Thursday 22 February 2018

New regime buys into Dalglish's undiminished vision

Tommy Conlon

I t's not just the current players who are enjoying the Kenny Dalglish effect at Liverpool these days -- the old pros are happier too.

Some were inclined to stay away during the Benitez era. But it's been altogether a more convivial climate since their former team-mate and gaffer returned to the hot seat a month back.

The directors' box at Anfield was creaking with greying legends for the Fulham game ten days ago, among them Rush, Hansen, Clemence, Ronnie Whelan and David Johnson.

Whelan spent 15 years at Liverpool. He shared a dressing room with Dalglish, the player and manager, for ten of those years. He reckons Kenny, far from struggling with the pressure, is looking younger since he returned to the job.

Dalglish will be 60 next month. It is 20 years, almost to the day, since he walked out as Liverpool manager, drained and exhausted.

But it was a relaxed and courteous figure who gave Whelan and I a tour of Liverpool's training headquarters at Melwood the day before the Fulham game. The man is a walking aura. He exuded authority and control. And he still has a sharp Scottish tongue in his head -- you wouldn't want to step on his corns.

Upstairs in the staff restaurant, players were finishing their lunch. Back in Whelan's day they'd racked up the titles on a diet of steak-and-chips and lager. The current menu, needless to say, contained baked fish and pasta and plenty of salads. Torres walked by. Dalglish greeted him with a smile and a "Fernando!" Torres looked up, face blank, before returning his attention to the mobile phone in his hand. He wasn't full of the joys. Six days later, it was Carlo Ancelotti who was greeting the Spaniard at Stamford Bridge.

But before legions of Liverpool fans could fill the vacuum with their anger and fear, Dalglish filled it with the names of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. It was a masterful managerial coup. He had placated them all at a stroke.

Liverpool has been a shrinking club for several years and the appointment of Roy Hodgson seemed to confirm their declining stature -- a community club in an increasingly rootless, globalised marketplace.

Crucially for Liverpool, the new manager will refuse to entertain the notion that it is no longer a major club. He would find the idea personally offensive. Dalglish remains officially a caretaker manager but this is not a typical appointment in the transient world of professional football. Any other manager would be committed to building a team. Dalglish will want to rebuild the club. It was the best in Europe when he played for them (and arguably when he managed them too).

Back then he bought players who reflected Liverpool's immense stature in the game, breaking the British transfer record when signing Peter Beardsley for £1.9 million in the summer of '87. He splashed £900,000 on John Barnes that summer too. Big money at the time, but for him it was right and fitting that Liverpool would spend the most and buy the best.

Now, any fool can point out that a lot has changed in the last 20 years. But it doesn't mean Dalglish has changed. Or that his image of Liverpool FC has changed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it his self-image, given the way his life has been intertwined with the club. If Dalglish were to accept that Liverpool is a diminished club, it would almost be akin to accepting that he is a diminished man.

The club thought big back then, he is thinking big now. For him it remains right and fitting that they should spend big and consider themselves big. This is a personal mission for him and the outlay of £58 million on Carroll and Suarez is a mission statement. It is a declaration that the rot will stop. The club is in danger of disappearing from European competition and this has to stop too.

The early evidence suggests that Liverpool's American owners believe they have found their man. They would hardly otherwise have sanctioned that audacious double-signing. And perhaps the man believes that he has found the owners he needs to execute his vision.

The Fenway Sports Group may not have the war chest that Sheikh Mansour is spilling all over Manchester City, or that

Roman Abramovich is again dispensing at Chelsea. But the sheikh and the oligarch are amateurs in the business of sport. Sheer weight of money is propelling their teams to the top.

Liverpool FC is not a vanity project for John Henry and Tom Werner. America leads the way in the corporate business which sport, for better or worse, has become. And Henry and Werner, via their ownership of the Boston Red Sox, have successfully navigated their way through this complex world of player trades, television agreements, merchandising deals and stadium finances. It's what they do. They have studied the models and become major players. Last December the Red Sox announced they would be signing Adrian Gonzalez, one of baseball's biggest stars, on a seven-year deal worth a reported $154 million. Four days later, they agreed to shell out $142 million on another player.

Our guess is that once they crunched the numbers on Suarez and Carroll, they didn't baulk at coughing up the cash.

The rebuild is only beginning, but at Anfield the hope is growing.

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