*Bruce Springsteen, We Take Care of Our Own (2012)
It began on Sunday 9th January 2011, a familiar face bestriding Old Trafford with clenched fists and a glint in his eye which seemed to say “hello again, old friend.” There were a few more wrinkles since we had last seen him take his seat on the bench as Liverpool manager, but in some ways it was like he had never been away - same passion, same presence. Same haircut too. But the game had moved on. When we had last seen him almost two decades ago, the three biggest clubs in England were managed by Scots and the nouveau riche down in west London were three years removed from promotion to the top division (and had Dave Beasant in goal). Times change. Amongst the über-cool managers of 21st century football with their pencil ties and dashing scarves, he probably looked out of place. Who cared about 21st century football though, really? In that moment you felt validated, vindicated, valued. His visible excitement betrayed the fact that not only was he the club’s new manager, he was also its number one fan. Always. He was just like you. In such an unpredictable environment and after everything we had been through over the past few months, this man simply understood. In an age of cold, harsh reality, he represented football’s greatest gift to the world: the chance to dream.
Flash forward just over a year later, to Wednesday 25th January 2012. Anfield was rocking. A 2-2 draw against League-leaders Manchester City had just seen Liverpool through to the Carling Cup final on an aggregate score of 3-2. A month later, Wembley would become Anfield South once again for the first time since 1996, a gap of almost 16 years. This game would become the emotional epicentre of the club’s season. It may not have been a European game and no silverware was handed out, but it was the kind of special night that this stadium, this club, has done so well for as long as I can remember. When Craig Bellamy coolly side-footed past Joe Hart on 74 minutes, the place just…erupted. And now the party was in full swing. It wasn’t the Champions League, but this club’s identity has long been intertwined with the lifting of trophies, even if their frequency has begun to resemble public transport over the past couple of decades (i.e. you wait ages for one and then two or three come along at once). It had been far too long since the club had picked up its last piece of silverware in 2006 and that, as much as anything, is why the place was jumping as the players made their way towards the tunnel on that memorable night in January.
Just before they got there, they were greeted by arguably the most legendary figure in the club’s history. Bill Shankly may have laid the foundations and Bob Paisley built a dynasty on them, but neither man became a legend as both a player and a manager before going on to lift an entire city in its darkest hour. Great men though they clearly were, this man is at least their equal and the very definition of what Liverpool Football Club has long considered itself to be – proud, passionate, hard-working, loyal and tough as nails. As Kenny Dalglish congratulated his players on their efforts in between applauding the supporters, his eyes began to well up with tears. In that moment, you knew all you ever needed to know about how much this club means to him – every bit as much as it means to the people in the stands, and then some. It said everything about him. It still does. And while we can argue about the results and performances produced during his 18 months or so in charge until the cows come home, only a fool would deny what this club lost with his departure last Wednesday. It cannot be defined. It cannot be replaced. It certainly cannot be bought. And before we move on to the next chapter in the club’s history, whatever that may bring, I think it’s only right to acknowledge that.
What is a football club? Bill Shankly once described it as a holy trinity between the manager, players and supporters. In his vision, directors only existed to sign the cheques, ideally remaining somewhere in the background until he saw a player he wanted to bring to the club, out of sight and very much out of mind until their presence was required. Times have changed. Back then, a club like Nottingham Forest could win a League title and a pair of European Cups based on nothing more than appointing the right man in the dugout. He would then go to work on signing the best players available and moulding them into a winning unit while his employers and supporters generally sat back and waited patiently, over a period of years rather than months, for success. There was really nothing more to it than that. These days, things are far less straightforward. Even Bill Shankly or Brian Clough, managing the clubs at which they remain legends, would find it difficult to win major trophies in an era where the very best players are immediately rendered off-limits by financial restraints and in which a manager must answer not only to the owners of a football club but in many cases Directors of Football, chief-executives, managing directors and even shareholders.
