Liverpool spent the first half of the decade in search of an identity. The team and fans were coping with Roy Hodgson when Fenway Sports Group took over to stave off administration. Then Kenny Dalglish arrived to help stabilize the club—and to help get the new owners into the good graces of the supporters. But he was never likely to be a long term answer, and so the club continued its evolution when Brendan Rodgers was signed.
The Northern Irishman provided the club with a shot in the arm, and caught lightning in a bottle in the 2013-2014 season. While the team slipped to a second place finish that season, they seemed primed and ready for another title challenge. After all, Luis Suarez just won the Premier League Golden Boot, while strike partner Daniel Sturridge finished second. The two young playmakers, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, had proven they were rising stars in the league. Finally, there was momentum to build on, and fans began to hope. That hope, though, would soon be crushed.
During the summer, Luis Suarez moved on to Barcelona after yet another incident, this time a bite while representing Uruguay at the World Cup. Despite Liverpool’s lofty position the last season, Suarez was never adequately replaced. And the campaign started disastrously.
A team that had feasted on defenses with a deadly counter attack the season before had become plodding and pedestrian. Any set piece from an opponent seemed destined for the back of the net. Rodgers seemed completely bereft of a coherent plan to make something out of the pieces he had left, incessantly tinkering with formations and personnel. Liverpool managed to sneak into 6th and a Europa League spot to finish the season, but nobody quite knew what was meant to come next for Rodgers’ side and it felt as though the team was drifting back into mediocrity rather than building anything.
Unrest spilled over into the offseason as Steven Gerrard left in search of a retirement home in Los Angeles and Raheem Sterling agitated a move to Manchester City. Brendan Rodgers also seemed increasingly at odds with the club’s transfer committee. While the committee, including Michael Edwards and his at the time much derided Magical Laptop, identified the likes of budding superstar Roberto Firmino, Rodgers was determined to spend big on the large (and largely immobile) target man, Christian Benteke.
And as the 2015-2016 season kicked off, it became clear that Rodgers still didn’t have a clear plan of what he wanted from his side. Firmino was deployed as a wing back rather than in the attack, Benteke looked an awkward fit up top, and while the results weren’t dire, play was far from convincing. After a 2-2 draw in the Merseyside Derby on October 4, 2015, Brendan Rodgers was, rather inevitably, relieved of his duties.
The only question was who would replace him—and whether Liverpool were still a big enough draw in the world of football to land a manager who would mark a clear upgrade on the departing Northern Irishman.
During their time in charge, FSG had worked hard to undo the damage from Hicks and Gillette. There had been stumbles, but they had repeatedly shown that their goal was to turn Liverpool back into footballing royalty. They worked to shore up finances, build the commercial arm of the club, and had a plan to redevelop Anfield to expand capacity.
They poured money into the academy and into the scouting network to build a sustainable pipeline of talent. But they needed someone who could use all of those resources to build something. They needed a manager who could both work with the team they were trying to build and one who could excite a fanbase that were again losing hope.
FSG had gone the club legend route and the up-and-coming manager route. Now they focused on getting someone in with a proven track record, someone whose name carried weight for their footballing nous and gravitas. They also wanted someone who fit with the ethos of the club and the city, as even at his peak, Brendan Rodgers never seemed to fully in tune with the city of Liverpool the way many of his predecessor were. It was a lot to ask for in a manager for a club in Liverpool’s position, especially mid-season. But there were two names available who just might, if they could be tempted to join, fit the bill.
That autumn, but Carlo Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp were on the market. Maybe. Ancelotti boasted an amazing resume, with trophies won at virtually every club he managed. He had won domestic and European titles with clubs in all of the major leagues, including in the Premier League with Chelsea. He was eminently well respected in the game for the cultured style his clubs played. He had worked with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, and Didier Drogba, and all along shown an ability to tailor his clubs to best suit the talent on the squad.
Jürgen Klopp, on the other hand, was known for his high-intensity, high-press, heavy metal football. The affable German with the easygoing smile had built something special at Mainz 05 and then at Borussia Dortmund. Klopp eschewed big money signings, instead building cohesive squads through integrating youth players alongside shrewd signings, and while doing that at Dortmund he had been able to topple German giants Bayern Munich. He had also become a cult hero in both cities where he managed, connecting with the working class supporters of both clubs.
Just a few days after Brendan Rodgers was fired, news began to leak out that Liverpool were in fact negotiations with Klopp. Journalists and fans scrambled to learn and to understand—and maybe even to spell without resorting to Google—gegenpressing. It seemed rather a long shot at first, with Liverpool having spent so long on the fringes of relevance in England and Klopp having been vocal in his desire to take the year off after a disheartening final season at Dortmund.
Then, it seemed less of a long shot. All of a sudden, there were whispers that Klopp was interested; that he felt the club was a perfect fit for him just as the club felt he was for them. Excitement grew and the fans began to track planes flying to England—finally spotting one headed from Dortmund to Liverpool, its flight path altered to make the shape of the number five in the sky for the five European Cups the Reds had then won.
On October 8th, 2015, Liverpool announced the appointment of Jürgen Norbert Klopp. With it, Liverpool fans again began to feel something that had been missing so often over almost a decade that spent—one teasing, tantalizing title challenge aside—in the wilderness. They began to feel hope again.
A hope that maybe, just maybe, the team could start to build back to being serious competitors for trophies. A hope to once more be not just relevant, but be yet again be considered English and European royalty. And even if, based on their past false dawns, perhaps they weren’t entirely confident in that hope to start, Jürgen Klopp certainly was as he talked of turning doubters to believers and lined his team up to celebrate with the fans.
Jürgen Klopp was one of the game’s greatest managers, and he had hope for Liverpool. He believed he could win at Liverpool. And if Klopp had hope and belief, just maybe, this time, Liverpool fans were right to have a bit of it, too.