So farewell then, Kenny Dalglish. The Liverpool manager leaves the manager’s position at Anfield in a curious position, having reminded supporters of the club what winning trophies feels like – it seems scarcely credible but is nevertheless true that this year’s League Cup final was the clubs first at the new Wembley Stadium – but having failed in the Premier League, where no amount of white-washing could mask the fact that an eighth placed finish was unacceptably modest.
Indeed, the club has only finished as low as this in a final league table on two occasions since the mid-1950s.
That he should stand and fall on league position when he won the club a trophy and got them to another cup final is, of course, a sign of the times. Qualification for the Champions League is everything these days, and the relative lack of consistency amongst the teams that finished above Liverpool in the final table this season indicates that this season was a nettle which could have been grasped. For the clubs that Liverpool would consider to be their contemporaries, this has been a far from vintage season and the team still fell a long way short of them.
Dalglish’s season came to be defined by this and two other issues: the amount of money spent by Liverpool on players and the Luis Suarez incident (and the club’s reaction to it). On the former matter, the very end of the season may have demonstrated that the player that had come to define his failure in the transfer market, Andy Carroll, may yet come good. The truth of the matter is, however, that the hyperreal world of modern football cannot wait eighteen months for a player that cost £35m to start showing hints of having the potential to be able to fulfil the burden of expectation that his price tag placed on his shoulders.
On the Luis Suarez issue, it feels as if everything that could conceivably be said on the subject has been said. It seems, however, fair to offer two contrasting perspectives on it. In the one hand, the root cause of the PR disaster that was to follow was of the players making and not of the managers. The flip-side to this would be to suggest that within Liverpool Football Club there was only one man that could have utterly tempered the instincts of those that sought to blame anybody but everybody connected with Liverpool FC over the matter, but Dalglish’s language at the time was ill-judged. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case and its verdict, it made no practical sense for oil to be poured on the fire. We will probably never definitively know the extent to which this story distracted players whose concentration needed to be absolutely focused on the job at hand of winning matches. That final league position, however, stands alone in speaking for itself as an indicator of this policy’s failure.
And yet, and yet… there is something faintly sad about this departure, or at least about the way in which it has ended. All football supporters from their mid-thirties up will remember Dalglish the player-manager, taking the double back to Merseyside for the first time in 1986 and that fresh-faced look of joy as Dalglish himself scored the goal at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season to confirm the league championship. We will also long remember the way that this team evolved into one of the most artistic that the English game has ever seen, and we should also pause to remember that way in which he carried himself on behalf of the club in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. Those of us on the relative outside of that day and the weeks, months and years that followed it probably can’t even imagine what sort of effect that lengthy, drawn out series of experiences might have. Kenny Dalglish bore that weight for Liverpool Football Club. It hasn’t been forgotten on Merseyside and it shouldn’t be forgotten elsewhere, either.
The past, though, is the past and the future is the future. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the decision that they have made, the Fenway Sports Group has taken a huge gamble and it will only have one opportunity to get the decision over who Dalglishs replacement should be right if unrest amongst the clubs support is not to reach some sort of critical mass. Who, though, could fill the boots of Kenny Dalglish at Anfield? The early favourite with the bookmakers is Roberto Martinez, but would this be the right decision for a relatively young manager that may be concerned over the shredding that his reputation might take should he not get off to a flying start? The same, perhaps, also goes for the Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers. Favours of the month don’t necessarily make for sensible long-term solutions. But then, sentimental choices don’t, either, and Liverpool supporters should know that better than anyone after the last eighteen months or so. This won’t, of course, prevent some from pining for the return of Rafael Benitez, but this is a time, perhaps, is for Liverpool FC to be looking forward rather than back. Other names mentioned with varying degrees of plausibility all carry baggage or hindrances of sorts. Pep Guardiola recently quit Barcelona to take a break from football and is unlikely to be tempted back into the game this quickly, especially without the lure of Champions League football, whilst Andre Villa-Boas is still respected for his achievements at Porto but failed at Chelsea and may not get much patience if he starts slowly. Perhaps Marcelo Bielsa, who has impressed with Athletic Bilbao this season. It seems unlikely that his Europa League final counterpart, Diego Simeone, could be tempted from Atletico Madrid, having only been in his position for six months.
All of which leaves Liverpool at a crossroads, but with the consolation that they have time to consider the best option for a new manager. For Kenny Dalglish, though, this looks like the final curtain call with Liverpool FC. This return turned out to be a step too far, a temporary measure which possibly shouldn’t have been made permanent. His time at Anfield will surely not be judged on this spell, though. His achievements at the club before deserve better than that. For Liverpool’s supporters, though, uncertainty beckons. It will be a most unfamiliar feeling for the the followers of a club whose reputation was built on the very stability that it now seems to lack.
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