Jürgen Klopp takes a seat in the press conference room at Molineux and answers questions about Liverpool’s latest defeat. He looks a little haggard these days, like a homeless wizard: the face worn and weathered, a thick Arctic forest of a beard hanging from him. Deep breaths. Voice cracked and familiar. Baseball cap drawn low over sad eyes. On the walls at Liverpool’s training ground there are photos from his arrival, a younger and handsomer man staring him down every day he comes into work. Seven years. How has it only been seven years? How has it already been seven years? Somebody asks a question about Liverpool’s slow starts. Something about mentality. Suddenly he recognises a face, a name, some words, a feeling. A brief and powerful memory flickers and ignites inside him.
“It’s really difficult to talk to you, if I’m 100% honest,” Klopp snapped at James Pearce, a Liverpool reporter from the Athletic, on Saturday night. “You know why. For all the things you wrote.” Of course Klopp’s outburst seems to have provoked all the usual trimmings of shock and outrage from all the usual places. Personally, I’m surprised this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. Particularly when you consider the rawness of the emotions involved, the artificiality of the setting, the staggering gulf in expertise between those doing the asking and those doing the answering.
Just pause for a second to consider how much more Klopp must know about his job than the average attendee at one of his press conferences. This is no slight on the football press, by the way: these are by definition quite different jobs with different functions, different target audiences, almost a different language. This largely explains why so many football press conferences produce so little of genuine intellectual value: the common ground between the interlocutors is so narrow as to be essentially meaningless.
In which other profession are its ablest and brightest practitioners contractually obliged to take questions from the patently unqualified on an almost daily basis? Prof Andrew Wiles: congratulations on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, do you think you’ve really laid down a marker there to the mathematical field? Big Fields medal announcement on Wednesday night, how important is it to get your hands on that first trophy of the year? Any knocks?
Yet for all its inefficiency there remains a strange ritualistic power to the press conference, into which all its participants willingly buy. There are coaches for whom the press conference dais may as well be their pulpit: a piece of performance theatre as intrinsic to their brand as anything they do on a training pitch. There are journalists whose entire job revolves around press conferences: driving to them, waiting around for them to start, driving home from them. The little huddle after the press conference where everyone discusses what the best line was, who gets to use what when, and who transcribes which bits. Dave, I’ll do the first five minutes. Sparky, can I keep my answer back until Monday? Yeah, the one about “any special plans for James Maddison”. Yeah. Magic.
If you’re on the inside of this world, there’s something luxuriously seductive to it, even as 24-hour news and social media nibble away at it from the outside. The game is gigantic and the show is global. But here in this windowless room on a cardboard campus in the middle of nowhere, there is a small piece of it that will forever be yours, some mid-strength embargoed Eddie Howe quotes burning a hole in your Olympus voice recorder.
Of course, everyone has a chastening story or two. José Mourinho once blasted me on live television after a pointed question about Alexis Sánchez. Roy Keane rounded on me after I asked whether his turgid Ipswich side needed to lower their ambitions for the season. These are brief and fleeting moments when the fourth wall is broken, when the forced conviviality of this entire absurd encounter comes crashing down in flames.
Because in essence the whole encounter is a kind of pantomime, a marketplace, a verbal arm-wrestle in which the protagonists have largely conflicting goals. The coach has a particular message they want to convey. They may have a score to settle. They may be intent on saying as little as possible. But they always have one big power differential over the rest of the room: while everyone is obliged to know who they are, they are not remotely obliged to know any of the faces in front of them.
This is the compact Klopp broke so savagely on Saturday night. I don’t know Pearce, and I don’t know why Klopp has chosen to beef with one of the most loyal pro-Liverpool reporters in the business. But while coaches must occasionally read their own press – what is the point in having an ego that big unless you can stroke it every so often? – the pretence of oblivion must be maintained at all times.
Klopp’s Liverpool were always based on control. Control of the ball and control of the transition, control of the science and control of the message. Yet among all his other problems, Klopp has lost a lot of expertise in recent months, trusted colleagues and sounding boards: sporting director Michael Edwards, president Mike Gordon, director of research Ian Graham. The football is disappearing over a cliff and the club’s golden era with it. Perhaps the public flaying of Pearce was a kind of rallying cry, an attempt to unite his ailing squad around a common enemy. Paradoxically, he has never really looked more alone.