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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Liverpool – welcome back to the Europa League: ‘It’s a magical mystery tour’

It had been 2,682 days since Liverpool last graced the Europa League.

The painful 2015-16 final defeat to Spanish side Sevilla in Basel was the last time Jurgen Klopp had prepared a team to compete in Europe’s second-tier club competition. None of the 18 players on duty that night in Switzerland are still at Liverpool.

Their involvement in a group containing LASK, Union Saint-Gilloise and Toulouse represents a fall from grace after a memorable six-season stint competing against the continent’s elite in the Champions League, which saw them reach the final three times and win it once, but Klopp has vowed to embrace it as he seeks to restore Liverpool to the riches and glamour of UEFA’s blue-riband event this time next year.

And so it was that during a week when Manchester United headed to Munich and Newcastle United reacquainted themselves with Milan, Liverpool fans descended on the picturesque city of Linz in the north of Austria for a meeting with LASK, their club’s 135th different opponents in European competition.

The sun was shining on the banks of the Danube River, the beer was flowing and there was no sign of anyone regarding their latest continental campaign, which will also take them to Belgium’s capital Brussels and the south of France, with anything other than excitement.

“When we didn’t qualify for the Champions League last season, my first reaction was that we’ll go to better places,” says Stephen Wright, who has been following Liverpool away in Europe for 40 years.

“I know it sounds blase but I get sick of going to the same old places — I can’t get lost in Madrid or Milan anymore because I’ve been so many times.

Liverpool fans gather at the Schindler’s Heuriger restaurant in Linz (James Pearce/The Athletic)

“When else would you come to Linz? It’s like a magical mystery tour. I flew from Manchester to Prague (three hours to the north in the Czech Republic) and then got the train here — I thought we were back in England, because we had to get off the train for a bus replacement service.

“As Bill Shankly said, the domestic stuff is your bread and butter and this is the cream on the top. I love the European games the best. I’ve been fortunate enough to see us win everything.”

Linz’s Chelsea Pub has been renamed King Kenny’s for the week and judging by the throng outside that is proving a shrewd decision by management. However, these seasoned veterans have opted for a quieter spot off the beaten track – the beer garden of the nearby Schindler’s Heuriger restaurant – before embarking on the half-hour walk to the stadium.

Les Wright has clocked up over a century of European away trips following Liverpool.

“It’s actually more interesting being in the Europa as you get new places to visit. That’s the big attraction,” he says. “I was hoping we’d get drawn against teams in Azerbaijan and Israel. The novelty wears off visiting the same major European cities.

“It’s a big thing for Linz to have Liverpool here and the people have been so welcoming. But it’s not an easy place to get to. I know lads who aren’t getting home until Saturday because they are travelling back from Bratislava (Slovakia) via Copenhagen (Denmark). That shows the level of commitment that goes into following the Reds.”

His friend Chris Ellis, who lives in Cheshire and has been following Liverpool in Europe since the early 1980s, nods approvingly.

“There’s always a story to tell after every European away (game),” he says. “Some people turn their noses up at it, but we had some great nights in the old UEFA Cup (the Europa League’s predecessor from 1971 to 2009). The 2001 final against Alaves at Dortmund’s ground was right up there. The fact this season’s final is in Dublin adds a bit extra too. That would be an easy day trip. We could swim over!”

Liverpool line up for their 2023-24 Europa League adventure (Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Liverpool were only given 1,355 tickets in the 19,000-capacity stadium by LASK – priced at just £17 ($21) each – and they were quickly snapped up. Vincent Leggett made the trip from the German city of Cologne, where he owns The Corkonian Irish Pub, which has led to many friendships being forged with Liverpool fans over the past 30 years.

“My first European away was Strasbourg (France) in this competition in 1997. We were terrible and lost 3-0,” he recalls. “Following Liverpool led to me meeting these lads. When we go to the likes of Porto, Madrid, Rome, it’s nothing special for the people there. They’re used to big teams being in town.

“But when you come to a place like this, it feels different. You go in the shops, the bars and the restaurants, the people are interested. They want to talk to you about Liverpool. This feels like a proper adventure.”

Siegmund Gruber is looking out across a deserted Raiffeisen Arena from the comfort of its plush executive lounge.

It’s 10am on matchday and the LASK president sips a coffee, lights up a cigarette and reflects on the Austrian club’s remarkable journey over the past decade.

