T-shirts, protests and Jurgen Klopp vs Gary Neville: How a trip to Leeds helped foil Liverpool’s European Super League plan
Jurgen Klopp glanced out of the window of the Liverpool team bus, surveyed the scene and shook his head ruefully. How on earth, he wondered, had it come to this?
Outside, a group of supporters, maybe 200 or so, had gathered at the gates of Elland Road, determined to make their presence felt and their voices heard.
“Scum!” came the first shout, louder and louder. “F*ck off to the Super League,” came the next one, followed by the finale. “Six greedy bastards, you know what you are.”
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There were boos, even more loud and even more aggressive than usual, as Klopp and his players made their way off the coach. A couple of fans attempted to climb a perimeter fence and were moved back by stewards and police. One supporter set fire to a Liverpool shirt, while others unfurled banners. “RIP Liverpool, thanks for the memories,” said one, pointedly. “Fans say no to Fenway’s Super Greed,” another.
It feels like another lifetime ago now, doesn’t it? Yet this week marks only the second anniversary of that tense, momentous evening.
And as Liverpool look to get their Premier League season back on track with a win in West Yorkshire, it is worth remembering the last time the Reds made a Monday night trip to Leeds…
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The statement on Liverpool’s official website dropped late on the evening Sunday April 18, 2021. “Leading European football clubs announce new Super League competition,” it read.
Tellingly, it was not posted on any of the club’s social media accounts, and the only quotes within the statement came from Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of Juventus, and Joel Glazer, Manchester United’s co-chairman.
Earlier that day, just after 1pm, The Times had published an exclusive story, revealing that six Premier League clubs - Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham - had signed up for a new midweek competition, sending the football world into a state of shock and panic.
The Super League, its members’ statement said, would feature “20 participating clubs, with 15 Founding Clubs and a qualifying mechanism for a further five teams to qualify annually based on achievements in the prior season.”
With the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and AC Milan also signed up, it would, in effect, replace the Champions League as European football’s premier club competition. The ‘Founding Clubs’ would, it was confirmed, receive a payment of €3.5 billion (£3.1m/$3.9m) “to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the Covid pandemic.”
The reaction, naturally, was explosive. There was condemnation from the Premier League, from UEFA, from the UK government, from players’ union FIFPro and from footballers past and present. “Greedy and callous,” Luis Figo called it, while fan groups began mobilising their response.
“Shocking and shameless,” was the verdict of Spirit of Shankly, the Liverpool Supporters’ Union, who accused their club of “greed, pure and simple.” The influential Spion Kop 1906 group announced they, and other groups, would remove their flags and banners from the Kop in protest at the news.
“We feel we can no longer give our support to a club which puts financial greed above integrity of the game,” they wrote. Many related strongly to such sentiments.
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The following evening, Liverpool went to Elland Road, the first time any of the ‘Founding Clubs had played since the news had been confirmed.
Having travelled to Leeds on the Sunday evening, and having spent most of the night watching as the storm raged across the football world, Klopp and his players had, as is customary for away games, taken a short stroll near their city centre hotel on the morning of the game.
On it, they were met with a series of abusive, angry comments from passers-by. “Scumbags,” they were called. “Greedy bastards.” There were a couple of tense exchanges as players and staff members, taken aback by the sheer hostility, fired back.
Now, as they arrived in the away dressing rooms at Elland Road, expanded and spaced out due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, they were met with a fresh insult.
A pile of white T-shirts had been left next to the usual ‘skips’ of kits, boots, drinks and medical equipment. ‘Earn it’ read the message on the front, accompanied by the Champions League logo. ‘Football is for the fans’ read the one on the back.
Liverpool were not amused. Even more so as they emerged for the warm-up to find Leeds’ players wearing the same shirts. Gini Wijnaldum, in particular, was incensed, making his feelings clear in a terse exchange with a member of the Leeds coaching staff near the centre circle.
Klopp, too, was unimpressed. “If somebody thinks they have to remind us that you need to earn a place in the Champions League, that's a real joke and it makes me angry,” he said. He and his staff would not forget those T-shirts.
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Before kick-off, Klopp conducted a pre-match interview with Sky Sports in which he was asked about the proposed Super League, as well as comments he had made in 2019 opposing such a venture.
The world held its breath, waiting to see if one of the key figures in the ‘Super League Six’ would speak out. They needn’t have worried.
“My opinion hasn’t changed,” Klopp said. He insisted he had not been informed of the plans by Liverpool’s owners, and that he understood fans’ frustrations and anger.
It felt like a big moment, and there was another after the game - a 1-1 draw in which the most notable incident came as a lone saxophonist outside the stadium played the ABBA song ‘Money, Money, Money’ throughout the first half - as Reds captain James Milner faced the Sky cameras.
