Speaking to Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk, the true significance of their win in Madrid becomes clear
There is something unique about the way Jurgen Klopp unites his players. His centre-back, Virgil Van Dijk, alluded to it, but found it hard to put exactly into words. He says things that “touched us,” Van Dijk said. “It’s not like you only play for yourself, you play for everyone who’s been connected, you play for everyone who is always there for you.”
Liverpool’s Champions League glory was built upon players from different backgrounds and with different stories to tell.
Well into the early hours after the final, as the players meandered through the Madrid mixed zone — goalkeeper Alisson looking slightly worse-for-wear as he marched through with the giant Champions League trophy clutched between his consistently safe hands and plenty of players with red streaks in their hair already — a few of them stopped to share theirs.
When Jordan Henderson’s father, Brian, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014 he asked his son not to see him while he had treatment, as he did not wish for him to see the suffering. Henderson felt, at the time, as though he needed to up his game to help his father’s recovery.
A video was captured after the final on Saturday, which went viral online, of the midfielder walking over to the sideline and embracing his father in a huge hug and crying into his shoulder, shortly after lifting the trophy.
“My dad has been through a lot out over the past few years, not only with himself but with his family,” Henderson says. “Tonight I am sure he will be so proud to see us win the game and win the Champions League. It will mean the world to him. I am just glad I can put a smile on his face.”
Criticism has never been far from Henderson’s side. From Sir Alex Ferguson turning down the chance to sign him because he thought he ran strangely, to the suggestions he could not quite hack it against the very best central midfielders.
Henderson could not have cared less as he held that Champions League trophy in his hands for the first time, strolling over to the players already waiting on the platform for their captain to lift it, their hands fluttering to build the tension, before he finally raised it above his head.
“My dream as a kid was to win trophies, my best friend sent us a picture this morning of me kissing a trophy when I was about 10, so that gave me even more motivation,” he says. “The trophy was gold and it was quite big and I’m kissing it. That gave us a lot of motivation.”
James Milner remembers winning the FA Cup with Manchester City in 2011; how important it was for the whole club to truly believe they could now win cups and medals, that they really could get over the line. Before the first trophy, they merely had Sheikh Mansour’s billions and wild ambition. Afterwards, they had something tangible.
It was the first silverware of the Sheikh Mansour era. They have won nine more since. There is a feeling around Merseyside that this Champions League win could be the moment the club have been waiting for to return to their peak. The first trophy of the Jurgen Klopp era.
“When I was at City and we won the first FA Cup, that was massive for us and that gave us the belief and the winning mentality that we can do it and hopefully this will be the same,” Milner says. “We will enjoy it for as long as we can but we will come back pre-season and go again.
“It [will] be nice going to Melwood [the training ground] seeing number six there. Liverpool has a great history and when I signed for the club I was desperate to add trophies as this club expects to win trophies and it has an amazing history, but we want to create our own history. We have started that and put a trophy on the board.”
A year ago, Salah was being hauled down by Sergio Ramos, their arms intwined (some say intentionally so by the Real Madrid defender), in a collision that would end Salah’s Champions League final in the 30th minute. He would not recover properly in time for the World Cup.
But Salah believes in fate, and the idea that everything happens for a reason. After 23 seconds against Spurs, when Liverpool were awarded a penalty, Salah had a chance at redemption, and he took it.
In the lead up to Saturday’s final, he had looked at pictures of the Ramos challenge to channel his emotion. “I looked at the picture from last year before the game,” he says. “We were a little bit disappointed after the final and now we are back and have won it again, the sixth time for Liverpool, it is something great.”
How did it make him feel? “Disappointment. I was very disappointed that I got injured and went out after 30 minutes and we lost the game. It was something to motivate me to win today.”
Virgil van Dijk
Virgil Van Dijk has always sought to play for clubs he believed would treat him like family. At Groningen, where he broke through in Holland. At Celtic, where the Premier League began to take notice. At Southampton, where he forged a reputation that convinced Klopp to make him the world’s most expensive defender. At Liverpool, he has perhaps found the biggest family of all.
You can see it in the tens of thousands of Reds who flew to Madrid, outnumbering Spurs fans by three to one at a guess, most ticketless but just wanting to be close to the final. They played their part, too.
“It makes you happy, even before the game to see all those fans in the square — 50,000 people I think — everyone has seen those videos before the game and you’re so excited,” Van Dijk says. “Normally I get a little sleep before a match, but it was difficult. I was like, ready to go, ready to see my family, see all the fans and to come out for the warm-up, it was a special feeling. In the end to lift the trophy was incredible.”
Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold skip past behind Van Dijk as he speaks. “He left the changing room half-an-hour ago!” Woodburn says, referencing how long Van Dijk has been speaking to the press. Win, lose or draw, Van Dijk is always there afterwards, willing to share a few words that will reach the fans.
“We want to keep working hard for all of these fans but also for your teammates next to you, for everyone working in the club, that works for you and wants to make every day the best you can get basically. The people at Melwood, for example, the people who work at the stadium. Everyone who is connected with Liverpool you want to make them proud.”