I’m a football fan, and watching Liverpool triumphant rise to Premier League champions over the last two years has often been utterly thrilling—even for somebody who is very committed to a different club.
I love sport partly because it’s so kinetic, partly because it’s so in-the-moment, and partly because it’s about teamwork. Even individual sports like tennis are group efforts, with coaches and trainers and families and support networks. And football, to me, is one of the ultimate team sports. The cohesion, vision and organization required to get the most out of a group of people with different abilities and motivations is fascinating.
Watching Liverpool has made me think a lot about how good teams work, and what makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. Jürgen Klopp has built something that seems to have done exactly what it was intended to, creating a world-dominating team from sometimes unlikely sources.
Andy Robertson famously tweeted eight years ago, while playing in the Scottish Third Division, that “life at this age is rubbish with no money #needajob.” Roberto Firmino came from Hoffenheim, Joe Gomez from Charlton Athletic, and five other first-teamers were poached from Southampton over the years.
Liverpool, of course, has a grand history and tradition of dominance in English football. But it has other traditions too: a team identity built on hard work, humility, togetherness; a shepherding of talent from generation to generation; loyalty.
This was famously honed in the club’s Boot Room, a grubby hidey hole where Bill Shankly would marshall his coaches for detailed tactical arguments and weekly mind-melding sessions over bottles of Guinness or cups of tea. The Boot Room’s direct influence lasted 40 years, with Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans all helping lead the club until the 1990s. And Shankly made his demands clear from the start.
In his first meeting with the backroom staff, he said “look all I’m asking for is hard work, loyalty, and honesty”, and he knew if he got that everything will be fine. He encouraged them to have opinions, but he said, “if anyone comes to me with a story about someone, it’s the person who comes with the story that’ll be getting the sack, not the person the story’s about.”
This approach might seem less than modern, but it was honest, it got results, and it brought through successive generations of managers and coaches. The Boot Room may now be different, replaced by Klopp’s well-bonded backroom team assembled, like the team itself, from unusual parts. But there’s something enjoyable, comforting, exciting about a group getting together, planning to take on the world—and then succeeding.