The King and I: how Kenny Dalglish turned discord into harmony

The King and I: how Kenny Dalglish turned discord into harmony

As a Liverpool supporter, there are three things I’ve never written about; a trinity of subjects that I’ve never felt there are the adequate words to do justice to. The horrors of Hillsborough is one, my experiences of Istanbul is another, and last, but by no means least, is Kenny Dalglish.

On 20 November a movie about his life is to be released, which looks set to put Dalglish across in a way that will perhaps take many by surprise. It’s not easy to convey what Dalglish means to a certain generation of Liverpool supporters, from the greatest footballer we may well have witnessed in the red of the club to the man whose managerial achievements in his first spell in charge at Anfield largely go undervalued across the broader spectrum of the game, and onwards to the man himself – a man who a grieving city looked to in one of its darkest hours. In Dalglish’s own modest words, nobody is bigger than the club. That is true, yet there are few people to have made a greater individual impact on Liverpool than Dalglish himself.

I was at Old Trafford in early January 2011 when Liverpool made the trip to face Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup. The game itself was settled by an early, controversial penalty, and a red card for Steven Gerrard around half an hour later. The atmosphere in the away section had been electrified throughout, however. Twenty-four hours earlier, news had begun to break that the calamitous reign of Roy Hodgson was over, and that a holidaying Dalglish had been called for.

In many ways, it made little contemporary sense, and yet it was an incredulous and delighted travelling Liverpool contingent that was encamped within the Old Trafford East Stand that day. The general feeling was that it was all going to be OK, because Kenny was back.

Apart from a short three-month spell in temporary charge of Celtic in 2000, Dalglish hadn’t had a hands-on managerial role in football since leaving Newcastle during the early exchanges of the 1998/99 season. He’d been away from the front-line for well over a decade, and football had moved on.

In the eyes of a suddenly childlike set of Liverpool fans, Dalglish was Dalglish, though, a force of winning nature. The infectious enthusiasm which permeated from those who were old enough to remember him from the first time around even managed to transmit itself to the younger generation of fans, to whom he’d only been a name in the history books.

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For a short while at least, Dalglish brought harmony to a football club where there had only been discord. He brought peace where there had been bitter recriminations, which had taken the club to the brink of administration in the wake of the Hicks and Gillett saga. It was an era in which Rafa Benítez had been replaced by Hodgson and a boardroom civil war had rampaged its way to the High Courts in London, before the cloak-and-dagger sale of the club to Fenway Sports Group.

I can vividly remember the day Dalglish walked away from Anfield, in February 1991. It was less than 48 hours after Liverpool had played out that incredible 4-4 draw at Goodison Park against Everton in an FA Cup fifth round replay. The feeling of shock and emptiness was palpable. From my perspective, Dalglish had always been there, and now he wasn’t.

I can starkly remember the Hillsborough disaster. It never really goes away. For a man synonymous with winning league titles and European Cups, the FA Cup is placed here and there as a more significant marker than it should be.

The date 15 April 1989 defined Dalglish the man. He bore the weight of a devastated city. As institutional drawbridges were lifted and inconvenient truths were swept under carpets within the corridors of power, Dalglish and his wife Marina flung open the doors of Anfield to anyone who needed to be there, to anyone who needed to talk, to anyone who needed to be angry. The people came, and they came, and they came. Nessie Shankly, the widow of Bill, joined the queues. The light dimmed and the doors eventually had to be closed for the day. Instead of identifying herself, she instead went home and rejoined the queues the following day.

Liverpool was built upon the humility of Nessie’s husband, and Dalglish was organically attuned to that ethos. When Shankly learned in the early 1970s that an adolescent Dalglish had been at Melwood in the mid-60s for a trial, slipping through the great man’s fingers, he was incandescent. It was akin to the record company Decca passing on the chance to sign The Beatles. Liverpool did eventually get their man. Bob Paisley swooped on the eve of the 1977/78 season, bringing in Dalglish from Celtic to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Kevin Keegan, who had been sold to HSV.

Great things happened. League titles and European Cups were won, along with a few other trinkets. It’s a testament to how potent that Liverpool era was that while other clubs illuminated Charity Shields and European Super Cups as honours won, at Liverpool they weren’t particularly heralded. This wasn’t through arrogance; it was through a down to earth humility, one that Dalglish was far more comfortable with than Keegan was.

An unfortunate side effect was that Keegan’s legend at Anfield was essentially swallowed up by Dalglish. The king was dead, and an even greater king had taken his place. The irreplaceable had proven to be very replaceable indeed as Keegan became Liverpool’s awkward prodigal son. Even now, the club struggles to accommodate a legend who really should have been reclaimed in some manner by now. Dalglish belongs to Liverpool, while Keegan belongs to the football community at large.

