One can effectively write off the 1-0 reverse that Liverpool suffered at Old Trafford on Sunday, as not only had their new manager only just arrived back in the UK, but the events of the game itself contrived to load the dice against them in a mighty fashion. Wednesday was a test not only of to what extent the ‘Kenny factor’ would provide a temporary lift around Anfield, but would also be a gauge of whether or not the squad at Anfield was so much better than their current league position, as some have suggested.
When they scored first, this writer thought it possible that the Red Machine would take to full effect, and rack up something resembling a cricket score against beleaguered opposition. That Blackpool showed the fortitude to come back and win the game was a testament to the work of Ian Holloway and his players. That Liverpool went down to an eighth defeat in eleven on the road and were doubled by the newly-promoted Tangerines suggests that perhaps their personnel is not a great deal stronger than their placing in a table that tends not to lie.
It would appear that a wholesale and time-consuming rebuild is necessary, and if Dalglish is as up for the job long-term as some sources would indicate, it brings a symmetry to the events of almost 20 years ago when he left Anfield the first time. Liverpool may have fallen from the ‘perch’ that Alex Ferguson talked about long before he became Sir Alex, but the nature of the task facing Dalglish is exactly the same.
A few have attempted to re-write history in the last week or so, suggesting that Dalglish ‘bottled it’ at Anfield, and could not face the pressure of replacing members of an ageing team. Of course, this analysis completely glosses over the effects that the Hillsborough disaster had on the man himself as well as his loved ones. The huge personal responsibility taken in attending the funerals of many of the 96 deceased took its toll when combined with the task of retaining Liverpool’s status as the premier club in the old First Division. Kenny looked increasingly like a man who had endured sleepless nights, and appeared to age a decade in about twelve months.
The subsequent jibes from chat show host Michael Parkinson and others have been semi-replayed by a minority, who fail to recognise that a man with ‘easy way out’ inscribed into his DNA could not have survived for six years at the helm at Anfield. Three League titles, two FA Cups and never outside of the top two places in the First Division. It was often the case that the best individuals resided at rival clubs, but Liverpool undeniably had the best team. Dalglish had displayed the vision to combine Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge for the 1987-88 season, and given Liverpool’s position of financial strength, there is no obvious reason why a similar wave of signings could not have been made again.
As it was, the decline started almost immediately from the day that a nerve-shattering 4-4 draw at Goodison Park proved the final straw for a man who was already suffering. The next game at Luton was lost, then they were knocked out of that FA Cup tie in a second replay. When Paul Merson completed a smash-and-grab for a miserly Arsenal at Anfield, the momentum in the title race conclusively changed hands. Liverpool never really recovered, and were ultimately seven points adrift of the Gunners (this would have been nine but for Arsenal’s involvement in a 21-man brawl at Old Trafford). Graeme Souness faced the task that Dalglish would have done, of recognising when to discard sentiment, usher some older players towards the exit door, and bring in an infusion of new blood.
As it was, millions of pounds, along with the club’s enviable on and off-field position, were flushed down the toilet over two and a half chaotic years. As Souness appeared intent on turning the Red Machine into a Mean Machine, players like Julian Dicks and Paul Stewart served to illustrate how ill-suited they were to the surrounds at Anfield. The club slowly lurched through injury crises, disciplinary problems, waves of personnel moving both in and out, and the unpleasant punctuation of the more than occasional cup embarrassment. Ferguson and United could hardly believe their luck, and were both ready and able to step into the breach almost seamlessly.
So successive Liverpool managers post-1994 have been playing catch-up, and to be fair this requires a truly great man in the dugout whereas one could argue that the retention of the status quo merely calls for a very good one. While they have looked at various stages like a force to be taken seriously in the last 15 years, this writer cannot remember thinking with any sense of certainty that Liverpool were going to secure a first league title since 1990. Sometimes an Anfield side would produce the swashbuckling football for which the dynasty of the 1970s and 1980s became renowned. On other occasions (most notably for a spell under Gerrard Houllier) they showed the grit and steel to grind out a result which was an understated quality in the great Liverpool teams.
However, they never managed to sustain both over the course of a season, and this inevitably brought about the results that divide champions from also-rans. Rafael Benitez gave Reds’ fans some great nights, most notably in Istanbul in 2005. However, while they hammered their old rivals United 1-4 at Old Trafford in 2009, it was results against the likes of relegated Middlesbrough that cost them dear. If it had been any club other than United that had dominated English football in the last 20 years, one gets the feeling that it would not hurt anywhere near as much.
Like Souness, Roy Hodgson faced a difficult job at Anfield. His brief was not to compete for the title, but to make European competition a bankable certainty amid a boardroom climate that lacked this vital commodity in spades. Like Souness, he contrived to make a tough ask noticeably more difficult than it already was (this writer is aware of certain personal wagers and can assure the two readers who said “you’re on” that a donation to charity will be made in the near future).
All of his signings bar Raul Merieles appeared sub-par for the club’s expectations, the tactical approach away from home screamed negativity to those who watched, and more often than not the team’s reaction to on-field setbacks could best be described as pitiful. This writer hoped and at one point believed that Hodgson was slowly getting it right, and as someone who believes a genuine Liverpool vs United battle is good for the Premier League, is sincerely sad that he got it badly wrong.
In reality, the rest of the current season can not offer much better than a solid mid-table finish with success in the Europa League acting as a sweetener on a term that has been a bitter pill for fans at Anfield to swallow. The mounting number of years without the major prize have become a monkey on the back of all at the club just as much as their rivals’ 26 years of famine did before the inaugural Premier League season of 1992/93. One gets the feeling that only when this chain is broken will there be a true sense of inner peace at Anfield, and Dalglish now has five months in which to stake his claim to be a part of that long process. If he really does feel he has unfinished business at Liverpool, then the opportunity to build something new in his own image represents a means to break a chain of his own, while proving a few doubters wrong in the process. This writer sees no reason why he could not have rebuilt Liverpool 20 years ago all other things being equal. Now from a lower base and with the rust of 10 years out of the game to shake off, it may be up to Kenny himself to decide whether he feels he can carry out the reconstruction.