Wednesday 16 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: Kenny has a problem - Berbatov can fix it

Quite a long time ago, I disturbed Kenny Dalglish from an early evening nap. He wasn't what I expected. By that, I mean he didn't drop the telephone like the babysitter in 'When a Stranger Calls.' Actually, he didn't even bark an obscenity.

I'd been told he preferred media people to keep a respectful distance and, maybe, just amuse themselves, skittering merrily away down the sewers. But he took my call that Tuesday in a Leicester hotel room with disarming equanimity.

His Liverpool team was just three games away from the club's first double and I'd been commissioned to cover the Irish angle of their upcoming FA Cup clash with neighbours Everton. This would require gaining access to Ronnie Whelan, Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin and, in the blue corner, Kevin Sheedy.

Dalglish was in his first season as player-manager and an English colleague had suggested this courtesy call might be in order. The football media was proving clumsy in adjusting its lines of communication with the young man now at the Anfield helm.

Actually, the very concept of player-manager seemed alien to them -- especially so to the more weathered scribes accustomed to Melwood briefings from venerable Boot Room figures like Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan.

That old, brylcreemed chumminess had now given way to a slightly uncomfortable edge.

Dalglish, the player, never really played the media game. One of the greatest footballers of his generation, he confined his most eloquent self-expression to the twice-weekly wars fought within the lines of whitewash. Beyond those lines, he sensed a world of fakery.

But management required him to inhabit that world and Dalglish did so with a kind of formulaic courtesy that never extended to warmth. Sensing his distance, the media wrestled with ways to overcome it. Largely, they failed.

Over time, Kenny believed they were withholding the respect conventional for the manager of a club of Liverpool's stature. Hence, the advice to make that courtesy call in April of '86. Good advice, as it happened.

Dalglish said he "did nae mind" me talking to any of his players for a cup final piece, so long as they themselves were agreeable. Then he did a remarkable thing. He thanked me for, as he put it, "having the good manners" to call him.

That evening, Liverpool beat Leicester 2-0 at Filbert Street and, the following weekend, Dalglish himself would score the only goal at Stamford Bridge to pip Everton to the title.

Whelan, Lawrenson, Beglin and, indeed, Sheedy all subsequently co-operated helpfully with this newspaper's build-up to the Wembley final.

Ever since, we've retained a particular fondness for Dalglish.

We were in the Anfield dressing-room tunnel after that goalless FA Cup game with Everton in February of '91 that was followed, days later, by a 4-4 circus at Goodison and his shock resignation as Liverpool manager.

By then, he'd been through the horror of Hillsborough and seemed to be ageing visibly. Those old Liverpool players still insist that they never saw his departure coming.

But anyone standing in the tunnel that Sunday evening knew something pretty fundamental was wrong. The players trouped wordlessly by, like they'd been spoken to by a ghost.

That, almost exactly 20 years later, Dalglish would return as Liverpool boss seemed -- frankly -- absurd. He'd been a decade out of management. In that time, the game changed irrevocably and it was hard to see how he could successfully interpret that change.

But Dalglish has. Liverpool are doing a lot of things right just now, albeit maybe not doing them often enough. The scarcity of goals is an obvious worry. An audit of the current top six in the Premier League highlights Dalglish's primary concern in neon.

For goals scored, the figures are: Manchester City 48; Manchester United 35; Tottenham 29; Arsenal 31; Chelsea 31; Liverpool 18.

Incredibly, Dalglish's men have scored fewer goals even than rock bottom club, Bolton. Their relative health is down to the fact that, defensively, only Manchester City can claim to be their equals (a miserly 13 goals conceded) with one less game played.

Liverpool's recent habit of dependency on particular individuals continues unchecked then.

Where once they leaned too heavily on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, today the sore shoulders belong to Luis Suarez.

Now, Suarez isn't everybody's cup of tea. He misses more chances than he takes and is inclined, routinely, to commit the heinous act of falling over. The FA are still trying to lip-read his October dialogue with Patrice Evra and that raised finger at Craven Cottage last week wasn't, well, exactly parliamentary.

But he hardly needs fitting with an Asbo ankle bracelet, does he?

His movement is a joy and, if he doesn't exactly play with Gandhi's morals, the Uruguayan remains one of those rare players that can yank a game out of neutral.

Liverpool's glaring difficulty is that the man bought for a breathtaking £35m to share the attacking load with Suarez isn't doing it.

On Saturday night, Ronnie Whelan said he'd heard rumours that Andy Carroll was "not a very good trainer."

Now we can take it the calibre of Liverpool rumour that Ronnie hears is reasonably high grade.

In other words, the club is the price of a mid-sized passenger jet down on a player who doesn't seem overly motivated to justify that outlay. This is a disastrous predicament for Dalglish as the January window looms.


Because, as things stand, Carroll's market value is paltry. Any slight attraction Newcastle might even have seen in negotiating a cut-price return of the big man to the north east has probably been obliterated by the form of Demba Ba.

So what does Dalglish do?

Given Suarez did not have a summer break, he is almost certain to suffer a dip in form and energy soon.

Liverpool need a goal-scoring alternative. Perhaps Gerrard's return will eventually provide it, but, chances are, their best bet is a short-term loan.

Carroll needs a spell in the reserves and Suarez needs the respite of an authentic front-line partner. The solution?

This may sound heresy, but I suspect it could be found a mere 40 miles up the M62. Accepting that Carlos Tevez isn't financially viable, Dimitar Berbatov anyone?

Right now, he's so far down the pecking order at Old Trafford, he's practically cleaning boots.

Nobody in football ever defined intelligent movement better than Dalglish, the player.

If Berbatov has his faults, lack of vision is not among them. The hunch here is that, properly motivated, he could electrify the second half of Liverpool's season. Suarez and Berbatov has a ring to it.

Dalglish should go test Alex Ferguson's nerve.

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