There’s not a great deal in Dortmund. It’s an industrial town towards the western border of Germany with a few slightly more desirable locations surrounding it. The chances are that if you went into your average bookshop and asked for a copy of the Dortmund Lonely Planet, you’d get some quizzical looks: it’d be a little like a German asking for a guide to the beauty spots of Sunderland. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Sunderland, but even a committee of Lauren Laverne, Bryan Ferry and Jimmy Montgomery would struggle to describe it as a tourist hub.
Football is the thing. And specifically Borussia Dortmund, whose banners you see in windows, bars, restaurants, shops – basically anywhere in the city where it’s possible to hang a banner of some description. They have been the only serious challengers to Bayern Munich in recent years, and the only club in a city of a little over 500,000. In that respect Dortmund are probably more similar to Newcastle than Sunderland, a large fanbase with only really one direction in which to direct their fandom. So imagine Newcastle with an ownership that – for whatever strange reason – was competent and not seemingly out to deliberately sabotage everything, plus a manager that won them two league titles, a double and reached the Champions League final. You can see why Jurgen Klopp, returning to his old home as Liverpool manager on Thursday, is still such a popular man in Dortmund.
When Klopp first arrived at Liverpool, there was a vague sense that he might become quite tiresome, quite quickly. All of those interviews where he laughed loudly with his absurdly large-looking mouth, his thick-rimmed glasses, his baseball cap, his off-the-wall comments, talk of ‘heavy metal’ football: it reeked of what some might call a ‘breath of fresh air’, which as the Ian Holloway experience taught us can descend quite quickly into ‘wacky’ and subsequently to ‘astoundingly irritating’. The sort of person that might be quite entertaining in small doses, but if you have to deal with them every day then thoughts turn dark with vengeance.
But, perhaps a little surprisingly, six months after his arrival the schtick – if it is indeed schtick – hasn’t tipped into the realm of annoying, more endearing, friendly and, well, real.
You get the sense that the personalities of a good few managers around today are self-conscious constructs, and that people like Jose Mourinho, Harry Redknapp and even Sam Allardyce are – in public at least – essentially playing versions of themselves. Perhaps it’s a little naïve to think so, but Klopp seems more genuine.
Take the interview he gave after Liverpool had beaten Manchester City a few weeks ago. Granted, City have been a sizzling hot mess this season, but Klopp’s side won 3-0, and produced perhaps their best performance of the season. And yet after the game, when asked about results elsewhere, Klopp’s reaction was to damn near soil himself laughing that Bayern Munich, his old nemesis and the team who kept waving cash in front of all his good players, had lost to FC Mainz.
Or a similar post-match interview after Dortmund dramatically beat Malaga in the 2013 Champions League semi-final, where he couldn’t contain his glee at the incredible game he’d just watched. On both occasions he reacted like a fan – joyous, incredulous, slightly petty – and it’s almost impossible not to identify with him, at least, in moments like that.
In another press conference, after the League Cup final in which Liverpool were beaten on penalties by City, a clearly disconsolate Klopp at one point conjured the slightest of mischievous grins, paused in the middle of describing his emotions about the game, glanced to the club’s press officer next to him and said: “If I was allowed to say shit I would say shit, but I’m not allowed.” The press officer smiled rather thinly, with that “we’ve talked about this before, Jurgen” look on his face.
“This is complicated!” Jürgen Klopp’s failed but amusing attempt at repositioning a microphone… https://t.co/fLgKXLlyaJ
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 1, 2016
He seems human, with the air of a man who doesn’t seem affected by what people think or say about him. He’s unspoiled, a man who has perhaps listened to hours of media training but ignored it all. Maybe we’ve been taken in by another construct, naively duped, this is all an act and he is presenting the image of someone not trying to present an image. But if he is acting, he’s a bloody good actor.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons – as well as all the trophies, of course – why he’s still so popular in Dortmund, to the extent that their CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said this week that he was worried Klopp would manage to get the home fans on his side during the game. When there’s a possibility of one man trumping the support of an entire club, you know he’s definitely got something.
Klopp’s results at Liverpool so far have been patchy, and whether he’s a genuine success will be judged next season and beyond, assuming he sticks around, but in football we have this slightly nebulous concept of a player or manager who “gets it”. Those are the people, rather than necessarily the best or most successful, that are most popular. You can’t always explain how or why someone “gets it”, but you know it when you see it. Jurgen Klopp gets it, as you may well see on Thursday night, and there’s not much more you can ask.