Big interview: Ronnie Whelan believes Klopp Reds must dominate
You can sense Ronnie Whelan has used the same line a few times over the season when asked how Jurgen Klopp's Premier League champions-in-waiting compare to the Liverpool glory era he was part of.
"If we played them it'd probably be 1-1, but considering me and Barnesy are 58 and Rushy is nearly 60 it's not a bad result!" chirped the decorated former midfielder.
Dublin-born Whelan is now well-versed on the after dinner circuit. From his home in Southport, he is a big follower of the club he represented for 15 years from 1979, almost through the entirety of Liverpool's trophy-laden generation.
He didn't arrive at Anfield with a big reputation. Whelan had to earn his status. He wasn't an instant superstar, not necessarily prolific from midfield or a creative genius. But he did everything well.
He was a constant presence in the teams of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Kenny Dalglish and then former midfield colleague Graeme Souness, under the latter of whom the club lost their way. Six league titles, three League Cups, two FA Cups, a European Cup and six Charity Shields is a remarkable medal collection.
Whelan, 58, is under no illusion of how good this Klopp side is. When lifting Liverpool's last league trophy in 1990, he did not think there would be three decades until the next. "We thought we'd win it in '91 and many years after that."
"Watching over the last few years, in the Klopp era, how the club has evolved and the team itself, has been great," said former Republic of Ireland international Whelan.
"There's a lot of people, I don't know if they don't like Liverpool or whatever, but some of the football Liverpool have played over the last two years – as a football fan or an ex-footballer, that's what you want to see from your club.
"There's not many teams that can play the way Liverpool can play at the moment. You want to watch it. It gets you off your seat."
But, while the coronavirus has delayed and possibly tainted the Reds' achievements this season, Whelan – speaking before the pandemic – insists that Liverpool's current class must go on to dominate and stand the test of time if they want to draw comparisons to the great sides.
His witty comeback at the beginning of this article shows just how highly he rates the sides he played in.
"I don't think yet," Whelan retorted when asked if Klopp's men stand up to those of a bygone era. "You look back at some of the teams in the late '70s and early '80s and then the double (winners) in '86, and a new team comes in after that.
"They have to do it for a couple of years more, at least.
"People are now comparing Van Dijk to Hansen. Van Dijk doesn't remember Hansen. There are all these comparisons with the '87 team of Barnes and Beardsley.
"They have to do it a little bit longer, sustain it. In the '80s we won six titles in 10 years."
Whelan played under some legendary bosses on Merseyside and believes the decision to appoint Klopp from Borussia Dortmund in 2015 was inspired – from a social standing as much as a tactical and football viewpoint.
"I think it'd been a bit too long that the identity had gone and Klopp realised what the football club was," Whelan says.
"He did the same at Dortmund, you need to get the fans involved, you need to get everybody involved.
"When I was there Liverpool was like a family, and we're all in it together. People who cook the dinners, the physios, Klopp has brought that all back in.
"Both Liverpool Football Club and Klopp were made for each other. They'd seen what he did at Dortmund in front of the fans and he did that at Liverpool.
"He got really, really slated early on for a 2-2 draw with West Brom and being in front of the fans, but he said it wasn't celebrating, 'we weren't celebrating because we drew 2-2. It's about us all being in this together.'
"He understands the football club, where I don't think Benitez and Houllier did. Brendan (Rodgers) did to a certain extent, but it's a bit more than a game of football.
"He's gone and got the fans behind the team, he's shown a love of the place and everybody there."
Klopp's influence has been unquestionable. But, when quizzed about the true recipe for success, the key ingredient throughout the '70s and '80s, Whelan's answer was blissfully simple.
"Truthfully – it's the players. I will always go back to the players," says Whelan, who went on to manage Southend United as well as in Greece and Cyprus.
"The questions asked all the time, 'why did they used to win? Was it the Liverpool way?' There was no real major secret, we had good players.
"They went out and wanted to win. Good players will win you the league, Man City have done it for the last couple of years.
"Liverpool have that now. It's been a long time since they've had a squad of players who are clever, know what football is about, how to close games on. Football-wise they're very clever.
"The players he's buying, the way he's buying them, selling people on to build – (selling) Coutinho for £140million to get Alisson and Van Dijk and it's a completely different team with those in.
"I enjoy the freedom of it. We had a position but we were always told to go out and enjoy it.
"That was what they said before every game, go and enjoy it. Good players who enjoyed it. Firmino starts as a centre-forward but goes anywhere, the two full-backs have license. People shouldn't lose sight of somebody else being in place to cover when they do that.
"It's not just like Bob Paisley used to say 'willy nilly' – it's not willy nilly, they know what the role is. Once the full-backs go forward the centre midfielders will wait."
Whelan spends a little more time when assessing the impact of one particular member of Klopp's men. One who reminds him of himself. The leader.
Whelan wasn't an instant Anfield darling. Signed from Dublin club Home Farm before his 18th birthday – he actually had a trial period at Manchester United – he needed to bide his time, endured peaks and troughs but was strong enough to come through and finish with 493 appearances in red.
It's a similar story to current Champions League-winning captain Jordan Henderson who, days before his 21st birthday, switched from Sunderland to Merseyside and took years to find his feet.
"It's weird, but I went through the exact same thing he's gone through," Whelan said of Henderson, who has battled through Anfield adversity to gain the respect of the Reds faithful.
"Then they all start to say, which they did in the '80s with me, 'you don't realise how good he is till he's out of the team.'
"I got a lot of that, there are a lot of comparisons with myself and him, with the fans getting on your back, but you get picked week in, week out, you must be doing something right.
"It's a little bit degrading to say we only realise when he's not on the pitch. He's a better player than that.
"He does a job that a lot of fans don't see, players will see it. He's the one pushing people on. I said to (former team-mate) Gary Gillespie playing golf the other day, other players miss the response they get from him when he doesn't play.
"I always felt I had to be the first one to go and tackle to lift the tempo, he's the one that does that early on, wins it back and everybody follows him.
"You give one ball away and there's groans, you have to battle through it. This has been his best season.
"He's battled through getting stick, there's been a huge change. Fans now believe what he's doing and now he's the one they want in the team instead of talking about Van Dijk and Alisson.
"Now Jordan Henderson is the man in the team. Fans can be very fickle. I found it difficult and I'm sure he did.
"Sometimes you sit and think 'am I going to be picked?' because you're listening to fans, but the manager always has you in the team. So you're doing something right."
Whelan finished the interview by stating the party parade around the city when Liverpool clinch the title would be twice as big as the 750,000 that gathered after last season's European success.
The coronavirus has put paid to that, for now, but the champagne is on ice.