The cynical reaction to the incident at the end of Liverpool’s recent draw with West Brom has been rather typical of modern society. At the insistence of Jurgen Klopp, the home players marched arm-in-arm towards the Kop and saluted the fans who had stayed until the end.
And down has rained the disapproval:
“But it was only a draw and they were behaving as if they’d won a championship…what kind of message is it sending etc?”
That’s a reasonable argument and, though the post-game salute has become a fixture in German football and was inevitably going to accompany Klopp to England, it was introduced to the Liverpool public at a strange time. The club’s new head-coach bubbles with so much enthusiasm and is so obviously well-intentioned that, eventually, he was going to make this kind of PR mis-step. His perspective on how to forge a relationship between a team and a crowd has been shaped by the feverish environment inside the Westfalenstadion and that can’t be replicated within a a few weeks.
Liverpool is different. The club’s sense of self is so strong and its traditions are so entrenched that anything which challenges them will inevitably be met with distrust. It’s the team of European Cups and league titles and they are backed by a public who do not want to appear as if they’re willing to celebrate a home draw against West Bromwich Albion.
But the gesture has been misinterpreted, that should be clear enough by now. Jurgen Klopp isn’t asking his new supporters to tolerate a lower level of performance, but to embrace an altered culture. He’s possibly naive for expecting such a change to be embraced so quickly, but it’s plainly evident that his intention wasn’t to create a new baseline for acceptability - to think so is to be disingenuous.
And once that’s been accepted, this little gesture will be seen for what it is: a force for good.
It says that the crowd and the team are together, irrespective of the result. Maybe that sounds slightly corny and challenges the “only smile if you win” fallacy which lingers in English football, but it’s a likeable challenge to the distance which seems to have grown between pitch and stands. Players - at every club rather than just Liverpool - are aloof, entitled, and can appear oblivious to the challenges of being a fan in 2015. It may be built on a slightly lazy cliche, but a lot of modern footballers appear to believe that they’re doing supporters a favour whenever they interact with them and that, given the game’s roots, is far less palatable than the kind of gesture which Klopp initiated on Sunday afternoon.
It was superficial and “gesture” is absolutely the right term to describe it. A team forges a bond with its public through what it achieves during games rather than what it says or does after the final-whistle, but there is nothing inherently wrong with implying that, win, lose, or draw, the team recognises the contribution of those who have paid to watch them. It may be unusual in this environment and it may take some time before it loses its slightly awkward feel, but given the game’s relentless attempts to turn fans into mere consumers, it’s hardly something that warrants a retaliation.