Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who said anything about a Messiah?

Liverpool Football Club have appointed a messiah as manager apparently.

No, really. What? You haven’t noticed either? I have to admit I hadn’t heard anything. Not until recently which is somewhat strange given the levels of obsession and frequency, with which, I stalk the newspapers, forums, Twitter etc in constant pursuit of all the latest goings-on in and around Anfield. And yet, in spite of this, I had somehow failed to realise that my – make that our – football club had appointed a genuine, real-life messiah. Right under my, and apparently more than a few others’, noses.

I’d heard the club had appointed Kenny Dalglish as caretaker manager until the end of the season, after the departure of Roy Hodgson. For what it’s worth, I agreed with both elements of this decision. First, that it was necessary to remove a man who had long since begun to seem like more of a hindrance than a help, and one that, I anticipated, was only going to get worse. He needed to be sacked before things got even worse, in my opinion, and, as a minimum, I find it hard to imagine Dalglish doing any worse than his predecessor. As a minimum. But then, perhaps that’s the least you’d expect from a messiah.

Alas, the noise emanating, none-too-discreetly, from Fleet Street, bore a slightly different – less optimistic – tune. Once again, it seems as if Liverpool fans and large sections of the national media are singing from rather different hymn sheets. Indeed, any fair-minded observer could be forgiven for asking whether the respective groups of people have they ever sung from the same one at any given point in time.

Perhaps inevitably, these media chiefs that scoffed at the prospect of Kenny Dalglish returning as Liverpool manager – both before and after his appointment –, atop their high horses within the mainstream media. “They call for a messiah? Dalglish is no messiah!”. “They might as well turn to Keegan – or better yet, Shearer – to get them out of trouble”; “He hasn’t managed a club for over a decade”.

In short,then, they weren’t too happy about Hodgson’s dismissal and, even less so, about Dalglish’s return. Frowning on, what they perceived to be a blind devotion to a man who has, falsely, been construed as a God-like being among the Anfield faithful.

The interesting thing in all of this though, is that I haven’t actually heard a single Liverpool fan refer to Dalglish as a messiah. Not once, have I heard a single fan say that Dalglish would instantly alleviate all of our problems.

No-one had any illusions of quick-fixes, so on what basis did these why do so many of these outside observers deem it logical to assume this was what, those that fill Anfield every home game, felt? They called for his appointment, so therefore they think as soon as he is appointed – and Hodgson dismissed – all of the troubles that have plagued the red half of Merseyside over the last year and a half will instantly dissipate, fading away – along with Roy – into the darkness of the night, never to darken the Shankly gates again.

On the contrary, they just wanted a driver who knew how to get them back on the track, facing the right direction and not crack under-the-pressure. This was Hodgson’s original remit. He failed. Spectacularly, in fact. There was no room for emotion in this decision, the only thing that was a factor in this decision was ‘cold, hard facts’. The kind Dalglish emphasised the ultimate importance of, at his pre-Everton press conference, as he simultaneously sought to dismiss all questions and thoughts of romance.

There was no room for emotion in Fenway Sports Group’s decision to relieve the UEFA Cup finalist, Hodgson, of his duties and replace him with the 4-time league and 2-times FA Cup winner, Dalglish (indeed, have there been many other caretaker managers with such an elaborate and commanding CV?). There was no blind, faith here, from neither owners nor fans. No decisions dictated by emotional feelings. (Although, obviously, the emotion & passion that is the Liverpool fans’ mutual relationship with King Kenny, is something that will hugely compliment, and help inspire, any upturn in the team’s fortunes, that Dalglish helps bring about).

Rather, the only emotionally-driven risk here would be to keep faith in a man who had a win percentage of just 35% with Blackburn, Fulham and, now, Liverpool. Hodgson only got the job because of a combination of ownership turmoil and, crucially, because of the sentimentality shown by so many of these media hacks to the former Fulham boss in the first place. The inevitable decline was well underway, with no signs of being arrested. FSG tried to be patient – for so long, sacking the manager seemed like the last thing they wanted to do. Yet, their hand was, inevitably, forced. It is doubtful Hodgson would have been granted anywhere near as much time had he become England, and not Liverpool, manager the summer just gone.

Too much emphasis, in this instance at least, is placed on how much time a manager gets in his job. “Benitez had had six years” they said, and yet at the same time, because Hodgson had only been in charge for 6 months, he automatically deserves more time in the job. Hodgson’s sympathisers pleaded with the Liverpool hierarchy – “a good manager doesn’t become a bad manager overnight”, they insisted. However, as the excellent Dion Fanning pointed out in a recent piece for The Irish Independent, he hasn’t become a bad manager in that time – he was ‘never good enough in the first place’.

These pundits had everything to gain whilst Hodgson was manager, now he has been replaced with Dalglish; they stand to lose it all and then some.

Meanwhile, the true hypocrisy in the media has been exposed for exactly what it is, as, prior to the win against Wolves at the Molineux, the ‘Dalglish effect’ was being written off after a measly three game. The foolish, naive and overly-optimistic Liverpool fans once again brought crashing back to reality because their side lost a couple of games. “Move along, folks, no messiah to be seen here”. No win in his first three, confirmed, in their mind, their pre-determined analysis of Dalglish second spell in charge.

