Monday 22 May 2017

Wily old pro Dalglish knows how to get under Fergie's skin

Alex Ferguson's act of petulance when interviewed by ITV's Kelly Cates last week, came, coincidentally, just after her father, Kenny Dalglish, said referees were undermining Liverpool.

Ferguson looked particularly petulant dismissing a female journalist, but nobody could say it was out of character for him to attack a member of the press he feels is stepping out of line.

It can also be said in Ferguson's defence that when he sets out to intimidate, to bully and to hector, he is blind to the weaknesses or strengths of the person being bullied.

When he accused Cates of looking for "stupid little things", he was not putting down a woman, he was putting down a journalist. He could claim that the fact Cates is Dalglish's daughter had no influence on his behaviour and there would be a thousand other journalists who would support him -- or maybe not support him, but at least bear witness.

Yet there was something about the encounter that suggested this was more than a typical act of immature bullying from one of football's greatest managers. Sometimes, just for context, it's worth pointing out that Alex Ferguson is 69 years old. Sometimes, it's easy to forget.

I'm no body language expert but Ferguson's demeanour seemed immediately hostile in the post-match interview. For a man who has held many stances in his career, Ferguson appeared to be physically braced for a challenge.

This may simply be his involuntary reaction when he knows he is talking to a Liverpool supporter, but whatever the source of it, there was some tension.

There is clearly no personal animosity towards Dalglish, of whom he has spoken in the highest terms. Yet he is troubled, perhaps by the sense that Liverpool are going to be standing their ground again.

Ever since Liverpool dispensed with his friend Roy Hodgson, Ferguson has adopted the pained air of a management consultant who has been told his feasibility study has been rejected whenever the club is mentioned.

Dalglish's appointment was met with a growled observation that if that was the way they wanted to run things over there in Liverpool, well, who was he to object.

To many, it would have seemed preposterous that a man on the verge of United's 19th title would be bothered by the appointments made at a club that was no threat.

When Dalglish took over, Liverpool were below Newcastle, Stoke and Sunderland and those clubs haven't wound Ferguson up in a long time.

Dalglish clearly fits with Liverpool and, more importantly, he shirks no battle and sees only one position as fitting for the club he loves.

Dalglish is perfectly placed to take on these challenges. He is driven by the same desire as Rafael Benitez, which is to say he is not driven by the same moderate urges of Roy Hodgson.

Benitez took on Ferguson but, without much of a constituency in the press, his accurate observations about fixtures and referees in relation to Ferguson's side (United are at home after every Champions League group game this season) were dismissed.

Unlike Benitez, Dalglish has supporters in the media, although some who were exposed to him last week came to the conclusion that he was at breaking point.

Dalglish was said to be feeling the pressure after a defeat at Stoke, which came after Liverpool's best start to a season in 17 years.

His comments that refereeing decisions were going against his side, his remarks that he was going to talk to the owners and then his subsequent meeting with referees' chief Mike Riley were taken as evidence that Dalglish was just another Liverpool manager wilting under the challenge.

In fact, the challenge may well have been noted in other quarters. "I may need to go the same route as some other people and see if I can gain some benefit from that," Dalglish said before he met with Riley and before, by coincidence, Ferguson became irritated with Cates and began to feel the pressure following her complimentary question about Anders Lindegaard.

Dalglish's remarks just put people on alert and Ferguson's genius is that he can detect the faintest threat to his pre-eminence. Liverpool won't challenge United this season (although the challenge that comes from Manchester City won't exactly calm him), but Dalglish's presence unsettles Ferguson.

Dalglish doesn't defer to Ferguson as Mourinho did; he doesn't wage war like Benitez or Arsene Wenger once did. He comes as head of his own empire. Dalglish is a man steeped in all Ferguson is steeped in and unafraid of all of it as a consequence. Dalglish isn't seduced by the myths because he has created myths of his own. He's an aristocrat and Ferguson has always been wary of them.

How long Dalglish retains the media's support remains to be seen, but that won't matter once he has the backing of the dressing-room and the supporters.

Part of the continuity Dalglish brings Liverpool is the continuation of hostility with the media whenever a microphone is placed in front of him.

He is awkward and boorish and dismissive, but none of it matters because he has a direct route to the supporters as well as the command of the dressing-room.

When he attempted to blame the media for the Andy Carroll story, he was prepared to make himself look foolish to protect his players.

Carroll was Dalglish's big gamble. He may argue that as Luis Suarez is clearly worth £50m, Liverpool can afford to take a loss on the other player they bought in January, but Carroll remains a story. He was a story before Liverpool bought him and spending £35m on a player is bound to lead to more scrutiny.

Fabio Capello didn't help but Dalglish attempted to control the story his way, protect the players and expect that the code that is observed in the dressing room remains as valid today as it was 20 years ago.

Dalglish knows how football works and he knows how Alex Ferguson works. For Ferguson, that may be the most infuriating thing of all.

dfanning@independent.ie

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