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Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Man Who Would Be King

"This is going to be a piece of piss."

As the sky turned pitch black, the air grew heavy and the heavens opened, a deafening chorus of “Hallelujah” rang out. For a second, it seemed like a genuine second coming as the Shankly Gates rocked and the memory of the hunched, nervous little figure with the unfortunate lisp and penchant for rubbing his face really hard became nothing but a nightmare. “It’s over now,” they said. “The king has returned.” And the king held his hands aloft and the people did flock to him in multitudes and make big banners, reassured at once that they were in the presence of greatness.

Fast forward 270 minutes of football later and the princely sum of one point from two Premiership games and a cup defeat to their bitterest rivals. But no questions are raised from the Anfield faithful. Not one. Maybe a quick “were we too eager to rid ourselves of a manager who inherited a squad of players that included Maxi Rodriguez, Martin Skrtel, David Ngog, Lucas, Milan Jovanovic , an out of form Glen Johnson”, perhaps? No? Ok then, how about, “Why did we not vilify Mr Dalglish for playing Glen Johnson at left back for the past two games, while playing Christian Poulsen, a signing roundly identified as a key reason why Roy Hodgson was a shit manager?” Hmm?

Let me cut to the chase. Fans are the lifeblood of football clubs and I wouldn’t want to see this ever change. But watching a messiah-hungry Liverpool morph into Newcastle in the space of a few months has been bizarre. Hodgson was appointed at the end of what had been a horrendous period in Liverpool’s history. He was never going to turn such a job offer down, even with very little money to play with. Now, I’m not a Hodgson apologist – some of the football I have endured this season has been akin to turning up to an Apple of the Year competition only for the contestants to be a parade of increasingly rotten onions – but chants of “Hodgson for England”, from the greatest fans in the country TM, were distinctly lacking in class. A counter argument would be that they worked, although Hodgson didn’t help by essentially signing his own death warrant by criticising the “famous Anfield crowd” – never advisable.

Alternatively, there is a very strong lobby of opinion that King Kenny – after listening to Martin Tyler during the Merseyside derby, I believe the words “king” and “Kenny” are now interchangeable (see Lord Sugar nee SurAlun) – will single-handedly galvanise the club. The very word has cropped up incessantly since Dalglish’s appointment. In fact, such sentiments were echoed from the top man himself, with Steven Gerrard declaring a statement of intent: "I want to do everything in my power to ensure that he stays here for a long time, beyond the initial six months."

But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And in Liverpool’s case there have been more weak links this season that one cares to mention. If Gerrard’s words, obviously from the heart and not tokenistic, are reflected in the dressing room, then Dalglish is the man for the job, permanently. The groundswell of support from the stands certainly makes it difficult to opt for anyone else. That this season is a write-off has long been a given but four points off relegation spells a dogfight, at least for the forseeable future, something Dalglish has no experience of. And despite all the new-found camaraderie and spirit, this represents a genuine problem.

When your owners know precious little about football though, what are you supposed to do? Dalglish has been roaming around Anfield like a dingo looking for babies since before Hodgson got the job and although there was certainly nothing malevolent in his intentions, it hardly augered well for the new bloke. As the fans grew restless and Anfield became more and more like a besieged city, Dalglish became the only feasible option because he was a) one of them and b) therefore doesn’t make the fans nervous. In Kenny We Trust – a slight variation on a similar theme propagated throughout the Benitez regime.

By having a ‘messiah’ waiting in the wings, Chairman Tom Werner has essentially had his hand forced. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as far as he is concerned. Dalglish is revered on the red side of Merseyside. It makes his appointment a relative no brainer. Should the Scot be successful, everyone’s a winner. Should Liverpool loiter in and around the relegation zone for the rest of the season, the fans will forgive Dalglish because they love him. Hodgson, Hicks and Gillett form an easy triumvirate of scapegoats and no one attacks the board.

But is the ‘give the people what they want’ approach the way forward? The mind immediately wanders to shirtless northeastern hordes. To Kevin Keegan. To Alan Shearer. Such a cult of personality as seen at St James serves two purposes – firstly, it unites fans, but secondly, it propagates a myth that they are somehow unique, a brave tribe battling alone against the rest who could never possibly begin to understand them. It’s a dangerous game because passion clouds judgement, no matter how well-intentioned.

Were better options available though? Frank Rijkaard’s name was mentioned. Martin O’Neill too. And Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp was thought to be a prime candidate. Dalglish might not make Liverpool fans nervous, but in purely footballing terms he does appear to represent something of a gamble. His remarkable success in his first stint at Anfield aside – three league titles and two FA Cups - a very strong Blackburn side doesn’t really mask a win percentage of 38% at Newcastle. Nor does it disguise a disastrous time at Celtic which included a bizarre relationship with John Barnes, in which Dalglish pointedly shied away from a traditional manager’s role, before being appointed to it on Barnes’s departure in February 2000 but then sacked at the end of the season.

Werner has said this week that Dalglish “knows the philosophy of the club,” implying that his predecessor did not. But what is that philosophy, exactly? And why did Hodgson get it so badly wrong? I remember hearing once on the radio that pass and move is the Liverpool groove. Under Hodgson it was hit and hope. This would be one easy tonic for Dalglish to reach for and there were signs of improvement during the Merseyside derby.

Also, consider this: if the Liverpool situation had occurred at Manchester United or Arsenal, would there have been the same clamour for Bobby Charlton or Liam Brady, say? The messiah complex has only really reigned supreme at Liverpool and Newcastle, so what do the fans have in common? As a people, a strong local identity pervades, proud of unique regional accents and histories. Perhaps a tendency towards insular thinking prevails?

Liverpool’s history supports this. Rather uniquely, it was only the appointment of Gerard Houllier (softened by his use in tandem with Roy Evans) that opened up Liverpool to the influence of an 'outsider'. Before that, and since Shankly, the club had always had a 'Liverpool man' at the helm. From 1959-1998 the list reads Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Evans and in Houllier’s absence, Phil Thompson. Sammy Lee maintained a Liverpool presence in an assistant capacity. Exacerbated by crisis, perhaps it is no surprise Liverpool have turned back to one of their own. It seems to keep the fans happy if nothing else, but right now Dalglish needs to edge away from the relegation zone. It might not have won many points just yet, but fostering a sense of unity is a good start.

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