Wednesday 29 March 2017

Dalglish must work miracles to retain status as Anfield's Messiah

James Lawton

James Lawton

Up until the last few fraught days in the life and times of Kenny Dalglish, there were two indisputable facts about the psychology of Liverpool Football Club.

One was that the Messiah complex created by Bill Shankly -- and ridden relatively briefly by Rafa Benitez -- had landed with full weight on the shoulders of Dalglish. The other was that no one could have been better qualified for the role than the fabled King Kenny.

Now suspicion must harden around a third possibility. It is that the bottom may be falling out of the Messiah business at Anfield.

Messiahs, after all, are not supposed to snap to attention at the first command of trans-Atlantic owners.

They are not supposed to mis-read so completely the implications of an affair as volatile and damaging as the one involving Luis Suarez.

They are supposed to see the future rather than become its latest ambush victim.

Helpfully, Dalglish does still have some credit in the bank, if not specifically the sponsoring one which complained so bitterly about the doomsday publicity that came with Suarez's refusal to shake Patrice Evra's hand last week and the overwhelming sense that Dalglish and the rest of the club management had been caught with their eyes closed.

Victory over Brighton and their up-and-coming young media-savvy manager Gus Poyet in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday will provide some distraction, along with Liverpool's presence as heavy favourites in the final of the Carling Cup.

Dalglish might well argue that success in the cups is -- despite uneven and too frequently insipid Premier League performances -- an indicator of a club regaining the habit of getting into the position to win trophies.

evidence

It is, though, a projection that Liverpool supporters have heard before -- and without lasting results. One of Dalglish's predecessors, Gerard Houllier, was able, certainly, to produce far more compelling evidence along these lines 11 years ago.

Birmingham City and Arsenal were beaten in the finals of the League Cup and the FA Cup respectively and Spanish team Alaves were overcome in the Uefa Cup decider.

"A team of the future," declared Houllier before being pushed out of office and seeing Benitez's extraordinary achievements in the Champions League before he lapsed, soon enough, into his version of futile team-building.

The worry now for Liverpool's ownership is that after major re-tooling of the team -- on a budget which would be the envy of any current rivals, including the plutocrats Manchester City and Chelsea -- Dalglish, for all his iconic status and rock-hard support on the terraces, is in the process of creating similar illusions.

The Suarez affair has been a public relations disaster that has gone to the heart of the confidence of a man like owner John W Henry, a classic representative of American corporate belief in the need to keep the brand shining in all circumstances.

That the bank which has donated £20m to the Anfield coffers should lead the criticism of Dalglish's handling of the Suarez-Evra affair, and not least the eruption that came last week when the Liverpool player apparently reneged on a promise to shake hands with his accuser, would in American sport surely point to some dire consequences.

The Fenway Sports Group flagship, baseball team Boston Red Sox, has had some notable success -- including the World Series of 2007 -- but beyond results, some of which have been distinctly uneven in recent seasons, has been an insistence on the image of a thoroughly professional and upright organisation -- a point made by no less an influential voice than the 'New York Times' while commenting on the Suarez affair last weekend.

It is hard to imagine a clearer alarm bell than the one sounded by a bedrock of the American establishment and if we have any doubt about this, we have only to recall the speed with which Dalglish, Suarez and Liverpool manager Ian Ayre rushed out apologies last Sunday afternoon.

The consequence, surely, is that every step Liverpool take between now and the end of the season will be examined with new levels of critical attention.

And the pervading question? It will concern Dalglish's ability to do more than what he achieved when he arrived at the club on a wave of euphoria a little over a year ago.

That was to remind Liverpool of their past -- and create in players, who had become so demoralised during the later stages of Benitez's reign and the unsuccessful stint of Roy Hodgson, a new belief in their possibilities.

It was all very well -- as far as it went. Now there is disturbing evidence that might never go quite far enough.

The Suarez debacle has been so devastating because he looked, and by a wide margin, the one new Liverpool player to promise the kind of impact which would indeed confirm that Liverpool had returned to the Premier League elite.

He was brilliantly sharp and intuitive, a street ahead of the woeful Andy Carroll and, by the evidence of their first year, the hugely inflationary Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing.

Now there is a widespread belief that Suarez has invited pressures upon himself which make an early move away from English football a short-priced likelihood.

obligation

For Dalglish the greatest obligation is that he can re-create some of the certainties of his past. His aura remains powerful, at least on Merseyside, where understandably he appears to have an inexhaustible fund of goodwill, but then it has never been in greater need of refurbishment.

There was, it seemed, an implicit bending to local will when the Americans got round to making Dalglish's rescue bid a permanent appointment.

But how permanent? The most casual examination of American methods in sports management takes most of the mystery out of such a question.

It is, of course, just as long as it takes a 'field manager' to prove that he is moving forward with his team, that his effect is on the moment and probably the future and not something more firmly rooted in the past.

King Kenny remains a potentially pivotal figure in the rehabilitation of a great football club but it is a status that has to be reinforced quite dramatically in the next few months.

One thing is certain: one bad editorial in the 'New York Times' is unfortunate. Another could be more than careless. It could well prove fatal.

Irish Independent

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