Monday 24 July 2017

Romantic return grounded in hard facts and boot room ethos

Dalglish has shown a no-nonsense attitude to restoring Anfield's former majesty, writes Dion Fanning

Defeat at Blackpool on Wednesday was not a surprise and that is the hardest fact of all for men like Dalglish to absorb. Photo: Getty Images
Defeat at Blackpool on Wednesday was not a surprise and that is the hardest fact of all for men like Dalglish to absorb. Photo: Getty Images

Kenny Dalglish was asked last week about the romance attached to his appointment as Liverpool manager, 20 years after he quit, consumed by stress and anguish.

"Romance doesn't win football matches," he said. "Hard facts win football matches."

Dalglish as a footballer and as a manager was in relentless pursuit of the hard facts until the facts and tragedies destroyed him. His anti-romance became romantic. No manager made saying so little mean so much.

His return to Liverpool has been compared to Kevin Keegan's at Newcastle, but the two men were always different. Keegan became a world-class player only because of an absolution dedication, but that dedication quickly became self-absorption. "Expect anything," he said when he returned to Newcastle under Mike Ashley, and he made it sound like he believed in magic.

All they ever had in common was their dedication as footballers. There will be plenty of romance at Anfield when Dalglish walks out this afternoon, but the hard facts have established themselves pretty quickly at Liverpool.

Defeat at Blackpool on Wednesday was not a surprise and that is the hardest fact of all for men like Dalglish to absorb. Ian Holloway approached this season with a sense of adventure lacking in Roy Hodgson, who became just the leading voice in the chorus unimpressed with the quality in Liverpool's squad.

Dalglish has already tried to make a different noise. At Bloomfield Road, Fernando Torres was one player who looked transformed. Torres may have sulked for much of the season. He was asked by Hodgson to be what he is not -- a targetman -- and became a different player at a club he no longer recognised and, it is suggested, no longer wants to play for. There were glimpses at Blackpool that Dalglish will, at least, be able to get Torres to play for the remainder of the season.

On Friday at Liverpool's training ground, Dalglish was making no promises. Last weekend had taken care of the romance. The flight from Dubai, the dash to the hotel and the reception from 9,000 Liverpool fans at Old Trafford. Everything else was a demonstration in reality.

He had spent a week working with the players and absorbing the changes to the training ground he first walked into as a boy on trial in 1966. "The sports science here now is unbelievable. I had no idea it was this big. There's a swimming pool, there's a gym, there's physiotherapy stuff, beds. I'm moving in." He may have to if Liverpool's season is to turn around.

Dalglish has, in his first week, been more expansive in his dealing with the media, talking on first-name terms to many, but he remains committed to one code: he protects his players. When the shine has worn off and there are no more emotional returns, it remains to be seen how he deals with questions about the form of his players or other questions which he doesn't believe are in the best interest of Liverpool.

His own best interests and Liverpool's had become entwined by the time he walked away in 1991. Dalglish's departure was not the moment when Liverpool began to decline, that had already begun, but it was the moment they lost the man who could restore them.

It was a Merseyside derby when his time ended and it is a Merseyside derby today but everything else has changed, except the feelings of Liverpool supporters for Dalglish.

Everton will want to change those feelings, but even if David Moyes is victorious at Anfield for the first time, Dalglish's position remains unaltered.

His understanding of the club has never been more needed. There is nothing old-fashioned in his appointment if he can get people working as they used to. He talks of the old boot room and of new coach Steve Clarke and the similarities.

"I don't know what contributed to the boot room. Was it a place to go for a drink after a game or was it it the contribution those people made in training? The contribution they made in training was unbelievable. The boot room shouldn't be perceived as just a place where managers went for a drink after a game. They were sharp as tacks, they were educated."

On Friday, Ronnie Moran was at Melwood, using the facilities as he has under the previous managers as he recuperates from a knee replacement.

"That's what a football club should be, any football club. To see old Ronnie walking around is brilliant but the boot room wasn't just somewhere managers went for a drink. I wouldn't be surprised if they signed a peace treaty in there. Everything was discussed in there, everything that was pertinent to Liverpool Football Club. That's the way I've been brought up and that's the way I've tried to be. Wherever I've been I've included the staff in conversations. I've depended on them to lay out training and functions."

Clarke's arrival covers gaps in Dalglish's knowledge and he will be asked to work as the boot room worked. "He's not got a bad CV. He's somebody who really enjoys coaching and I don't think he's got a real desire to be a manager, which a lot of coaches have. So he's perfect for us because I've no desire to be a coach. As long as everyone is given respect and given their head to do what they do in consultation with everyone, then it will be fine."

Dalglish's views may be old-fashioned or they may be a timeless understanding that successful clubs have always shared a unity of purpose, something that was lacking while Tom Hicks and George Gillett were calling the shots and feuds raged under them,

"It was so unified," Dalglish said, recalling the club he managed 20 years ago. "Maybe in times since then, there have been some divisions," he said, a minimalist interpretation of the wars that had taken over Liverpool in the past four years. "But there won't be any divisions as long as I'm sitting here."

There is no conundrum for Liverpool in Dalglish's appointment. He said he will happily step aside if somebody better than him can do the job but it is possible he doesn't believe there is anybody better.

Liverpool are said to be looking for a young manager who can build an empire and that is ideal but if Dalglish transforms the team in the meantime, he becomes a lesser gamble. Liverpool do not have Jose Mourinho lined up in the summer, they don't have to make an awkward choice. A run in the Champions League from Didier Deschamps, who has ruled himself out, might force Liverpool to pay attention but a Dalglish success story makes its own arrangements.

Dalglish won't be drawn on what constitutes success. "I've never made targets because when you reach them, what do you do then? Stop training? We want to go and get as much as we possibly can from every game we play in." This was a simple message once and it is simple now but much more difficult for Liverpool to grasp. Defeat today and they would have to confront the idea that they were in a relegation battle.

Everton have their own problems which, right now, aren't too different from Liverpool's. They are matching each other as they did 20 years ago.

There were friendships then that have endured. Dalglish always got on with Howard Kendall during the years they managed the top two teams in England. Kendall has already been on the phone, wishing him well. Dalglish recounted the conversation on Friday. "He said 'I hope you get battered'."

For 90 minutes today, it will be like nothing has changed. Facts not romance will decide the result.

Liverpool v Everton,

Sky Sports 1, 2.05

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