These days, even the right manager can simultaneously be the wrong manager. Arséne Wenger has kept Arsenal in the Champions League for 13 seasons in a row, yet because he has failed to win a trophy since 2005 and his team has not managed a serious League title challenge since 2008, many Gunners supporters apparently want him gone. By contrast, here we are bemoaning a third season in a row outside of that same Champions League, with many of us arguing (including, it would seem, the club’s owners) that a top-4 finish is now actually more important than silverware. Not too long ago we had a man who was delivering both about as well as could be expected, but a season has become an eternity in football. Shankly once survived five barren years (six if we discount the Charity Shield) only to emerge on the other side and win a League Championship and FA Cup before retirement. These days, he would be lucky to get 18 months. Ditto Alex Ferguson who, legend has it, only saved his neck back in 1990 with an FA Cup in a season which had otherwise seen his team finish five points above relegation in 13th place. These days, a League Cup win, an FA Cup final and an 8th place finish gets you the sack. This is the new reality.
Make no mistake, Fenway Sports Group had no hand in what football has become, but they are learning the rules of engagement pretty quickly. All of football’s disparate elements have long since been broken down in much the same manner as the owners have begun breaking down this club over the past few weeks, piece by piece. The overriding goal, it seems, is to rebuild it again, not simply with a lick of paint or a new set of door handles but as a kind of Liverpool F.C. Version 2.0. Whether or not this is good depends very much on your viewpoint. The game itself has been rebuilt over the past two decades into a big-business, profit-driven, hyped-up entertainment extravaganza which is the first cousin of television shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, the overriding goal being simply to get people watching. A club like Liverpool has always been somewhat incongruous in that environment, some would say splendidly so, yet at the same time many of us have long bemoaned how slowly it took the club to assimilate itself into the new era of commercialism signalled by the establishment of the Premier League in 1992. The feeling, however, has always been that Liverpool could retain its core identity while still being competitive in this changed landscape.
Maybe we were wrong. The owners of the club certainly seem to think so. In order to compete in this brave(?) new world, in order to make a return on their investment and be successful, the club’s owners have deemed it necessary to dispense with many of the qualities which have long been stitched into the DNA of Liverpool Football Club, qualities such as sentiment, loyalty and patience. You see, in a business environment, such characteristics are crippling weaknesses and, like it or not, our football club is now first and foremost a business concern just like all the rest. In this world of performance indicators, deliverables, corporate synergies and who knows what else, the ugly truth is that Kenny Dalglish simply didn’t provide enough “added value.” There have been many questions asked over the past few days since his departure: what is FSG’s vision, their plan, what structure will Liverpool F.C. have going forward, who is the right man to oversee that vision, will that man be the Director of Football or the manager of the team, can we even call him a manager anymore or is the term “head coach” more suitable now, etc. An equally important concern, in my view, is how this apparent shift in the club’s priorities and values affects its true lifeblood: the supporters.
What is a football supporter? Genuinely, I’m not setting up some kind of condescending ‘super-fan’ lecture here, honestly. Back in the day, it was an escape from working-class life, wasn’t it? Graft during the week, go to the match at the weekend; work hard Monday to Friday, dream on a Saturday, right? That’s changed too. These days, being a football supporter seems like a chore to so many. Time was when people paid what little money they had to go to a stadium and spend two hours of their life in often wretched conditions (being jostled, crushed and occasionally pissed on) because they enjoyed it. They actually put themselves through hardship to watch their team play. These days you see people leaving the stands with five, ten minutes to go if their team looks likely to lose. The nature of what it means to be a “supporter” has changed, just like the game itself. There is suddenly (probably not all that “suddenly,” if I’m being honest) this expectation that you’re going to be handed something to shout about, get excited about, sing about. Supporting a team used to be its own reward, now it’s something you suffer through in the hope that you might be given a reason to cheer at some point. This idea of hardship is one which was promoted to death by entities like Sky until it became reality.
There has also been a shift in how supporters are viewed by their clubs, concurrent with the changes we have seen in the game itself over the past two decades. I mentioned this in a post the other day, but I’ll say it again here: there are people this very second in far-flung corners of the world who are hearing the name Liverpool F.C. for the first time and – just like that – they are now of equal importance to lifelong Reds who have spent every spare penny sustaining a football club so that one day a group of foreign businessmen might go “hmmm, that seems like an interesting investment.” Money is money to them, no matter where it comes from. The essence of being a football supporter has now been reduced to the price-tag of a replica shirt, nothing more. With all due respect to foreign fans (I am one myself), nobody matters more than the hardcore, local, Scouse support. I’m Irish. Over here (maybe you have it there as well), we have a little thing called “parish.” That’s where you’re from. That’s who you are. That’s your roots, your spirit. A football club is no different, especially this one. Its community is its soul. You wander too far from that, and there’s no telling where it will end. And on Wednesday, Liverpool F.C., for whatever reason, took a big step away from itself.
