When people have asked me to name am influence on my life, I try to reach for someone away from the obvious answers of family and close friends.
My stock “interview” answer is to cite ex-Liverpool manager and current Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez. Benitez is known to be a control freak, infatuated with small details. However, he was the first person I noticed to make a point of understanding exactly what he could and couldn’t control. It taught me to have contingencies, but also to try to take advantage of what I could rather than worrying over things I could do nothing about.
The latter point is emphasised in Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox, about controlling emotions that you don’t want by training yourself not to have them (paraphrased a lot). For better and for worse, I knew someone who taught me that other people exercise their chimp differently to me.
She also taught me that anyone could be anything. This isn’t entirely as positive a sentiment as it might sound, but I do treat it both ways – that I can be anything reasonable that I put my mind too, but also that sometimes people may not be exactly what they’re portraying. The most important part of that sentence is about reasonably setting expectations.
My advancing years and comparative lack of technical ability mean that I’m unlikely to be playing in and winning a European Cup Final for Liverpool. It’s not realistic. It is, though, a competition that Jurgen Klopp has just led Liverpool to victory in.
Klopp’s post match press conference comments were interesting. For someone of his great charisma, he was staggeringly controlled. He was asked what the most satisfying thing was about winning, and he spoke about the achievements of individual players – how cool it was that Jordan Henderson was captain of the winners, a goalkeeper who makes hard things look simple.
He was asked what it meant to him. “Mostly relief.”
He was referring to an earlier interview in which his capacity to win was called in to question, having lost his previous six cup finals. He’d been asked if some managers were simply unluckier than others.
People can hear it like this, but I don’t see it. I think my life is much better than I expected it to be. Winning is good, it’s really cool. But it’s not so much winning – I’m interested more so in development. We are asked all the time about not winning. Well, now we won something.
His tone suggested that the winning was incidental, that it didn’t really matter. So many things in the game could have happened differently, culminating in a defeat. Not that it did, but the same plans that have now proved to be brilliant could have been derided as not good enough had Moura not have shot straight at Alisson, or if Trent Alexander-Arnold had slipped rather than dispossessing Son when there was only him between the ball and the goal.
In competition, the winners and losers all have the same goal. People can often talk about winners being the result of their grand targets. We don’t say the same about the losers. The goal isn’t what differentiates, it’s the work that goes in to winning.
Similarly, winning is only a blip on the path. It’s momentary. Either that or it’s an end. Both of those are the opposite of getting better and of being happy all the time.
It’s one that I confess to having a little bit of difficulty with, because development is demonstrated by achieving goals. However, I think it’s how the development manifests with Klopp that I find most interesting.
Without doing a disservice to his players, Klopp is more interested in fostering personalities than technical ability. He has called his players “mentality monsters” this season, not many seasons after the team were criticised for having no leaders and crumbling under adversity after a defeat in the Europa League Final in 2017.
The emphasis on development rather than short term goals takes away the immediate pressure. Klopp trusts his players, and because he trusts them with an emphasis on their responsibility to each other (which has its roots in the player’s personality) with less pressure, he’s demonstrated that he can create an environment in which the players can deliver the extraordinary. He’d shown that already but, in winning, now he’s proved it to all.
Everything that I’ve learnt from people has been staggeringly obvious to me – when you know, you know. Sometimes it just takes a different way of looking at it. How long we choose to give something to develop is subjective, but watching the Champions League win this year, I have a new perspective on it.
I’ve always known that people perform better when they’re given the environment to do so. I’ve not always realised that providing that environment is about the journey rather than the destination.