JURGEN Klopp really can spin a line with the best of them. In his programme notes for Saturday’s FA Cup final, he referred to the “tradition, sentiment and regard” for the world’s oldest cup competition.
To avoid any doubt, he continued, he absolutely loves the old pot.
Well, that's an abrupt turnaround. In recent years, the Liverpool manager has treated the FA Cup like an unwanted stepchild with a runny nose.
Others feel a kinship to the scruffy being that stands before him in the bleak midwinter every January, but the German has clearly preferred to focus on his own babies, leaving the ugly one with babysitters.
In 2020, this was literally true. Under-23s coach Neil Critchley was put in charge of the younglings for Liverpool’s FA Cup fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury Town. Experience was optional. So was puberty.
With no senior players involved, the kids proved all right on the night, but another premature exit soon followed. Indeed, this season marks the first time Klopp’s Liverpool have reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, let alone the final, as the manager saw the tournament as a distraction, something on the shoe to scrape off quickly and move on.
There were mitigating circumstances, sort of. Before that Shrewsbury replay, for example, Liverpool had been struggling with fixture overload. Club World Cup duties had already left Critchley in charge of the kids for a Carabao Cup quarter-final and the Shrewsbury replay was scheduled during an English Premier League winter break.
But the Kop was under no illusions. Before this season, Klopp's Reds had never gone beyond the fifth round, succumbing at home to Wolves and West Brom along the way. There was a particularly poor defeat at Molineux in 2019 and an overriding listlessness from the manager.
The Reds are very much built in Klopp’s image. And Klopp, it once seemed, was not built for the FA Cup.
His indifference appeared to be the one blind spot in a meticulous character who fitted hand in glove with the Liverpool community. Coming from Borussia Dortmund, he understood the psyche of a great, supporter-driven club living in the shadow of another. He utilised the incongruous mix of self-aggrandising and martyrdom that has long pervaded Anfield (no other club launches the patently absurd slogan “this means more” with a straight face.)
Klopp engaged with the city, immersed himself in the history, understood the spiritual umbilical cord tying the club to the European Cup and the insatiable desire to usurp Manchester United.
But that one blind spot remained.
His apathy towards the FA Cup made him an outlier within his own club. Liverpudlians love the FA Cup. Many chose red over blue precisely because of the FA Cup. It’s the competition that arguably unites different generations.
In the 1980s, emaciated men with moustaches on their top lips and Crown Paints on their chests won the FA Cup twice and won the hearts and minds of a worldwide audience, perhaps for the first time.
League titles paid the bills. But FA Cup finals established an international outreach programme, raising awareness through a single, unmissable event on TV. If Sir Alex Ferguson built the modern Manchester United brand, Kenny Dalglish and company did likewise for Liverpool at Wembley.
Similarly, Michael Owen’s double strike in the 2001 final fortuitously dovetailed with the explosion of cable television, allowing Liverpool’s three-trophy haul that year to reach Asian homes for the first time, in real time, strengthening a relationship between a burgeoning fanbase. The FA Cup still mattered to millions.
Just as it’s no coincidence that Steven Gerrard considers the finest goal of his career to be one not scored in the Champions League, or even in the Premier League, but the ridiculous missile launched against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final.
For younger Liverpool fans, Gerrard’s goal was their JFK moment. Everyone remembers where they were, the day Gerrard leapt from the pages of a comic book fantasy. As a recruitment exercise, there were none better.
The Reds retain a soft spot for the old (FA Cup) silverware. It can no longer be a blind spot for Klopp. In the past, his priorities were elsewhere. On Saturday, he can finally indulge his sentimental supporters.
Unlike Manchester United, perhaps, the Reds’ enduring global appeal owed more to unforgettable snapshots in cup competitions, rather than their league escapades (which were largely woeful.)
Klopp knew that. So he fixed the problem, ironically by sacrificing the tournament that once offered Liverpool respite from the seasonal misery of being knocked from the EPL perch.
He said as much in his programme notes. He prioritised league and European glory and prevailed. He won’t hear any complaints from the Kop.
But there’s a chance to have his cake and eat it now, to win the last outstanding trophy and complete the set with a squad capable of challenging on all fronts. Klopp doesn’t need to play kids or compromise. He can honour Liverpool’s legacy instead.
Football eras are really just a series of moments. And so many, for the Reds at least, have been in the FA Cup. Ian Rush’s double against Everton, Owen’s dramatic winner against Arsenal and Gerrard’s sudden decision to turn the last minute of a final into a Marvel movie defined their respective eras for so many.
The Reds retain a soft spot for the old silverware. It can no longer be a blind spot for Klopp. In the past, his priorities were elsewhere. On Saturday, he can finally indulge his sentimental supporters.
To paraphrase that supercilious slogan, the FA Cup may not mean more. But the competition has always mattered on Merseyside.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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