Football's changed but so has Kenny Dalglish
SINCE his return to Liverpool, a smile seems to have been permanently etched into Kenny Dalglish's 60-year-old features. It is an expression that has become de riguer for all connected to the club – fans, players and owners.
Yet six months ago a club more used to challenging for its 19th league title had slumped to 19th place in the Premier League and faced the very real threat of financial meltdown. The turnaround at Anfield has been remarkable, on and off the pitch.
The club transfer record has been smashed, Liverpool are one of the form teams in the league and now the concern is Europe rather than relegation.
Dalglish's infectious positivity has been the catalyst. The critics said he had been out of the game too long, that football had moved on, that the game had changed. But so too, has the man.
The public perception of Dalglish in his first glorious spell at Anfield was that of miserable Glaswegian, a dour Scot. Liverpool lifted three league titles and two FA Cups under his management yet the consensus remained – this was a man who refused to speak to the media, certainly not at length or with any great meaning. A genius extrovert on the pitch, mute introvert off it.
When Saturday Comes, the irreverent UK football magazine which recently celebrated its 25th birthday, once printed an article with the heading “In conversation with Kenny Dalglish”. Below it was a blank space. A harsh but nevertheless representative take on how the greatest player to wear Liverpool red was seen by wider society.
But Dalglish has been far from dour since agreeing to a caretaker manager role at Anfield. His reputation alone lifted a battle-weary support that had been dragged into the depths of despair, firstly by Tom Hicks and George Gillett, whose ownership left the club on the precipice of administration, and secondly by Roy Hodgson, whose stifling negativity – on and off the pitch – left Liverpool avoiding bottom spot in the league only by goal difference.
Dalglish immediately set about re-establishing long-standing Anfield values. Pass and move, just like it said in the club single released in 1996, was again “the Liverpool groove”.
So, before the Scotsman's first month was out, Liverpool supporters were again celebrating an away win in the Premier League – an occurrence all too rare under Hodgson, whose record on the road in England's top flight does not make for pretty reading.
Not only that, the 3-0 win at Molineux against a Wolves side that had triumphed over Hodgson's Liverpool just a month earlier was sealed with a 31-pass move. The influence of Dalglish, ably assisted by former Chelsea No.2 Steve Clarke, was already paying dividends.
Off the field things changed too. Probing media questions about would-be targets were given short shrift. Leaked team-sheets far in advance of matches became a thing of the past. No longer would Liverpool be airing its dirty laundry in public. The message from Dalglish was clear – football may have changed, The Liverpool Way hasn't.
It was the straying from values that had served the club so well for so long that left many supporters disillusioned. It was that feeling that prompted many to take to the streets in protest, to demonstrate in the stands, to call for the return of Dalglish.
To see those values so quickly restored, so vigorously defended, was the lift Liverpool fans so desperately craved. And it was all done with a smile and delivered with a joke. Dalglish is clearly relishing his restorative role. He should be. The Premier League statistics make for pleasant reading for anyone with an affinity to Anfield.
Dalglish's signing of a permanent deal at Anfield now seems inevitable. He has earned the chance to rebuild Liverpool. But while Dalglish has so far proved the cynics who claimed his 10 years away from day-to-day football management would prove a gap too far to bridge, a minority of doubters remain.
Liverpool owner John W Henry, players and fans have all publicly backed Dalglish. Daniel Agger quickly fell out with Hodgson, the centre-half's ball-playing style at odds with his then manager's principles. Tellingly, the Dane was equally rapid in his praise for Liverpool's current caretaker. “He is a positive guy and he is, in football terms, positive,” Agger told Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet. “First of all because he likes to play positive football, going forward, and keeping the ball on the ground and I think he is good among the players.”
But still some fans, admittedly now less by the day, yearn for a younger man while others, unrealistically, think Jose Mourinho can be lured to Anfield. While it is doubtful there is a manager who is a better fit for Liverpool out there right now, the fact Dalglish is attracting any form of criticism or doubt when on the crest of a wave highlights one of the biggest challenges he will face should he secure his Liverpool future.
The face of the football fan has changed since Dalglish last paced the corridors of power on Anfield Road. A Sky Sports generation of supporter has been born and, just like the motto of its rolling sports news channel, they demand “first fast now”.
Impatience is fuelled by crisis-hungry reportage and social media - only bad news is good news for populist journalists while the internet has given an unregulated platform to the ill-informed. So Liverpool's defeat away to a resurgent West Ham prompted talk of Dalglish's “bubble bursting”, of his “honeymoon period being over”.
To many, managers are only as good as their last result and anything but a convincing victory requires blame to be apportioned and scapegoats to be sought. Yet what is required at Liverpool now is patience.
Baby steps have been made in the right direction through Dalglish and Clarke, the ownership switch to Fenway Sports Group, and key appointments like Damien Comolli to Director of Football and Ian Ayre to Managing Director. Liverpool is no longer a rudderless ship heading for the iceberg but there's a long way to go before it drops anchor at the promised land.
The first eleven is strong and is capable of beating any team on its day – results against Chelsea and Manchester United stand up that theory. But that's been the case at Anfield for years - what Liverpool desperately need is strength in depth.
Scratch below the surface and Dalglish has much work to do. Liverpool need at least six or seven quality additions before the title becomes anything more than a pipe dream.
As things stand, the manager cannot call on a quality senior left back that can be relied upon. Paul Konchesky has become representative of Hodgson's reign – both lacked the quality to make the grade at Liverpool, both were costly mistakes.
Glen Johnson is nothing more than a square peg in a round hole on the left side while Jack Robinson at 17 clearly has a bright future but remains raw in first-team terms.
Liverpool still lack pace and guile on the flanks and a quality back-up for Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. Central defence is also a cause for concern given Agger's injury record and Carragher's age. Throw in the shackles of the Financial Fair Play regulations, the possibility of missing out on European football and the head start clubs like Manchester City, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have on Liverpool, and it is no easy task for Dalglish.
But Dalglish is a winner. His success in leading unfancied Blackburn from the old Second Division to Premier League champions in 1995 is proof enough he can build a side from scratch. Yes, he had money to spend, but he fused the team together and fostered a winning mentality – qualities no budget can buy.
At Blackburn, no-one gave Dalglish a chance. Expectation didn't weigh heavy like it does at Anfield and perhaps most importantly, consumerism in football was still in its infancy.
The culture of 'right here, right now' has snowballed since King Kenny hung up his manager's coat. Dalglish has already proved adept at tackling old adversaries like the media, Manchester United and Alex Ferguson. But in modern football, he faces an opponent that is bigger, stronger and more influential than at any other time in his managerial career.
|Last Updated ( Sunday, 06 November 2011 21:22 )|