Dalglish banks on virtues of youth to spark Reds revival
Liverpool's huge investment in young British talent the first part of staged recovery designed to reel in elite, writes Paul Hayward
Published 17/07/2011 | 05:00
The Kop lives in mortal fear of the mediocre buy, the non-Liverpool signing: a dread that dates back to Phil Babb, Neil Ruddock, Julian Dicks and Jimmy Carter. These unwitting souls are among those blamed for the dilution of the great Anfield tradition of recruiting only aristocrats capable of maintaining the lustre of the Shankly-Paisley era.
This understandable defensiveness is a problem for modern Liverpool managers because each new acquisition undergoes an especially fierce scrutiny, especially if he is British and therefore known to the Anfield jury. Buying an average player to perform a specific function stirs the anxieties of supporters who can reel off the duds of the past 10 years, from Paul Konchesky to Salif Diao, Fernando Morientes and Andrea Dossena, who still guarantee a rueful shake of the head on Merseyside.
Supporters who have witnessed five European Cup wins are within their rights to demand the highest possible standards, but in the current phase of mass transition there is little prospect of instant elevation to the Premier League's top spot. Kenny Dalglish is rebuilding not for a title push but a solid top-three place from which a proper challenge can then be mounted.
Unless my eyes fail me, Dalglish is organising a staged recovery. And it could be no other way, given the sheer number of passengers and stowaways who packed the squad over a decade of experimentation under Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez. The legacy of that transfer trawling still confronts Dalglish, who has so far managed to cull only Konchesky in his summer dealings.
The Englishman, bought by Roy Hodgson to perform a limited service at left-back, was perhaps the unhappiest of all recent temporary Anfield residents. His mother's brief declaration on Facebook that Liverpool fans were "scouse scum" was unlikely to endear her to the locals. This miserable relationship ended when the son trudged off to the King Power Stadium and Sven-Goran Eriksson's Leicester City.
Plainly no tears will be shed if he is joined by Alberto Aquilani, Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen, Milan Jovanovic or David Ngog. For all Dalglish's recent flourishes in the transfer shop, Liverpool's followers will only really relax when they no longer have to look at players who are emblematic of strategic failings stretching back to the Graeme Souness reign.
With Dalglish back in charge and more sensible American owners at the controls, you can sense a burning urge for there to be no more flops on the recruitment front. In that context, the £20m spent on Stewart Downing this week is bound to seem more risky than Liverpool fans would like. Each new face is cast against the backdrop of Robbie Keane, Ryan Babel and Bruno Cheyrou.
But a clear policy is emerging under Dalglish and Damien Comolli, the director of football whose presence is bound to cause friction at some point between manager and executive floor. First, Dalglish has employed his knowledge of the youth set-up to hurry along John Flanagan, Conor Coady, Jack Robinson and probably now Raheem Sterling, a teenage firefly in wide positions.
At the core, Liverpool are investing in mid-20-somethings, to escape the Europa League trap. Jordan Henderson, 21, and Andy Carroll, 22, are further down that scale, but this summer the main action has come closer to the point of full maturity, with Charlie Adam, 25, joining from Blackpool and Downing, 26, arriving just as his career starts bearing fruit.
To see Liverpool spending £36m on Henderson and Downing is bound to unsettle the congregation, especially after the £35m splurge on Carroll, who was listed in Newcastle's accounts only 18 months ago as a £500,000 asset.
In the deepest recesses of Anfield there is mounting anxiety about Carroll's prospects of graduating to Ian Rush level. Aspects of his "lifestyle" suggest a less than austere approach to life away from the pitch, which may explain the club's interest in the similarly meaty 18-year-old Connor Wickham, who moved instead to Sunderland.
Extending the contract of Glen Johnson, 26, was another act of mid-range consolidation, and while these names are unlikely to revive memories of John Barnes, Kevin Keegan, Souness or Dalglish himself, they are a realistic first response to the might of Manchester United, the capriciousness of Chelsea and the petro-wealth of Manchester City, whose £400m deal with Etihad Airlines has so upset the Anfield board.
At this moment in their rise from upper mid-table it is less about instant Hollywood sparkle than assembling a core of hardened pros who can lift some of the burden off Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. When John Henry's firm ousted the speculator-clowns Tom Hicks and George Gillett, we all ran off with the Moneyball theory about cheap talent acquisition.
In the event, Liverpool have had to pay well over the odds for players whose price tags massively outweigh their achievements, but it still feels like a shift in the right direction. In this needy age, the CV and star profile are everything, but Liverpool are still in the business of restoring something far more precious: their spirit.
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