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EPL TALK: Liverpool fans must accept that Southeast Asian tours won't please everyone

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IN SIMPLER times, publicity tours didn’t always involve the real thing. In 1965, Elvis Presley didn’t even send himself. He sent his Gold Cadillac.

Across the spring and summer, thousands of Americans turned up to see the King’s prestige car promote a less than prestigious movie, "Tickle Me", as the singer’s time was considered too precious to lavish on the fickle millions buying tickets to movies called "Tickle Me".

Elvis’ superstardom overcame any foolish, self-conscious notions of silliness, as folks un-ironically posed beside an empty car. Indeed, the Gold Cadillac Tour was so successful that its wheels rolled through Australia in 1968 to greet equally-impressed crowds.

At least Australians are getting sentient beings in Manchester United jerseys right now. Just as Singaporeans have enjoyed a few days walking among the giants of Liverpool, even if it was always a little less conversation and a little more action.

It was never up close and personal and was never going to be. Watching Jurgen Klopp tug on his cap and select the right words slowly, pondering every utterance like a first-timer at the United Nations, only underlined the fascinating, existential aspects of the pre-season tour of Asia.

What, really, is the point?

Klopp, as always, nailed it.

“The best thing about it is that we come close to our 'family' of fans who live very far from where we are. We know how important it is to come, and we love doing it," he said, trying to speak over a National Stadium sound system that was bafflingly playing a commentary of a different sports event in the background. (Why do you do this to yourself, Singapore?)

“From a training point of view, first and foremost I'm a coach, and it's not my favourite thing to do.” Klopp continued. “I could have gone to Austria and train twice a day, that would be better.”

And there it is, the conundrum, the paradox, the hypocrisy of a corporate enterprise masquerading as popular entertainment, the irony of elite sport sacrificing preparation for financial gain or the need to reward those who make those gains possible, year after year, one TV package after another.

The pre-season English Premier League (EPL) tour to far-flung markets has become the quirky representation of modern democracy. Everybody gets what nobody wants, not quite anyway.

Unlike Elvis’ Gold Cadillac, there are warm Liverpool bodies inside the coach, but they are kept at a distance, a snatched glimpse through a window, a brisk wave in the hotel lobby and a sincere lap of appreciation after over 10,000 fans turned up to a training session.

This is an exhibition, as viewed through museum glass. Look, but don’t touch. Take photographs, but from a respectful distance, behind barriers or security cordons. No selfies.

In some ways, there is nothing to see here, much less to write about.

Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah taking a selfie with fans at the end of a training session at the National Stadium in Singapore.
Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah taking a selfie with fans at the end of a training session at the National Stadium in Singapore. (PHOTO: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp signing jerseys before a training session at the National Stadium in Singapore.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp signing jerseys before a training session at the National Stadium in Singapore. (PHOTO: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

A smile and a wave, instead of selfies and signed jerseys

One of the more entertaining aspects is to play media bingo in the local coverage. Pick out key words and phrases for a full house or just keep the following paragraph for future tours and fill in the blanks as appropriate:

"This morning, **** of happy/frustrated fans queued for **** hours to catch a glimpse of **** outside the **** hotel or at the launch of ****, one of the club’s official sponsors. Later, one squad player and half a dozen retired legends will conduct a clinic at ****, a lush British venue that predates independence."

Still, Klopp has a legitimate case to beat his chest and go full gladiatorial, calling out that rhetorical question to the adoring Reds filling all sides of Kallang, "Are you not entertained? Isn’t our mere presence enough?"

In a way, it should be. It’s a typical arm’s-length relationship replicated between the average fan on Merseyside and Klopp’s serial winners. Being born in Bootle gives a supporter a better chance of ending up with a signed Mo Salah jersey than one born in Bishan, but there are no guarantees.

The century-long, umbilical cord that existed in every English working-class community between footballer and fan was severed some time after the Reds played in tight shorts, but a long time before Liverpool paid £85 million for Darwin Nunez.

Intriguingly, there is perhaps a whiff of entitlement in some of the comments read in both the media and in local supporters’ chat groups. When the Reds come to Singapore, Singaporeans expect selfies and signed jerseys.

The season-ticket holders at Anfield typically expect the same. Both often come up short. As Klopp pointed out in his press conference, he heard and appreciated the loudest cheers outside the hotel. His gratitude was sincere. But equally, he cannot stop. He keeps moving. Liverpool must keep moving.

A smile and a wave must be good enough, for now. The rest can come later.

Liverpool ex-players David James (left) and Neil Ruddock during a fan meet-and-greet session at Molly Malone's Irish Pub.
Liverpool ex-players David James (left) and Neil Ruddock during a fan meet-and-greet session at Molly Malone's Irish Pub. (PHOTO: Molly Malone's Irish Pub)

Ex-players offer middle ground on fan accessibility

After Thursday’s training session, a packed, rowdy crowd gathered above a bar in Boat Quay. On a small stage, two Reds legends, former goalkeeper David James and ex-defender Neil “Razor” Ruddock were holding court. They were everything the current first-teamers cannot be: forthright, unfiltered and accessible. They could engage.

“Legends do plug the gaps during pre-season tours, but it’s more than that,” James said. “There are so many Liverpool fans who have adored the club since the '90s. And they just want the opportunity to get that photo, get that autograph and physically see the players that they’ve only seen on TV or on their mobile devices.

“I bump into fans across Asia who often say, ‘I’m so glad to see you. I wasn’t able to meet you as a player’. They enjoy the interaction.”

Indeed, the legends event was intimate, warm and relaxed; qualities that would be considered criticisms of Klopp’s first team (who looked extremely warm and relaxed in their 0-4 defeat by Manchester United in Bangkok.)

Obviously, an ideal training camp for the meticulous German is one held behind closed doors in the temperate climes of Austria, where the Reds will head next week, one far removed from corporate appearances and weary meet-and-greets at airports.

Andrew Robertson can pair up with Trent Alexander-Arnold and tell the old stories over pints and signed pictures when their careers end. Until then, the pre-season tours must endure their identity crisis of sorts, a constant search for an elusive compromise.

Andrew Robertson can pair up with Trent Alexander-Arnold and tell the old stories over pints and signed pictures when their careers end. Until then, the pre-season tours must endure their identity crisis of sorts, a constant search for an elusive compromise.

Klopp recognises their communicative value but doesn’t really want his players to communicate directly. Corporate sponsors are eager to be associated with their successful brand, but the brand would ideally maintain its success without corporate distractions.

And fans want to get up close but must accept it’ll never be personal. Not yet. It’s still business. Until retirement. And then it’s personal all night long in Boat Quay bars.

The EPL tours of Asia can only ever be a continuous, exasperating search for a middle ground, giving a little to accommodate, but holding back more to compete when it matters, which certainly isn’t now.

The Kallang friendly is a fun inconvenience for Klopp and his players and a near-close encounter for loyal supporters and that’s probably as good as it’s ever going to get. As James suggested, Singaporeans really need to play the long game.

When the trophy chases are done, the Reds will return, as legends, to sign every autograph.

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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