‘We can strike back for that.’
It was little more than a throwaway line from Jurgen Klopp’s latest pre-match press-conference over Zoom on Tuesday lunchtime.
But it is a comment that touches upon what the long road towards Liverpool’s first title in 30 years has entailed.
Sentences like ’30 years of hurt’ were bandied about when the league title drought came to an end last month.
In various quarters it felt preposterous that Liverpool, one of the most storied clubs in English football, who had won a cup treble and two European Cups in that time, could possibly have suffered to the same degree as other, lesser sides in the past three decades.
But that ignores the journey that brought the emotional outpouring on Merseyside and among its players and coaching staff when the final whistle blew at Stamford Bridge last month.
Klopp and Jordan Henderson appeared on TV within minutes of Manchester City’s defeat in London and were visibly emotional. The manager had to cut short his interview on Sky Sports as he fought back the tears, not before slipping in a mention for Steven Gerrard, the captain who had come closest to ending the wait in the lean years.
Sir Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Phil Thompson, lynchpins throughout the success of the 1980s, were all present and toasting the current vintage. The symbolic handing over of the baton was complete.
The most famous and repeated quote from Klopp’s first press-conference at Anfield in October 2015 was when he spoke of turning ‘doubters into believers’ on Merseyside. But when asked about the expectation of dealing with what was then a 25-year drought, he responded: ‘You don’t take a history in your backpack and carry it with you.’
Klopp’s task has been about erasing the pressure of history, acknowledging it but not letting it overwhelm him and his players. The new generation have not just had to compete with the glorious past, but the near misses of those who have come before.
Gerard Houllier’s team that was ’10 games from greatness’ in 2002, Rafa Benitez’s side that narrowly lost out to Manchester United in 2009 and then, finally, Brendan Rodgers’ buccaneering side of 2014, whose adventure came to the cruellest and most bitter of ends.
There is some poetry in the fact that it will be after facing Chelsea on Wednesday night, that Klopp and his players will finally get their hands on the league title that has for so long evaded them, that has become an obsession of a fanbase, of an entire city.
He said on Tuesday: ‘We have to make the first step before the second and first is the game. Then we get the trophy for an outstanding season. I am not willing to make that smaller.
‘They all know it’s more fun if you win but it is a proper challenge. Chelsea have history with this [in 2014].
‘I’m not sure how many were in that team [in 2014] but if you want, we can strike back for that. I don’t think we will lose the game, we are in a proper mood for the game. But we have to show that on the pitch.’
On that day in April 2014 Liverpool had the chance to go nine points clear with two games to go, with City having a game in hand, and were on the back of an 11-game winning streak.
Jose Mourinho turned up in his tracksuit, drilled his players on the pitch and ‘parked two buses’, according to Rodgers. He thumped the Chelsea badge on his chest as he made a beeline for the away end after Willian rolled the ball into the empty net in the last minute, to wrap up a 2-0 victory.
But the game is best remembered still for the Gerrard slip. An iconic image in Premier League history, glorified by rival supporters, but that has been seared on the memories of all Liverpool fans in the six years since.
For Liverpool fans that pain, and the image of a haunted Gerrard, will probably never disappear. But now that the drought has ended, and the trophy is within touching distance, the scars are finally healing.
Gerrard wore that ‘backpack’ of Liverpool’s history that Klopp referenced throughout his 17-year playing career. That weight has been shared in recent years by a side among the most exciting and resilient that has been assembled on Merseyside.
And in Henderson they have a captain who is not the leading light, but has been emboldened by the responsibility of leading this group to success after success in the last 12 months, so much so that he is a leading contender for the PFA Player of the Year.
From the heartbreak of Kiev two years ago to missing out on the league title in 2019 by a single point, despite amassing 97 of their own, this Liverpool side has become an expert at responding to adversity. Klopp does not call them ‘mentality monsters’ for nothing.
But how they deal with being at the top, at being the target, will bring new pressures and challenges. That has been clear in the games since the title was secured. They have not convinced, and have found ways to lose games, instead of finding ways to win them.
Perhaps it is to be expected of a side who, for the first time in Klopp’s five years at Anfield, have had nothing to play for at the end of the season.
Manchester City have been keen to insist that next season has already begun. Their limp surrender in the FA Cup semi-final to Arsenal suggests a turnaround in their fortunes is not a given. They have lost nine league games for a reason, despite their ability to routinely swat aside teams in the lower end of the table, it will be hard to claw back what is now an 18-point gap.
Chelsea though have begun in earnest. Hakim Ziyech is through the door already, and Timo Werner is following him, while Kai Havertz could still join from Bayer Leverkusen.
They are aggressively spending and squad-building, while Liverpool could well stand still. They have enough of an advantage for their prudence to be vindicated, and Klopp still has confidence in his players.
He said ahead of the game: ‘I’m completely happy with my squad 100 per cent. Because of our reasons we didn’t do it (spend last year). We try to make right decisions. Covid came, different situation.
‘It’s not that we don’t think we cannot improve, we just do what is possible for us and what we are able to do. Other teams maybe can invest. The main difference between us and other teams this year is consistency.
‘We won against Chelsea away 2-1. It is not a 30-point gap between us, the gap is what you see on the pitch. Its not about spending, it’s about having the right team on the pitch next season.
‘We cannot buy because other teams buy and everyone wants us to. We will have a lot of tests next year, we need to make sure we’re ready for them.’
Liverpool will need to be. But for now it is about relishing their own success, which has been made all the more worthwhile by how they have got there.