Liverpool's American owners have decisively clipped Kenny Dalglish’s wings at Anfield
KENNY Dalglish’s management model for his second reign at Anfield has been part Bill Shankly, part Sir Alex Ferguson.
The returning hero has endeavoured to revive the cult of the leader at a club run in large measure by remote control from America.
The spiritual grandeur of the Shankly years preceded the Bob Paisley-Joe Fagan era in which Dalglish achieved immortality as a player. If this template was still in his head when he returned as manager in January last year, it was Ferguson’s autocratic power he most envied in today’s game.
There have been days over the past 13 months when King Kenny looked a fair bet to reduce John W Henry and his coterie to passengers on their own Mersey-built ship. That possibility expired with Sunday’s flurry of statements after Luis Suárez had reneged on his promise to shake hands with Patrice Evra at Manchester United.
The Suárez apology and the moral lashing administered to the player by managing director Ian Ayre (“he was wrong to mislead us”) left marks on Dalglish’s authority, as did his own apology for snapping at Sky’s Geoff Shreeves when challenged over the Suárez incident. “I did not conduct myself in a manner befitting of a Liverpool manager,” Dalglish conceded.
This was the first real moment in 13 months when he could no longer present himself as the boss, the unchallengeable heartbeat of the club. His gamble of mobilising the whole institution and red half of the city against the Football Association and behind Suárez presupposed that the player would repay him by obeying team orders and would pledge himself to the cause.
That betting slip was torn to shreds when Suárez exposed Liverpool to more vilification with his rejection of Evra’s outstretched hand. The supportive T-shirts, the circled wagons and the faith in Suárez’s character all came back to torment Dalglish as the club’s owners opted for unqualified contrition to protect their investment.
The Kop’s greatest hero is now caught in the middle of this. As supreme leader he takes the blame for conceiving the relentless defence of Suárez, which was founded partly on objections to the evidence laid out against him but also on the more pragmatic hope that sticking up for him now would yield goals and points in the future.
Plainly, Fenway Sports Group went along with the us-against-the-world stance up to the point when Suárez blew the party line sky high with his antics against United on Saturday. Rather than admit to a collective corporate failure, Fenway heaped their indignation on Suárez and left Dalglish to seek forgiveness for his mistake in trusting the player to behave.
When the banks start weighing in with moral cudgels you know you have a problem. Yesterday Liverpool’s sponsors, Standard and Chartered, let it be known that they had “concerns” over this latest episode. This is boardroom code for: 'You have embarrassed us. If you do this again you will have Crown Paints back on your shirts.’ The aftershocks from racist conduct – real, perceived or alleged – have brought the England manager’s resignation, a cloud over the future of Liverpool’s one big hit in the transfer market (Suárez) and now uncertainty about Dalglish’s hold on power.
For Liverpool fans, unhappiness with Roy Hodgson switched instantly to euphoria at Dalglish’s return. His stewardship up to the end of last season was calm, shrewd, assured. The restoration of old Liverpool values set the stage for a huge wave of summer transfers, some of it conceived by Damien Comolli, the director of football and recruitment specialist whose presence is the biggest obstacle to a restoration of the Shankly-Paisley model.
It took John W Henry and co almost five months to offer Dalglish a long-term contract. One reservation is said to have been the fear that he would seek to run Liverpool the way Ferguson manages United, extending his power across all areas. In that mission, Dalglish may have overlooked Ferguson’s political skill in ceding ground to the Glazer family where expedient and generally not taking them on.
Most Liverpool supporters would feel safer as citizens of a Dalglish dictatorship than as mere consumers in a world run by absentee speculators.
However significant the damage inflicted on the manager’s office by Suárez, the biggest test is whether the vast sums spent on Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Luis Enrique and Sebastian Coates have made any difference to Liverpool’s prospects of breaking back into the top four, much less winning the league for the first time since 1990.
Suárez was a star buy in strictly footballing terms but has been a PR disaster. To this point, Carroll, Downing, Adam and Henderson are nowhere near the status of title-winning catalysts. Craig Bellamy, a free transfer, remains the best single piece of business.
Liverpool are now 21 points behind Manchester City but only four points off Arsenal in fourth-place. The Carling Cup final serves up Cardiff City as comparatively easy meat and the club are still in the FA Cup. So there are enticing targets still to aim for.
Dalglish’s clan-loyalty to Suárez has exploded on him and weakened his bargaining position with the owners, who may expel the cause of all this agitation in the summer. Yet the initiative remains with the manager – tantalisingly, for him. One or two cups and a fourth-place finish ahead of Arsenal, Chelsea and Newcastle will render him impregnable once more to American anger.