Saturday 23 September 2017

Dalglish has magic touch to turn hopes and dreams into reality

The Liverpool manager knows that facing down their greatest rivals is the best way to reinvigorate the club, writes Dion Fanning

Ambition is back on the agenda at Liverpool under Dalglish and ambition in English football starts with facing down Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. Photo: Getty Images
Ambition is back on the agenda at Liverpool under Dalglish and ambition in English football starts with facing down Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. Photo: Getty Images

Kenny Dalglish cannot make a wrong move at Liverpool. After all, he invented the dance. Liverpool's greatest player understands the club like no man alive and maybe as only one or two in its history have.

Dalglish is more relaxed as caretaker manager this time than he was as manager 20 years ago. It has become customary to say he is allowing the real Kenny Dalglish to be glimpsed this time. Liverpool supporters never complained about the Dalglish they saw before.

There was nothing artificial about the taciturn Dalglish who felt he acted at all times for the good of the club and with its principles close to his heart. He knew what the supporters wanted and he knows what they want now. He carries this weight with modesty but if anyone, as a Sky reporter did, tries to suggest they are representing the fans, Dalglish is quick to remind them of his position and his strength.

They dance to his tune and in that he has much in common with Alex Ferguson. Last week, Ferguson once again demonstrated why he has been such a success in English football.

Again he railed against the establishment, first as he anticipated a persecution that did not materialise and then as he took on a referee and an FA charge which even his own lawyers were suggesting he didn't fight.

He is an unreasonable man but one aware that the reasonableness of others is his and Manchester United's greatest strength. Dalglish has always been another who will not back down.

When reporters talked to Dalglish, who turned 60 on Friday, about his relationship with Ferguson last week, they fell back on the journalistic convention when discussing the United manager, the "good bottle of red". Would Dalglish have one waiting for him? "It's my birthday, not his."

Dalglish may have been joking but again he understands that his constituency is beyond Ferguson and the newspapers.

He has remained true to his code, formed in Glasgow and Liverpool, during a return in a very different era. Dalglish has become more expansive while saying as little as he used to do before.

The calamitous appointment of Roy Hodgson is almost forgotten now. Almost but not quite. Dalglish has offered a glimpse at what Liverpool under the old regime rejected last summer.

His candidacy was dismissed. Instead Hodgson's promotion above his pay grade was hailed by the opinion-formers as a return to traditional English values at a club which never had much time for traditional English values.

Until last Sunday's defeat at West Ham reminded Dalglish -- if he needed reminding -- that much needs to be changed at the club, there was a sense of inexorable progress about his return.

Only so much can change in two months. Last Sunday's defeat effectively ended Liverpool's ambitions to qualify for the Champions League but the damage was not done at the Boleyn Ground. The damage was done last summer and in the desperate months of Hodgson's management. Dalglish has restored ambition to Liverpool and that comes at a price. No longer is it necessary to listen to Hodgson chortling at the idea that Liverpool might challenge for the title or talking about the burden of expectation.

When Dalglish talked about managing expectations in his first week, he seemed untroubled by it. Later he would go on to say that managing expectations had never been difficult at Liverpool: the traditional method they dealt with it was by winning. Right now, that is not a solution available to Dalglish but victory against Manchester United is.

Ambition is back on the agenda too and ambition in English football starts with facing down Ferguson and Manchester United. Rafael Benitez understood this. Dalglish wrote the playbook.

A year after Dalglish's departure in 1991, Liverpool were given a glimpse of what was to come. Not the dominance of Manchester United but at their delight at those occasions when they could deny them, no matter how temporary the delay would be.

They celebrated at Anfield as they denied Ferguson his first title. Some wondered if United were strong enough to come back from the blow. The next season, not for the last time, United demonstrated their powers of recovery.

Dalglish's team can set them back again today but there is an urgency as United head towards a 19th title and Liverpool remain beached on the 18th acquired 21 years ago by Dalglish.

Since then, there have been glimpses and challenges. Liverpool, for a time, were able to beat Manchester United routinely, much as Manchester United under Ron Atkinson were able to beat the great Liverpool sides.

United's strength under Ferguson has always been their ability to destroy the mediocre sides their challengers dropped points against. So Liverpool would celebrate a victory while United knew the title was coming or would not be long in returning.

Two years ago, Liverpool were closer but a lot has changed since the 4-1 victory at Old Trafford.

In the summer Dalglish will presumably become full-time manager with full-time commitments. He is the man to make the club challenge United but he will need the backing of the owners.

He has made the team look better than Roy Hodgson believed they were simply by believing in them. Benitez, too, indirectly ran down the side by suggesting he needed more money for better players. Dalglish has his private thoughts but the face he projects to the media is hard to read. That is the way a manager should always be.

Yet, the game has changed. Pepe Reina gave his strongest indication yet in an excellent interview in the Guardian yesterday that he would consider leaving in the summer. If he goes the job will again become more difficult.

Reina's words add to the pressure but players like Reina are not the ones responsible for the mess Liverpool allowed themselves to become over the past few years.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett might have gone but their legacy still remains. The wars fought and the money drained had an impact on the side. When Christian Purslow and Martin Broughton decided to rid themselves of their turbulent manager last summer, they anticipated an explosion of joy. Instead Hodgson dragged them down.

Dalglish, in contrast, can only point them in one direction. As Liverpool have moved up the table, he has routinely pointed out that this is not where Liverpool belong, that the club will never be happy as long as they remain sixth or seventh in the league.

He manages expectations by reminding supporters, as if they didn't know, that he shares their ambitions and dreams.

His reputation, he said, would have been damaged if he had turned down this opportunity. There was never any chance of that, no matter what the challenge.

The new owners acted swiftly when Fernando Torres left. If they hadn't there would have been renewed despondency.

In the summer, if Reina leaves, it may be tougher. He has a clause in his contract which allows him to go for £20m, a cut-price deal for one of the world's finest goalkeepers.

Liverpool reinvested the Torres money quickly but replacing Reina when players are needed throughout the squad will be a greater test of the new owners' financial commitment.

They have still to appoint a chief executive and Dalglish remains a caretaker, even if it seems a formality that they will make his appointment long term.

In doing so, they will point Liverpool in one direction: the direction Dalglish wants to take them. He speaks and acts with a blue-blood's certainty about what is best for Liverpool Football Club. He has always embraced the collective that is part of FSG's philosophy too but he will be the manager, the figurehead and the spokesman.

The reality is that today offers some distraction. Reina stated in his interview that since last summer when both he and Torres decided to stay "things haven't changed much". The only thing that has changed has been a greater awareness of the reality. Dalglish's job is to change it.

Hodgson repeatedly stated that he didn't have a magic wand. He was right, he didn't. But other managers do.

Dalglish's association with Liverpool has been long and magical, glorious and tragic. He embodies the club and understands how Liverpool is a vessel for the supporters' dreams. Today he will hope to cast another spell.

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