Many of these people changed their tune again, after the convincing win against the same opposition that had humbled Liverpool at Anfield, less than a month previously. Some insisted that this was the first sign of the Dalglish effect bearing fruit. True, it was the first 3 points but was it really the first sign? At Old Trafford, there was a certain buzz – and not just from supporters. At Blackpool, meanwhile, despite being distinctly second best in terms of both result and performance, there was still signs of improvement, still plenty of reason for optimism, as things started to come together a little more. The Everton performance was much better and a point was the least Dalglish’s team deserved, before the win last Saturday.

So, whilst that game was the first win, it was merely the first time all of Dalglish’s fresh – yet, traditional – ideas had really started to translate. But this result shouldn’t be taken out of the context of the preceding three games. There was a gradual progression and the critics were incredibly short-sighted in their failure to acknowledge as much.

If too much (hypocritical) emphasis is placed on the issue of time in the world of football, then even more is put on results. In just over a week, Dalglish’s team had gone out of the FA Cup, lost at Bloomfield Road and had to fight back just to claim a point at home to Everton. Just one point from a possible six league games. But why should that even begin to tell the full story? If Hodgson were still in charge, the lack of such significant interruption – regardless of whether this had a positive or negative effect – on the managerial and coaching side of things alone, might have meant Liverpool didn’t do quite as badly as they did in those fixtures. (Of course, it is equally, if not more plausible, that Liverpool would have lost all of those games – and by significantly greater margins – had the Londoner still been in the hot seat).

But, again, the significance of that is somewhat trivial. Or, at least it should be. It is the performances and tactics that Liverpool fans – and, indeed, football fans and critics across the country – should be paying most attention to, in these initial stages at least. Rome was not built in a day. These same observers would do well to remember this principal. One that so many spouted in blind defence of Hodgson but suddenly forgot here. This latest descendent of Liverpool fan doesn’t understand the concept of patience, remember. They think that Dalglish’s mere presence in the dug-out will be enough to catapult the team from the bottom half of the Premier League table right up to fourth and a Champions League spot. Of course not. Just in the same way, putting a bunch of flour in a mixing bowl doesn’t instantly give you a cake.

Indeed, consider the following analogy:

Dalglish can be viewed as one specific brand of flour, one of many who could have conceivably done a good job. Hodgson, by comparison, was some talcum powder that had somehow got confused with the genuine candidates for the job. He did a good impression of a competent alternative but, to those who bothered to take the time to sniff around for more than a brief, passing moment, recognised that he was far from being the real deal. But the restless children were getting carried away and – with Mummy and Daddy’s immediate whereabouts unknown – they threw it in and hoped for the best, not taking the time to think about those that might be affected by their selfish actions, those who depended on this food more than them – those who were even more hungry and had even less time to satisfy that hunger.

Thankfully, however, Mummy and Daddy returned before all was lost. They ordered the bad children to their bedrooms, flabbergasted at the state they’d left the kitchen in. Mummy and Daddy would demand they clean it up but they know, deep down, that is likely to just make things worse. The bad children have never listened when being told how to clean up properly, before. They needn’t worry though, the good brothers and sisters, would be able to get things looking at least relatively clean again, before everyone – the bad children apart – are able to sit down together and eat a nice cake, with that old flour they Mummy used to buy but suddenly stopped doing for some reason. However, this special ingredient (Kenny, if you’ve lost track) will be able to ensure a thoroughly enjoyable, if not overwhelming, cake that more than satisfies everyone in the unfortunate circumstances that were presented to them.

It would seem, then, based on the way these same fans protested so passionately in defence of Rafa Benitez only last summer, whilst so many in the media called for his removal that it is the latter, not the former, who have begin to drown under the weight of their own short term thinking.

In spite of all this though, even if, in 6 months time, it becomes obvious to all that Liverpool didn’t benefit, at least in terms of league position and silverware, from the Return of the King; the restoration of pride, of humility and, perhaps most importantly of all, the bond between fans and club – things that those within the media insisted Hodgson would restore to Anfield, following the dark reign of the classless, and emotionally-detached Benitez – then it will have been worth it.

So, whilst certain sections of the media will, mock, seething at the injustice of the knee-jerk sacking of Hodgson, Liverpool fans know that the clichés that these very same people spouted so keenly – and, presumably now, will quickly dispense with actually – the Liverpool fans will have every reason to shake their heads in response, for they will know that, ironically as ever, the clichés will no longer be any such things.

Dalglish does deserve time, because, unlike his predecessor, he has a record that not only merits it but also warrants it. He will not play holding midfielders on the wings, he will not try to talk down ambitions, continually contradict himself in the glow of the media spotlight, he will not insist on a formation so rigid and a style of play so restricting and one dimensional that it hinders abilities and fails to suit the types of players he has at his disposal, he will not complain that said players are not of sufficient quality or bemoan the man he replaced for buying them. Unlike Hodgson, he actually will get on with the job in hand and not look for excuses at every turn.

For that reason, I think Liverpool fans can afford to look forward to the coming months, with the same cautious ambition many possessed whilst Roy Hodgson’s tenure was still in its infancy, following the initial discontentment that greeted his appointment.

The simple truth of the matter is this, then: Kenny Dalglish is not a messiah. He will need a little bit of time and a lot of trust. If he gets these things – from the fans and players, if not from large sections of the media – it is not inconceivable that Liverpool will enjoy a significantly better second half to their season, than they did their first. And that, along with a bit of humility, is all we ask of Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish. But, of course, we don’t actually have to ask this time around.

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