I know only too well the limitations which Kenny’s team showed this season. They were terrifyingly inconsistent at times, both in terms of results and style of play. Sometimes (and I’m not a “tactics” expert but these points seem obvious) they pressed high and attacked, other times they sat deep and become passive for no apparent reason. Entire games (e.g. Bolton and Sunderland away) saw largely wretched, submissive performances, while on other occasions the team looked strong, even in defeat (e.g. Arsenal and West Brom at home). Victories too often existed in isolation, bad following good almost like night and day. Players were played out of position at times, team selections left us scratching our heads at others. Many of his signings took some time to look the part. Some only did so in fits and starts, others basically didn’t perform at all. And yet he still felt as though he could turn it around. For a while, I felt certain that I would accept Kenny’s potential sacking as the natural result of a poor season; then it happened and I honestly felt like I had lost a testicle. He felt that he could turn it around. Do you know who this is? This is Kenny Dalglish. If he felt that he still had more to give, then I have to believe that he did because the man has never – NEVER – let us down before. Never.
Sometimes I lean on history because it can be a guide, especially when you have been in a similar situation before. Look at the previous paragraph, which contains many of the concerns we all expressed throughout this maddening, frustrating campaign. Haven’t we been there before? Back in 2004/05, Liverpool lost 14 times in the League, gained 58 points, finished 37 points off the top (behind Everton) and saw their season defined by a couple of cup runs. This season, Liverpool lost 14 times in the league, gained 52 points, finished 37 points off the top (behind Everton) and saw their season defined by a couple of cup runs. And many of the same questions are being asked. Financially, we couldn’t compete with Chelsea or Manchester United then, now it’s Manchester City. Our squad was short on quality and a long way from being capable of challenging for the League title then, something which is also the case now. Many saw our performances in the League then (e.g. 5 wins away from home all season) as proof that Rafael Benitez wasn’t the man for the job. While the rub you get from a European Cup victory obviously far outweighs that of its Carling Cup counterpart, Rafa was given time, and what happened? He oversaw a jump to 3rd and 82 points the following season. A few years later, we were emptying Old Trafford with 10 minutes to go...
It wasn’t to be with Kenny, we just need to accept that, but the uncertainty and distrust that this decision has generated should not be underestimated as it has the potential to affect the club for some time. Ian Ayre has said that “you don't get to where John's got to and where Tom’s got to in their careers without taking the best possible advice for big and important decisions…taking the best possible advice from those qualified to give it to find the best result.” At this point, I’m not sure that I know what this club actually is anymore, but I will ask two questions: firstly, who exactly represents “the best possible advice”? The same person or people who advised FSG to hire the now-departed Damien Comolli or suggested that they give Kenny Dalglish a 3-year contract only for them to sack him a year later? Or someone else whose advice is presumably better? And secondly, why do I keep thinking about what Wigan chairman Dave Whelan said recently, that “there’s no heart at the club. It’s a bit disturbing when you think a club like Liverpool is functioning without a heart. I mentioned that to Roberto and I think there’s no heart beating at Liverpool. I think the sooner they get a heart the better”? Why do I keep getting the unsettling, nauseating feeling that he’s absolutely right?
Perhaps it’s because, for the second time in three years, this club has willingly ripped its heart out of its chest, first with Rafa and now with Kenny. I honestly don’t know where we go from here, but for now all I can say to the man is thanks. At the very least, these past 18 months have been a blessing to me because they reminded me of how special Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish truly is. I was 11 when he resigned in 1991. I had no real idea of what he meant. He was the manager of the football club, that’s all. I was probably disappointed, but not nearly as gutted as I was when Peter Beardsley was sold to Everton a short time later or when John Aldridge had left for Spain in 1989. When you’re a kid, your heroes are players and Kenny was before my time on that score. Over the intervening years I’ve learned, but I had never felt it first-hand. Well now I have. As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t really had heroes anymore. Heroes are for children, aren’t they? Well, Kenny…he’s about as close as it gets. He once said that the club is “more important and bigger than any individual, no matter who has been through it previously and who will in the future. The club is the club. I will never forget that and anyone who does is being a wee bit stupid and irresponsible.”
Then, for the time being, consider me a wee bit stupid and irresponsible.