"I can only give my personal opinion,” Milner said. “I don't like it and hopefully it doesn't happen.”
Klopp vs Neville
Klopp was even more forthcoming in his post-match press conference, held via Zoom. He confirmed again that the decision had been made by the club’s owners without his knowledge, dismissed the idea that he might resign from the club, but admitted the abuse from Leeds fans had affected his players.
He then turned his attention towards the media, for what he felt was unfair reporting of the situation.
“People like Martin Samuel [then of the Daily Mail] are saying they should condemn the whole club to hell,” he said, “and after this article hundreds of Leeds fans come here…”
Next, he took aim at an old foe, Sky Sports’ Gary Neville.
“He does not have the right to speak about our anthem,” Klopp added. “He can talk about the decision, but talking about the club singing You’ll Never Walk Alone? Our owners made a decision. That is one part of the club. The club is bigger than all of us.
“I wish Gary Neville would be in a hot seat somewhere and not where the most money is. He was at Manchester United where the most money is and now he’s at Sky where the most money is. Don’t forget that we have nothing to do with this.”
Neville, of course, had been one the earliest and most vocal critics of the European Super League and, covering the game alongside Jamie Carragher for Monday Night Football, was able to issue an immediate response to Klopp.
“I don’t know why I’m living in his head,” Neville said. “I don’t know what’s spiked him. To be fair, we’re on the same page. We’re on the same team, but he can’t say what he wants to say and I can, and I accept that.
“The Jurgen Klopp we know hates every single little thing about this more than I do and more than you do, because it goes against everything in his life that he believes in.”
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Incredibly, a little more than 24 hours after the final whistle had blown at Elland Road, the Super League proposal had fallen apart.
The sheer volume of criticism from across the sporting and political spectrum - as well, crucially, as the strong opposition from active players and managers - meant the plan, which had seemingly been rushed out without any clear PR strategy, barely even began to get off the ground.
On Tuesday, April 20, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson led a meeting, via Zoom, of the 20 Premier League captains, aimed at formulating a collective response to the news. Manchester United duo Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes spoke out via social media, as did others.
Pep Guardiola voiced his own concerns. “It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed,” said the Manchester City boss, while the Premier League confirmed that the 14 clubs not involved in the plans had “unanimously and vigorously” rejected the proposals.
By Tuesday evening, less than 48 hours after the initial statements had dropped, the so-called ‘Founding Clubs’ were dropping like flies. Manchester City were the first club to announce its withdrawal from the Super League, and at around 11pm all of Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool followed suit. Chelsea, the last of the ‘dirty half dozen’ did so soon after.
Arsenal issued an open letter to their supporters, in which they apologised for any distress caused. "We made a mistake, and we apologise for it," it read.
Tottenham, meanwhile, said they regretted "the anxiety and upset caused by the ESL proposal", while Manchester United said they had "listened carefully to the reaction from our fans, the UK government and other key stakeholders."
On the Wednesday morning, Liverpool principal owner John W Henry released a video message in which he took “full responsibility” for the club’s role in the scheme.
"I want to apologise to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the past 48 hours,” he said. “In this endeavour I’ve let you down.”
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The fallout from the Super League would continue for some time. In June 2021, it was announced that the six English ‘Founding Clubs’ had agreed to pay a total of £22m ($27m) as part of a settlement with the Premier League.
The clubs had also agreed to accept fines of about £20m ($25m) each and 30-point deductions if they were to join a similar unsanctioned competition in the future.
UEFA attempted to ban Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus, the three clubs that continued to press on with plans for a Super League, from its European competition, while the remaining nine - the six English clubs plus Inter, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid - were hit with a collective fine of £13.4m ($16.6m) and agreed to forego five percent of the revenue they would earn from UEFA competitions.
The shadow of a Super League continues to loom, while many believe the Champions League reforms, which will come into force from the 2024-25 season, amount almost to a 'Super League by stealth.'
Liverpool have continued to distance themselves from the idea of another Super League, and have since set up a Supporters' Board, aimed at giving fans meaningful representation at executive level. The board, crucially, will also have the power to veto any future attempts to sign up for a breakaway league. Similar moves have been made at both Arsenal and Tottenham.
As it turned out, Liverpool were able to rescue their 2020-21 campaign, winning eight of their last 10 matches to finish third in the Premier League and secure Champions League qualification on the final day of the season.
That night, a celebratory gathering of players, staff and families was held at Anfield, and during it, a familiar item of clothing made its way around the room.
It was a white T-shirt, bearing the Champions League logo and a hastily-scribbled message on its front. “Earned it,” it read.
Klopp and his players will never forget that Monday night trip to Leeds. One imagines this one will be a little less eventful.