New beginnings for Liverpool
FSG need to choose carefully when they appoint a successor to Kenny Dalglish, writes Dion Fanning
Kenny Dalglish was appointed Liverpool manager because he represented permanence and he was sacked last week because he couldn't change.
Dalglish waited 20 years to return to the club and when he did, he swiftly united it. Yet everything unravelled last season. Liverpool were unlucky too often and even an FA Cup final victory wouldn't have saved Dalglish.
Dalglish's persona remained unaltered over those 20 years. He retained the devotion of the supporters but as Liverpool continued to lose, he was unable to project a sense of control.
It was not about being media-friendly. Alex Ferguson, after all, is whatever the opposite of media-friendly is. Hate, Christopher Hitchens said, got him out of bed in the morning and the same could be said of Ferguson. He has dominated through this emotion, while Dalglish seemed only to be ruled by suspicion.
He may have been right to be suspicious but as Liverpool's season evolved in ways they couldn't have imagined, as the Suarez case created the false but powerful impression that this was a club soft on racism, Dalglish looked wary and powerless. If you're going to take on the world, as Alex Ferguson has always understood, you have to be sure you're going to win.
The Suarez case created the peripheral damage even as it struck at the heart, but Liverpool were undone by their league form, even if Dalglish is believed to have felt that victories in the cups would be enough this season.
Damien Comolli had already paid for the combination of the two. Comolli struck the deals for Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll but they were players Dalglish wanted. The policy of buying British may have been popular with some and ensured the players ended up in the England squad last week, but that only underlined the principle that form is temporary, crushing mediocrity is permanent.
Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group, have promised that this summer it will be different. There will be no more Stewart Downings at £20m and they have embarked on an ambitious plan to transform the club, even if the plan so far has only been ridiculed.
FSG are right to make an appointment based on their own judgement, rather than be swayed by populist opinion. Any choice they make represents a gamble. FSG have worked out a structure they want to implement and it will only work if they appoint the manager they think is best suited to that role. They can't be swayed by the views of Liverpool fans, in either direction.
Once again, there are parallels with Newcastle United, who, despite being led by a man downing a pint in a replica jersey, soared like Superman while Liverpool, so proud of their ascetic sabermetrics credentials, suffered in their Bizarro world.
Mike Ashley is very different to John Henry, but things changed for him when he stopped listening to old-fashioned conventional football wisdom and worked in sport as he had in business.
Ashley, too, had brought back a messiah, albeit one who had achieved a lot less in management than Dalglish. Later, when he sacked Chris Hughton and appointed Alan Pardew, Ashley had to withstand more abuse from the supporters.
FSG spent the first 18 months doubting themselves and their own decisions. They are, informed sources suggest, more comfortable with those who advise them now than those who had influence in the past.
English football is a complex world and John Henry and Tom Werner have taken some time to discover that. They may wonder how they blew the Fernando Torres money on Downing and Carroll, but they are confident now that when it comes to player recruitment they can do what they had always wished.
The manager, too, will be appointed in consultation with the new men taking Comolli's role. Txiki Begiristain, the former Barcelona sporting director, is believed to be interested, but he hasn't been approached. Pep Segura, the technical manager at Liverpool's Academy, is also expected to be promoted. These positions will be filled before the new manager is confirmed.
Comolli's duties will be split between administrative tasks and the key job of finding players. He failed at that and the same mistakes won't be made this summer.
Comolli "interviewed well" when he got the job as director of football and this may underline the problem they face in finding a new manager. Candidates might be discounted if they reveal themselves to be arrogant in the interview process, it was suggested, but arrogance and knowing your own mind are assets in a football manager.
On Friday, they were considering talking to Rafael Benitez, having previously ruled him out. He still hadn't been approached by yesterday and there was some reluctance from club sources to suggest he was on the shortlist.
If Benitez was appointed they would fear losing control again, but they can't shirk from strong personalities. There is no point employing somebody agreeable, somebody who can fit into a management structure if they can't accommodate the creative brilliance of a man who knows what he wants.
