Shiv Kataria (UG21) and Rahul Agarwal (UG22) Calling this season “unique” would be an understatement. Be
Anantaajith Ra, Undergraduate Batch of 2021
As the final whistle rang around the Anfield Stadium, it marked something bigger than the end of one of the most pulsating football matches in a largely disrupted season. Liverpool had not just won the battle, a scintillating 5-3 encounter against Chelsea. They had finally won the war, a victory that had eluded them for three decades, and the club would now hoist the Premier League trophy aloft in the air, 30 years after they last did so under club legend, Sir Kenneth Dalglish in 1990. The red camp of Merseyside, after the most agonizing of waits, had the opportunity to celebrate the grandest domestic success possible. The celebrations were muted due to the absence of fans at Anfield, in comparison to what should have been in regular circumstances with the famous Kop overflowing with support and song. But the joy and emotion were nevertheless felt across the world.
There has been plenty of analysis of their success, but one fascinating aspect that stands out would surely be what this title win symbolizes at its core. I believe this is something to draw inspiration from as we attempt to resiliently recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
I interviewed Divyesh Vithlani, a Senior Business Leader and more importantly, a huge fan of Liverpool for more than 40 years. His description of rivalries between fans when he was young just placed in context the time it has taken between two of his club’s most recent top-flight titles. He said “The way fan rivalries took place then was by collecting magazines such as Shoot, which does not exist anymore. Whoever had the main photo spread of the whole team cut out from the magazine would show it off. So, we used to do those cut-outs and stick the photos up on our walls, which is akin to today’s Instagram right? We also used to bike a lot, and we would have the team flag on our bikes as well.” All of these seem almost alien today with social media acting as our primary engagement for friendly and not-so-friendly banter between fans of rival clubs!
It is also worth noting that Liverpool came breathtakingly close to claiming the league title twice in the last six years, only to eventually fall short. In 2014, lapses in concentration cost them; in 2019, it seemed as though luck sat beside and opposite to them at the same time, and they fell victim to similar lapses though fewer in number, again. Manchester City collected the title both times, despite looking out of the race at different points during those seasons. Liverpool recorded a staggering 97 points in the 2018-19 season, losing just once, but still failed to clinch the title by a single point. They did win the UEFA Champions League in 2019 for the first time since 2005, but falling short of the Premier League yet again seemed to play devil’s advocate to the celebratory mood of becoming European champions. Such a close loss can also be hard to fathom, especially after you know you gave it your all. It is indeed a feeling we can all relate to and recall periodically: we feel less pain when we are completely outplayed, but pure anguish when we lose after being in touching distance.
But Liverpool made sure the loss did not lead to a breaking point; rather, Jurgen Klopp marshalled his men to make history this time around, becoming the league’s fastest winners with seven matches left to play in the process. What led to such a change in fortunes?
It ultimately comes down to three aspects that will also go a long way in our battle against adversities such as global pandemics namely, resilience, vision and endurance. The first two are largely limited to the club, while endurance has been repeatedly displayed by the entire Liverpool community.
In psychological terms, the term ‘Resilience’ refers to the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. Liverpool have displayed resilience at several crucial points – no team has scored more late goals in the league that have positively influenced the result this season. It is also worth noting that they lost the Champions League final in 2018, but bounced back resiliently to claim the trophy in 2019. Divyesh endorsed this resilience as well when he said “I think it really comes down to Klopp and you can see it in his eyes. I saw an interview where he actually said it was good that they didn’t win it last year because it would make them hungrier to go again. And obviously winning the Champions League (in 2019) was a huge consolation prize. If we hadn’t won the Champions League, it would have become very difficult because we would have had two instances of going so far but still not winning it.”
It is exactly this resilient mindset that has helped transform Liverpool into a marauding machine. When asked whether he believed Klopp would deliver the trophy when he was first appointed in 2015, Divyesh replied “As a fan, you always think the next year or the year after that will be your year. Then you start losing hope before something comes along that restores your faith.” For him, this turning point was, surprisingly, the appointment of Brendan Rodgers. “The sense of optimism, similar to what Klopp has got in, was ushered in with Rodgers coming in. His team was the closest we got to what the team is now (after the title in 1990)”, says Divyesh.
He also acknowledged the role of the club’s management, particularly John Henry. This brings in the importance of the second component – vision. Henry and his team laid a foundation that focused on the process rather than on immediate results. According to Divyesh, the former Boston Red Sox owner knew that they would have to play the “long game.” He feels both the management and Klopp knew they had to build a “sustainable team” rather than spend the big bucks like Manchester City or Chelsea did in their bid to win the league. Divyesh says “I think Klopp had a five-year vision when he came in. He probably came in and felt that ‘we will win it’ in that five-year window. The important thing was not to set a target about when we win it, but how we win it and then hopefully sustain that winning streak.”
This is where the dimension of endurance blends into the process. Playing the waiting game and laying emphasis on the process rather than immediate results after going without their most prized possession for three decades was never going to be easy. Yet, the Liverpool community as a whole – the management, the club, its fans – took it on with panache and confidence. When questioned about what kept him glued to the club despite going without a league trophy in 30 years, Divyesh simply said “At the end of the day, it’s the optimism that you will win it. Nobody would’ve known in 1990 that it would be 30 years before we win the league again. Even now, you don’t know if they’ll win it for another 30 years. So, it’s that sense of optimism and the passion you have that has been with you for the longest time. Very few fans who follow the team with high levels of passion would give up hope because that’s the beauty of football. It’s not that rational. If you thought rationally and logically, you would think ‘Why bother supporting them?’ But, it’s about heart over mind. The emotions take over and that’s what keeps the fans going.”
“Heart over mind” is the mantra that really stands out. Liverpool’s fan-base has been on the receiving end of various modes of backlash, primarily due to the fact that arch-rivals Manchester United dominated almost all of the 1990s and 2000s, with Arsenal and Blackburn also collecting a few titles in that period. To add insult to injury, clubs that were not even remotely close to competing for the league title in the 1970s and 80s such as Manchester City, Chelsea, and most recently, Leicester City, have all tasted top-flight success in the 21st century. Meanwhile, Liverpool remained in the re-building phase for what seemed like an eternity. But the fans stuck by their club through thick and thin, merely because of the hope that comes with the passion. Football is indeed about heart and emotion over logic and reason.
It almost seems poetic then that Liverpool confirmed their title after a 100+ day gap caused by the spread of Covid-19. In the midst of a global crisis, they succeeded in securing a title that has almost always seemed out of reach in the last 30 years barring a few occasions. Resilience, a defined Vision and unbelievable levels of Endurance displayed by the Liverpool community laid the foundation for the club to return to the top in one of the most dominant manners possible.
In very much the same way, we can get through the pandemic situation we find ourselves in today through a combination of those three factors. Waiting patiently for the right time and pulling ourselves as well as the ones close to us constantly towards the finish line by developing a resilient mentality, while simultaneously playing by the rules, will allow us to transcend this pandemic.
Liverpool and their fans have waited 30 years to taste league success again; we can definitely endure those extra 30 days for our planet to return to winning ways!