Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kenny jumps back into the fire

FA Cup 3rd Rd: Manchester United 1:0 Liverpool

What a difference a minute makes.

Anfield hero Kenny Dalglish, returning as Liverpool's manager after a decade's sabbatical, was an unexpected picture of sunny composure before
kick-off against Manchester United today, relaxed and joking about his upcoming assault on Mount Everest.

Was this smiling Scot the same Dalglish whose tense and dour fa├žade confronted the cameras the last time he was in charge at Anfield? The same manager would often slip into thick Glaswegian to deliberately confuse the pesky interviewers, until the unresolved pain of Hillsborough meant he could bottle his inner turmoil up no longer.

His resignation in 1991 following a grueling 4-4 derby draw, came as a real
shock. We know top managers are under permanent pressure, particularly when relegation fears place them under what they themselves call 'deathwatch', but they do not tend to walk out citing stress when their teams are riding high.

King Kenny had unfinished business with the Reds, and mentally as well as physically had never left Liverpool, but it took 90 seconds, not minutes today in Manchester, to remind him that football folk are crazy. A controversial penalty, courtesy of a Dimitar Berbatov fall to earth, pushed Liverpool onto the back foot and
plunged Dalglish back to 1991, the stress returning for the first time in years. Then Steven Gerrard was shown red for a flying lunge and a nightmare had descended upon Kenny's second coming.

Every cut to the visitors' bench showed a man possessed by the past, the initial radiance drained from a suddenly aged and haunted face, the warmth of a long-desired homecoming replaced by the unforgiving chill of the wind of defeat. There was to be no first-game fillip for Dalglish's new Liverpool, who enjoyed some promising spells but failed to threaten the Red Devils meaningfully.

Whatever may happen between now and the season's climax in May, rest assured Dalglish will go to bed a troubled man tonight, tossing and turning in his sleep after only one day in his dream job, recoiling at the taste of the poisoned chalice he leapt onto a plane in Dubai to drink from.

Why did Dalglish do it, throw himself into a more frightening and challenging lion's den than ever, when he had no money worries and could have enjoyed a quiet life as a scout and occasional pundit? Liverpool is in his DNA is the only explanation, and his blood runs Anfield red. One man's madness is a football man's logic.

Whether it was right to sack Roy Hodgson after only half a season and replace him w
ith a Liverpool legend who has not coached for ten years remains the unanswered question hanging over Liverpool's new owners, the Fenway Sports Group (FSG). Hodgson had spoken presciently of his fate for some time, caught in the conundrum of being unable to turn down the offer of such a glamorous job, but equally painfully aware the odds were stacked against him coming out alive from it. Liverpool still need new blood and big money, which so far FSG have failed to supply.

In selecting a former club hero, FSG look as clueless as any incoming owner desperate to assuage the fan base: Read Alan Sugar choosing Ossie Ardiles for Tottenham or Mike Ashley picking Kevin Keegan at Newcastle for a glimpse into the future of Dalglish and Liverpool.
They made the right noises about long-term planning, but in the end chose a short-term fix which has made a losing start. They would have done better to have noticed the top two managers in the Premier League, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, have also been there the longest because their owners kept faith in them. In their much-praised book, 'Why England Lose', Simon Kuper and Stefan Szyminski argue strongly that changing the manager makes little difference when the money a club pays its players remains the same.

Ignore the lazy talk about coaches like Hodgson losing the fans and/or the dressing room - fan popularity hinges on victories on the field, while players do not automatically warm to a coach who brings them success. Results define an employee's value more than anything else.
Maybe Kenny will go on to work wonders, but only if he is handed serious money for signings and above all time, the manager's greatest gift of all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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