Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush: the greatest partnership in Liverpool history

Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush: the greatest partnership in Liverpool history

This feature is part of Duology

“Ian Rush celebrates the goal, but Kenny Dalglish is the creator supreme!” It was a cold Saturday afternoon in December, the final weeks of 1982, when Rush scored what was perhaps the goal which best encapsulates the way his footballing wavelength was perfectly attuned to that of Dalglish. Watford were the visitors and Alan Parry was the commentator for Match of the Day. 

Phil Neal wins a defensive duel with John Barnes, sending the ball into the Watford half and towards the Spion Kop, after Graham Taylor’s side had had the temerity to win the toss and insist the home side attack their spiritual heartbeat during the first half, rather than in their traditionally preferred option of the second half.

Watford were to pay a heavy price for such an outrage. Rush’s goal would open the scoring and Neal would add two penalties, ensuring that the game was over well-before Liverpool were asked to attack the Anfield Road end. These were the days when impudent opponents were made an example of at Anfield. The Watford chairman, Elton John, watching on from the director’s box, was serenaded by the Kop faithful with a chorus of “Elton, Elton, give us a song.”

Neal’s clearance was firm and was directed into the right-hand channel. It was more opportunistic than fortuitous that it arrived at Dalglish. Neal may have been playing-the-percentages, but the chances that Dalglish would be there were high. It was far from an aimless clearance; more a measured clearance, perhaps. Every ball that was played by a player who belonged to Bob Paisley was expected to have an intended recipient. 

Back to goal and around 45-yards from the target – which was so often the case when Dalglish received the ball – he took just one touch with the outside of his right foot yet, angling his body to his left, towards the touchline, the movement had convinced his close-marker, Ian Bolton, that there was only one direction in which Dalglish was travelling. The opposite direction to the one in which he eventually turned. 

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The body language of Dalglish had so often stolen a yard-and-a-half on his opponents and this was no secret to Bolton however he was powerless to prevent himself from falling for it, just as hundreds of other markers had too, from an entire generation of footballers to have been handed the nightmare task of attempting to contain Dalglish. 

Bolton stood for a split second or so, looking at the empty patch of grass where his brain insisted Dalglish was meant to be, before spinning on his shoulder in pursuit of his impossible job. Dalglish had cut inside and suddenly the Watford defence was split wide open, handing him the freedom of the pitch. 

Rush, in the left-hand channel and level with Dalglish, had already begun his run toward the Watford penalty area. Like a hawk, hovering menacingly over a field for his pray, his own marker, Steve Sims, has no idea what is about to unfold behind his back. Heading towards goal, Dalglish needs only one more touch, sending a precision pass with the inside of his right foot, which is so beautifully weighted and subtly curved that it cuts through the desperate remnants of Watford’s back-line like a surgeon’s scalpel.

Just beyond the attempts of Sims to intercept, the ball arrives at Rush who is perched on the left shoulder of his marker; the hunted having become the hunter. Without breaking stride, one touch is taken and the ball is dispatched into the bottom right-hand corner of the Kop goalmouth, beyond Steve Sherwood, the Watford goalkeeper, who is left throwing his head back in anger, at the simplicity with which he and his team-mates have been undone. 

There were many other goals which the Dalglish and Rush partnership plundered, goals of greater significance, but there was unlikely a better visual representation of their art than that one against Watford, at Anfield, in December 1982. To think that, not much more than one year earlier, this blossoming partnership was almost killed off at the experimentation stage is startling in retrospect. 

Rush struggled to come to terms with life at Anfield in his early days at the club. Born in St Asaph, the second smallest city in the United Kingdom, and having kicked his first ball in professional anger at Chester City, Liverpool was a harsh and uncaring environment from Rush’s perspective. 

Read  |  Ian Rush: twelve months in a foreign country

In only his second game for Liverpool, he was thrown into the League Cup final replay, against West Ham at Villa Park. Unselfish and intelligent running won him plenty of admirers that night but Paisley was wanting more. What Paisley wanted from him was selfishness in front of goal. The legendary manager recognised that there was a cold-blooded assassin within this unassuming young man but he wasn’t fully convinced that Rush harboured the confidence required to channel that predatory instinct.