Liverpool need to be prepared to be troubled by their manager. After all, there is no more intense and driven manager than Guardiola.
In some ways, it would be a self-destructive thankless job for Benitez. He would suffer from the high expectations from the fans who adore him and the bitter enmity from those who don't. Liverpool is not a club which observes moderation.
Benitez might be better off at another club where he can remind the world of his excellence as a coach. But he loves Liverpool and, given the nature of his departure two years ago and all that has happened since, he understandably craves a return.
He would be no more of a gamble than most of the names mentioned and the gamble comes with the baggage rather than his coaching ability. On that criteria, he is the outstanding candidate, once Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have been dismissed as fanciful.
FSG have heard from many sources that he is a difficult man and having had to dismiss two managers in their first 18 months, they would understandably hesitate if they are influenced by those views.
Nobody would claim he is easy but there is a long list of players who want to work with him again and when even Benitez's nemesis, Christian Purslow, says he is a strong candidate, FSG are risking further alienation from supporters by refusing to talk to him.
If he is suggested by the men advising FSG, Benitez will be approached. There is, however, a reluctance to interview him if he isn't going to get the job. Politically, it is hard to understand how they could refuse to meet him.
FSG would need to be convinced he could work within the model they propose and Benitez might be happy with a one-year rolling contract which would leave both sides with an exit strategy.
Andre Villas-Boas will be approached this week. AVB's man-management skills make Benitez look like Ron Atkinson. He is no Mr Bojangles and if anything he came out of the Chelsea debacle less tarnished than he should have been.
The seductive notion of the mutinous Stamford Bridge dressing room has masked how spectacularly badly he handled the job. There were strong personalities, but beyond the usual suspects it was routine to hear in his final weeks how he had alienated most players in the squad.
More importantly, he made a mess of his remit and was fired. Survival is the starting point for a manager and he undermined himself with his sensitivity and inability to bring key players with him. He might have learned from that but it would be a risky appointment for a dressing room that needs managing.
Before the FA Cup final, Pepe Reina offered an insight into Fernando Torres' problems which countered the idea that it was only the old hands at Chelsea that struggled with AVB. "It is much easier to get over mistakes when you know you have the confidence of your manager and your team-mates. With Villas-Boas, especially, I don't think Fernando felt that," he said.
AVB is somebody who will interview well, in fact he will probably ace an interview, which underlines the risks in their strategy.
A manager like Frank de Boer, who has already been approached and expressed an interest, would offer more authority and may fit within the framework. He would also allow Liverpool to make a fresh start. Alan Pardew and Marcelo Bielsa are not in contention. Despite his statement on Friday, Brendan Rodgers has not been discounted yet, while Roberto Martinez is a gamble, but a manager who fits into their model.
Liverpool shouldn't shirk from strong personalities. A club built on everyone getting on is doomed. So is a club where nobody gets on.
The managing director Ian Ayre has signed a new contract. He found it hard to stand up to Dalglish, it is said, which led to problems in the Suarez-Evra case.
FSG expect those they appoint to do the work they were employed to do.
"Do people want them to be meddlesome owners, interfering in everything?" a club source asked last week.
Even an exceptional case like the Suarez-Evra incident was expected to be handled by Ayre, Comolli and Dalglish. None of them managed it in the most spectacular PR disaster for the club. Ayre remains at the club, rolling out his vision 'going forward'.
The new man, an FSG source insisted, wouldn't be fired if Liverpool finished fifth or sixth. "They aren't Chelsea," he added.
Dalglish is believed to have felt the demands were altered as the season progressed. He was said to be devastated last week, despite the typical public statements backing the club.
Liverpool's stature as a great football club stands most profoundly now in its ability to provide psychodrama. Dalglish left Anfield 21 years ago at the peak of his powers but worn down by Hillsborough. He watched people die supporting the club he loved and then felt it was his duty to let the tragedy consume him.
He left last week as a potent symbol of what Liverpool once stood for. He is an exiled king now, another tragic figure wandering the heath.
FSG took possession of the club last week. Exorcising the ghosts will be much more difficult.
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