Jurgen Klopp was considering the reality of facing Real Madrid. “They are more experienced,” the Liverpool manager said Monday. “It’s a fact.” As Real have become the first team to retain the Champions League in its current incarnation, that is undeniable. But Liverpool have different experience. They go to Kiev with a collection of personal tales that makes them both improbable winners and a team in keeping with the club’s European history. Once again, Liverpool have assembled the unlikely lads.
They are the relegated and the rejected, the unwanted and the underestimated. It is mentioned with increasing frequency that Andrew Robertson was a part-time player just six years ago and that his Hull City team were demoted in 2015 and 2017. What is referenced less often is that Georginio Wijnaldum was part of the Newcastle United team that went to the championship in 2016. At that point, Trent Alexander-Arnold had yet to make his first-team debut. A player who had been described as a No. 6, a holding midfielder, in Steven Gerrard’s 2015 autobiography did not make his senior bow until October 2016; it came against Tottenham, whose manager, Mauricio Pochettino, thought the teenager should have been sent off. He did not start a league game until 2017. In 2018, he will begin a Champions League final and go to a World Cup.
Loris Karius did not begin 2018 in the Liverpool goal. If others are more established, it is easy to envisage situations in which their careers took very different paths, sliding-door moments that could have taken them to mid-table, to obscurity, to anywhere other than a Champions League final.
Jordan Henderson has recently recounted how Brendan Rodgers told him he could go to Fulham as part of an exchange for Clint Dempsey in 2012. Instead, he could join Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness and Steven Gerrard in the ranks of Liverpool’s European Cup-winning captains. If a late injury rules Henderson out, that mantle could instead pass to James Milner; the same Milner some of the club’s power brokers were willing to let sign for Newcastle last summer, the same one who spent last season playing left-back and has not merely been reinvented as a midfielder but has recorded more assists in a single season than any other player in Champions League history. That, to even the biggest fan of the versatile, selfless, perennially underrated Milner, still feels illogical.
But then, much in Liverpool’s European exploits is. It fosters the belief that anything is possible, that players can transcend their limitations, cast off their past difficulties and produce things that, in some cases, seem beyond their capabilities on the biggest of stages. Virgil van Dijk began the season at Southampton and thus almost joined Wijnaldum and Robertson in having a relegation on his CV. Mohamed Salah scored two goals in 19 games as a bit-part player for Chelsea and 44 so far in his debut year at Anfield. Roberto Firmino never began a game as a centre-forward for Rodgers but will be Liverpool’s starting striker in a Champions League final. Yet past Liverpool European Cup winners, such as Thompson or Ray Kennedy, have been reinvented in new positions by managers.
Those five previous European Cup-winning sides contained a disproportionate share of implausible tales. Take the 2005 victor, Djimi Traore, who had knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup four months earlier with a comical own goal, was perhaps technically the worst player ever to win the Champions League and almost instead joined Everton in 2004. Or his teammate Vladimir Smicer, who had been told his contract would not be renewed and still scored in both the 2005 final and the penalty shootout in his last Liverpool appearance. That shootout was won by goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek in his final match as Rafa Benitez’s first choice.
Consider the side of 1984. Craig Johnston’s parents had sold their house in Australia to pay for him to fly for a trial in England where, in his first youth-team game, manager Jack Charlton told him, with expletives removed: “You’re the worst player I’ve seen in my life.” His was not the only disastrous debut. After Alan Kennedy’s inauspicious Liverpool bow, manager Bob Paisley told him: “I think they shot the wrong Kennedy,” in reference to U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Kennedy scored the only goal in the 1981 final and the decisive spot kick in the 1984 shootout. He scored as many European Cup final match-winners as he earned England caps: two and from left-back. If that does not sound fully rational, consider that the other full-back, Phil Neal, scored in two European Cup finals and won four European Cups. He was signed from Northampton Town. His teammates in 1984 were bought from the Vancouver Whitecaps (Bruce Grobbelaar), Partick Thistle (Alan Hansen), Chester City (Ian Rush), Home Farm (Ronnie Whelan) and Ayr United (Steve Nicol).
Liverpool came out at the Stadio Olimpico in 1984 singing a Chris Rea song and ended up with Grobbelaar, a former soldier in the Rhodesian bush war, putting off Roma’s penalty takers with his wobbly-kneed antics. They were copied by Dudek against AC Milan 21 years later. It was an illustration of how a thread runs through Liverpool’s European glory runs, one of improbability. The class of 2018, with their various setbacks and missteps, who have been undervalued and overlooked, seem worthy successors. All they have to do is beat Real Madrid in a European Cup final, which, courtesy of their goal-scoring left-back Kennedy, they did once before in 1981.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.