Having made a handful of further appearances during the remainder of the 1980/81 season, without finding the net, Paisley opted for the tactic of being cruel to be kind. When Liverpool went to Paris for the European Cup final against Real Madrid, Rush didn’t even make it on to the substitutes bench. He was furious and the wound festered over the summer months.

When he returned for the new season, nothing had seemed to improve. On the outside looking in, Rush went to see Paisley and he put in a transfer request. In one last bid to call the bluff of his striker, the manager accepted the request. It was with anger in his boots that Rush took his frustration out on any accessible goalkeeper. First, he became more forceful in training. Then the goals began to flow for the reserves. 

This all happened to coincide with a dip in performance of the first team. Fresh impetus was needed and Rush, along with midfielder Ronnie Whelan, were the men asked to provide it. The all-too-often historically disregarded David Johnson, and the velvet and steel promptings of Ray Kennedy, made way for this injection of new blood. 

Rush wasn’t going to fumble this second and perhaps final opportunity at Liverpool. Soon enough his first senior goals in a Liverpool shirt came his way, as he netted twice against Leeds, and was then on target in the Merseyside derby against Everton. The banks of the river gave way and a flood of goals descended. 

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Despite finding themselves in 12th on Boxing Day, Liverpool swept to the league title with a game to spare, while the League Cup was retained at Wembley against Tottenham in dramatic fashion, on a day when Rush and Whelan were the heroes. Were the mind tricks employed by Paisley upon Rush a meticulous ploy, or simply fortuitously timed?

That Rush was to become so interlinked with the way Dalglish played was remarkable in that Rush has since professed to almost hating his strike partner in those early days at Liverpool, having been on the receiving end of an incessant stream of stick, about everything from the car he drove to the clothes he wore. 

From Dalglish’s perspective, it was simply part of the dressing room environment, of assimilating new faces into the collective in the swiftest possible time. Sink or swim? That was the choice for Rush and he almost sank. In time, Rush was the one testing the constitution of new arrivals. 

The goals continued to roll into the back of the net and the trophies were greedily collected, while the biggest clubs on the continent watched on enviously. Any notions that Rush was a flash in the pan were obliterated during the 1983/84 campaign when he scored an astounding 47 goals as part of a treble-winning season of title, League Cup and European Cup.

Being on the winning side against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, put the great and the good of Serie A on high-alert for the services of this unstoppable Welshman. Overtones of John Charles were impossible for Rush to avoid.   

It was the youthful ebullience of Rush that seemed to add years on to the end of Dalglish’s playing days. In the summer of 1984, with one eye on the nature of Dalglish’s advancing years in footballing terms and conscious that admiring glances were becoming ever more frequent toward Rush, Liverpool signed the talented Paul Walsh from Luton Town. 

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The 1984/85 season would be the last in which Dalglish was a near-certainty for the starting line-up. After his appointment as player-manager within the raw aftermath of Heysel, Dalglish the manager elected to wean Dalglish the player out of the team on a drip, drip basis, aiming to form a similar pairing between Rush and Walsh.

Fitness and form would, however, often see Dalglish back into on-pitch action in place of Walsh and it was his introduction during the 1985/86 run-in which diverted the league and cup double away from Goodison Park and to Anfield instead, with Dalglish rolling back the years in another blanket finish which reeled Everton in from what had appeared a commanding position.

Rush departed Liverpool at the end of the 1986/87 season, for Juventus, after a personally successful but collectively disappointing campaign. He was partnered by Dalglish in his final home game, ironically against Watford once again, who had John Barnes in their line-up, shortly before his own arrival at Anfield. It was expected to be the last time the two would play together in a competitive professional game of football. 

After just one season in Turin, Rush returned to Liverpool, by which time Dalglish had withdrawn from playing an active on-pitch role, nominally keeping his registration as a player in-case of emergencies only. In May 1990, however, with the league title already won, Dalglish made one final appearance for the Liverpool first team, climbing from the bench at home to Derby at the age of 39 for the last 19 minutes of a 1-0 victory, where he linked one last time with Rush. 

At a club that can boast a litany of iconic partnerships, it says everything that the Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush partnership is quite possibly the greatest of the lot at Anfield.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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