09 January 2011

King Kenny Is Back to Finish What He Started!

Some people just cannot see an 18-wheeler truck if it is bearing down on them to run them over. That just seemed to be the situation last summer when Liverpool FC – my boyhood club and the one I continue to support to this very day – parted ways after a 6-year romance with former manager Rafael Benitez in rather acrimonious circumstances.

The most obvious choice as his replacement to any fan was a certain Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish, MBE, a.k.a. King Kenny, who had publicly stated that he was making himself available to take over the job that Benitez had vacated. The Liverpool board, instead, opted for the experienced and well-traveled but ultimately limited Roy Hodgson, then manager of the small London Premiership club Fulham FC.

The board probably meant well; and, in fairness, nobody in football has a crystal ball. Yet, Hodgson’s successes even with Fulham were – at best – rather modest; so his appointment makes one wonder if the members of the board – intentions aside – really knew what was best for this once-great and now seemingly lost football club.

The objection to Dalglish – or so the news web sites reported – was that he had walked out on the club 19 years and 11 months ago. What guarantee was there that he would not resort to the same antic all over again?

To gain a better perspective on how a manager could walk out on what was – then – the winning-est club in English football, first let us flash back to the season 1988-89. This was still very much the era when Liverpool, if it did not finish champion, almost invariably ended the season at second place. Second place, to those who had followed Liverpool’s fortunes through the years, was almost inevitably – given the club’s records of successes – regarded as a failure.

That season, as had been the story throughout the eighties, Liverpool was well positioned to win the English League as well as the FA Cup in what in football is called the famous “double.” However, in what History remembers as the Hillsborough tragedy, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to their deaths in the infamous FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

Dalglish, who was player-manager at the time, with the members of the team spent the next few days condoling with families of the deceased. These were trying times for the whole squad; and there were members of the team who were so distraught that they could almost not bring themselves to think of football at all.

Eventually, the families of the deceased themselves prevailed on the whole team to go ahead and contest the semi-finals. This, the families told Dalglish and his players, was only what those who perished in the tragedy would have wanted.

Liverpool did go on to lift the FA Cup, defeating Nottingham Forest 3-1 in the replayed semi-final and then neighbors Everton in the final match at the old Wembley Stadium. In the League, exhausted as its players were from the emotional turmoil brought on by its exploits in the FA Cup, Liverpool was pipped to second place by Arsenal in the last game of the season.

Liverpool recovered sufficiently to win the League trophy back from Arsenal in 1990. Though nobody knew it at the time, this was to be the club’s final championship trophy.

The following season, heading into the homestretch, Liverpool was still very much in the hunt for its nineteenth English League championship. However, a poor run of four straight league defeats had the headlines screaming “Crisis!” In fact, Liverpool was still at second place.

Regrettably, that miserable run of defeats was capped by the most unfortunate announcement that Dalglish, who stated that he could no longer bear the stress of top football management, was resigning from the club. For a man who never shirked a battle on the football field either as a player or as a manager, he was eventually undone not by events on the field but – rather – the terrible scenes that marred his club’s FA Cup semi-final match against Forest the previous season.

Liverpool still eventually managed to finish the season as runner-up; but the club was already in a period of decline. Liverpool had not won the League Championship since 1990.

To most Liverpool fans around the world, the undeniable choice for the manager’s post after Benitez had left was – naturally – King Kenny. Yet the Liverpool board opted for Hodgson.

Doubts about Dalglish’s mental toughness apart, the choice of Hodgson to replace Benitez raised not just a few eyebrows. Hodgson had just guided modest London club Fulham to the final of the Europa Cup; and given that Fulham is among the English Premier League’s smallest clubs, its mid-table position over the past few seasons were achievements in themselves. In the late nineties, Hodgson also managed Blackburn – another small Premiership club. While he did manage to steady the ship – as he did with Fulham – neither club even went near challenging for the Premiership title.

Unlike Benitez – who steered Valencia to two league championships in Spain before moving to Liverpool – Hodgson, therefore, had no real credentials to take along with him. He had won league championships in Sweden and Denmark before; but the Swedish and Danish leagues have never been among Europe’s elite.

While many mid-table Premiership clubs would have welcomed him with open arms – his credentials, and I do not mean this disrespectfully, were likewise mid-table – Liverpool fans brought up in season after season of local and international successes were naturally lukewarm in their reception of Hodgson’s selection.

In comparison, as a player Dalglish won seven league championships and three European Cups with Liverpool in the club’s most successful era. As manager, he guided the same club to league championships in 1986, 1988 and 1990; he also won the FA Cup in 1986 and 1989.

After leaving Liverpool, he returned to football management at Blackburn Rovers. He earned Rovers promotion from the Second Division to the Premiership and, in 1995, won the small Lancashire club its first league championship trophy since the formative years of English football.

He also managed Newcastle United and Glasgow Celtic in latter years with limited success; but in comparison to his record, Hodgson’s is still very much in the mediocre category indeed. They do say that you have to be careful what you ask for.

Six months after Hodgson’s appointment, Liverpool is humiliatingly at twelfth place in the league table after having only won 7 of its 20 matches. It has already lost nine times. The last time the club’s league position was as lowly as this was in the fifties!

Sometimes, the suits inside a boardroom wish to take an organization to a certain direction. Ultimately, the question that has got to be answered is whether the organization wishes to go there. One can and must never underestimate the value of morale for the simple reason that, at the end of the day, any organization is made up of people who have to be happy with where they are going.

This, in my humble opinion, was the case with Liverpool Football Club and its appointment last July of Roy Hodgson to the position of manager. Hodgson was the outsider with a modest record asked to restore the club to its former glory. It was never going to be believable – not for the players; and definitely not for the supporters.

Now that Dalglish is back as Liverpool manager, there really is no guarantee that he will do any better. The football manager’s position is always – at best – a treacherous one. That said, Dalglish brings with him certain facets Hodgson never had the luxury of possessing. For one, he is an insider: a player who won trophies with Liverpool both as player and then, subsequently, as manager.

As a result, he carries with him the collective memory of the club’s successes and will understand what the fans want: a team that presses in every corner of the pitch to gain possession of the ball, links up play with short and quick passes and goes forward at every opportunity. This brand of football was what Dalglish’s teams played in the nineties, the sort that had English legend Tom Finney admitting that Liverpool in the eighties were playing the best British football since World War II.

Finally, Dalglish is the one the fans wanted from the beginning; and they had made their opinions known from the terraces even while Hodgson was still at the helm. His appointment, even as caretaker manager until the end of this season, will most definitely lift morale. For a club that used to reign supreme in English football but is now very much the fallen giant, morale is definitely the one commodity that Liverpool needs more than anything.

There is also this little matter of King Kenny having to deal with some unfinished business that goes back 19 years and 11 months: the matter of winning the league championship again.

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