levels and reshaped my challenges. Thoughts that boxed me in, and prevented me from living the life I want, came tumbling down.
Now my focus is on the next game. Through discipline and hard work, I will give it a proper try. If I lose, it is nothing but information that I can use to prepare for the next game. Then I go again. He talks to the camera like he would to any one of us, epitomizing the notion that what you see is what you get. In a world where hordes of influencers stumble over each other in an attempt to fake authenticity, Klopp is the real deal. That is why he fits Liverpool like a glove. Liverpool's games continue to give me something to look forward to every week. Following the first team keeps me focused on the here and the now instead of things beyond my control. My highest highs in all of 2020 and 2021, I owe to LFC. I hope it continues this way for a very long time.
Bill Shankly, the most iconic figure in the history of Liverpool Football Club, famously coined the term 'football's holy trinity': The players, the manager, and the supporters. Each part is nothing without the other two.
The unity of Liverpool FC and us, the supporters, is what I set out to capture with this portrait. The Kop blends into Klopp's jacket as he gestures to the stands with his hand on his heart, forming an L to spell out the message on the banner held up by supporters. We are the team, and they are us, personified by Jürgen Klopp, who has been the single biggest influence on Liverpool's success since he arrived in 2015. After many months away from the stadiums, away from Anfield, we are back. I might still be watching from afar. But if I get just one chance to watch a Liverpool game at Anfield with Klopp at the helm, singing my heart out to You’ll Never Walk Alone, it will be one of the happiest days of my life. Until then, a self-made rhyme keeps playing in my head when I get to a long, dreadful hill.