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Nobody who has scored a winning goal in a European Cup final with an Adidas Tango should be 66. In my mind’s eye, Dalglish will always be able to leap over those advertisement hoardings at Wembley, as he did in the 1978 final against Club Brugge. With his arms aloft and that big beaming smile, he represented the feelings of an army of Liverpool fans who had descended upon London.

That beaming smile combined with his mistrusting scowl of those outside of his circle, and an acerbic wit which has reduced many an opponent to a mute onlooker, has always been at home on Merseyside. He is a man who will fight any corner he feels it is his duty to stand up for. He wasn’t born in Liverpool, but Dalglish is the epitome of Liverpool.

On the pitch, his mastery of the ball was startling. Strong and skilful with a third-eye essence when it came to knowing where and when his teammates would run, his partnership with Ian Rush was unerring. One goal, at home to Watford, summed up the near-telepathy they seemed to operate with perfectly. When Dalglish received the ball with his back to goal just inside the Watford half, he turned on his right shoulder sending his marker in the opposite direction, before threading an inch-perfect through ball to Rush. Without breaking stride, the Welshman collected the ball and dispatched it low past Steve Sherwood.

The integral component in two markedly different Liverpool sides, Dalglish slotted in seamlessly as Keegan’s successor, alongside the likes of Terry McDermott, Ray Kennedy and Jimmy Case. When Graeme Souness was added a few months after the arrival of Dalglish, the jigsaw was complete.
The title win of 1978/79 was a work of art, the crown jewel in an ocean of success. The era was visually marked by a series of photos known as ‘The Jock Pictures’, in which Alan Hansen joined Dalglish and Souness to exclusively display their latest hard-earned piece of silverware.

When the light began to fade upon that spectacular team, Paisley regenerated his squad, and Dalglish was crucial to the advancement of not only Rush but also Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan, Sammy Lee and Craig Johnston, all players he would go on to manage. The trophies continued to roll in. Then came Heysel.

Horrific and avoidable, it remains a permanent scar upon the club. Within the long shadow which it cast over Liverpool, a shadow that also absorbed what was the already tarnished husk of English football, Dalglish was asked to carry the club forward as its new manager.

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It is a popular misconception that Joe Fagan resigned as Liverpool’s manager in the wake of Heysel. Having taken on the job in succession to Paisley in 1983 at the age of 62, Fagan had long since intimated to the board of directors that he intended to step down at the end of the 1984/85 season, and his potential successor had regularly been speculated upon.

The names of both Dalglish and Phil Neal had been put forward as internal candidates, but many had thought someone from outside the club would be appointed. Alex Ferguson had been rumoured to have openly courted the prospect of taking the job, while many journalists had championed Graham Taylor.

In the bewildering days after Heysel, the appointment of Dalglish was both a shock and made perfect sense. Despite an inconsistent start to his first campaign in charge, Dalglish went on to win the double by clinching one of the greatest title races of all-time, and winning the first ever all-Merseyside FA Cup final. As Rush departed for Juventus, he constructed an even better team, the team of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge. It was footballing hypnotism.

Hillsborough altered so much for both the club and its manager. New battles now needed to be won, battles which were waged off the pitch. Hillsborough had been the third time in which Dalglish had been present when people had gone to a football match only to not return home. Before Hillsborough and Heysel, he had been in attendance at Ibrox Park on 2 January 1971 when 66 people died in a crush on a stairwell as they were exiting the stadium.

On the pitch, an emotional FA Cup final was won against Everton, and a sapping title-decider was lost to Arsenal. A further league title was won a year later, almost on autopilot. And then, less than a year on, Dalglish was gone.

It seemed so very wrong to see him within the employment of Blackburn Rovers four years later, claiming another league title at Anfield – a crown that would likely have been Liverpool’s had Dalglish been able to see the wood for the trees in February 1991. Instead, Liverpool skewed down a path into the wilderness. As much as Liverpool needed Dalglish the manager to stay, Dalglish the man had to go. The haunted look on his face on the day he resigned spoke of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress, numbed by matters which had been beyond his control.

In many ways, that is where the story ends for me. The Liverpool I knew, the Liverpool I grew up with, ceased to be in April 1989, with the last flickering flame extinguished in February 1991. Everything since then has seemed like a mirage of sorts, almost like it belongs to somebody else. I’m pretty sure that in a parallel universe somewhere, Dalglish stayed, and the glory days rolled on and on. Each one of them would have been celebrated by the man himself, with his arms outstretched and that big beaming smile breaking across his face.

By Steven Scragg  @Scraggy_74

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