Gruber was part of a group of local businessmen who saved them from the brink of bankruptcy in 2013.

“We were in the third division. We didn’t have a ground, we didn’t have anywhere to train, we didn’t have a single office,” he tells The Athletic. “The players asked for warm water because the showers were only cold. Next to where the players trained there was a dog play area but the fence wasn’t great, so sometimes the dogs would jump over and join in.

“The players were forbidden from throwing their jerseys to the fans after matches because we didn’t have enough to replace them. We’ve come a long way since then. Now we face Liverpool. LASK has come back.”

How did they do it?

“I’d need to chat to you for two or three weeks to fully explain that,” the 49-year-old laughs. “But let’s just say it’s taken a lot of hard work. The only way to success is to work harder than the others.

“I’ve been a fan of this club for more than 35 years. I grew up nearby. I’m a tax accountant, I’ve sold some companies and I’m also involved in properties. I’ve been a sponsor since around 2008 and now as president, this club takes up around 95 per cent of my time. It’s without earning money. I do this for love.”

Club president Siegmund Gruber has helped put LASK on the map (James Pearce/The Athletic)

This is LASK’s fourth European group-phase campaign since they were promoted back to the Austrian Bundesliga in 2017. For a club without a major honour since they won the league and cup double in 1965, competing on this second-tier continental stage is a source of great pride. It also provides a major boost financially.

They reached the Europa League’s last 16 in 2019-20, where they were thrashed 7-1 on aggregate by Manchester United (the two legs were played five months apart because of the pandemic, with the second in an empty Old Trafford due to the crowd restrictions in place to fight the spread of the virus). The following year, they bowed out after a group stage that included a 3-3 draw with Tottenham. In 2021-22, they made the last 16 of the Europa Conference League, UEFA’s third club competition, where they were beaten 7-5 on aggregate by Slavia Prague.

After finishing third domestically last season, they got past Zrinjski Mostar of Bosnia & Herzegovina 3-2 on aggregate in August’s play-off round to be here.

“We really appreciate this opportunity, and it’s a big bonus for us financially, a big help for our budget,” Gruber adds. “Just getting to the group stage is worth €3.6million (£3.1m, $3.8m) and then you get €210,000 for every point you win. For context, the most we’ve ever bought a player for is around €3m.

“Of course in the Champions League, you can multiply those numbers by five — it’s €15.6million just to reach the group stage — so for Liverpool, it’s like having to divide everything by five being in the Europa League this season, but for us this really matters.”

The small but impressive Raiffeisen Arena only opened in February. It was built in the space of 15 months for €90million. This visit by Liverpool has been eagerly anticipated since the group draw three weeks ago with tickets selling out fast. Local news website MeinBezirk billed it as “the game of the century”.

“We’ve played Manchester United and Tottenham in recent years but that was different because we had to play without fans both times due to Covid,” Gruber says.

“We are so happy that Liverpool are here and we intend to fight like hell. We want them to underestimate us, but I don’t think Klopp will allow that to happen. He described himself as ‘The Normal One’ and we appreciate people who are like that here.

“Every stadium this club played in previously belonged to the town. Now we’re in a new stadium that we own, playing Liverpool in front of a sell-out crowd, so I’d say this is the biggest day this club has ever had. We’ll enjoy it.”

LASK certainly did.

It may have been Europe’s second-tier club competition but there was nothing second-rate about the atmosphere last night.

The fanatical home support inspired manager Thomas Sageder’s side in the first half, with Florian Flecker firing them in front on 14 minutes, and they threatened to add to that lead.

However, for the fourth time in five games, Liverpool came from behind to win as they regained their composure. It helps when you can bring on substitutes of the calibre of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Mohamed Salah in the final half-hour.

As Klopp’s side belatedly took control in the second half, you could hear Fields of Anfield Road as the travelling Kop made themselves heard above the din.

Liverpool’s 1,355 travelling fans at LASK (Christian Hofer/Getty Images)

“Fantastic trip against a lovely club,” said Kop season ticket holder Paul Rood following the walk back into the city from the stadium. “Their fans were so friendly. We’ve been eating and drinking with them, singing songs, and exchanging phone numbers for when they come to Anfield in November.

“It was like Christmas for them having Liverpool in town. We had to Google where LASK was after the draw, but I’m glad we came here.

“It’s going to be an adventure in the Europa this season.”

(Top photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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