Two decades after we were last crowned English champions, we have gone full circle and re-appointed the man who last achieved that feat as manager. That was in the “dark ages” before it was known as the Premiership and so the whole of the satellite generation of fans are now digging out old videos with renewed vigour to see that King Kenny could indeed play.
Jamie Carragher reportedly did exactly that to show the foreign lads in the squad why the man has such an aura about him at the club. Second only to Bill Shankly as the greatest Scotsman to walk on the hallowed turf, Kenny was on a cruise holiday when he got the call and allegedly left his luggage on board, so keen was he to get to the helm of a rudderless ship of a totally different kind, drifting perilously close to ignominy and ridicule. There is an old adage in football about never going back but his return has served to galvanise the club in a way that scarcely seemed possible only weeks ago.
Roy Hodgson’s appointment in the summer seemed to be the credible option at the time. Clamour for stability amidst the continuing boardroom strife saw him as a safe pair of hands on the wheel until new owners could be found but we were shipping water at an alarming rate and it had become very difficult to find an argument to support our man despite long held, inbred tendencies. Liverpudlians, you see, always support their manager regardless. It is another facet of the Liverpool way. Increasingly though, it was worryingly evident, even early in Roy’s tenure, that he was the wrong man in the wrong job. Those nagging doubts within us all rose to a crescendo and it was increasingly difficult to remember a time when we played worse and there seemed to be no prospect of it improving. Roy’s integrity and his honesty with the media, if anything, somehow became a liability and a stick to beat him with and I for one feared for his well being as the pressure spiralled. He was not alone blameless in this though and for the first time in watching the reds, it was difficult to identify one single player who was playing for the shirt and regularly giving 100%. Match after match was a nightmare and having benefitted from an enforced break due to the adverse weather around Xmas, I recall rallying calls that we were supposed to be fresh, injury free and apparently champing at the bit to end a horrendous year in style but we lost to a Wolves outfit who were better than us in every department. Equally, the previous horror show against a Newcastle team who were supposedly there for the talking, a club in turmoil with a manager still learning the names of his players, was horrendous.
We had become nothing short of an embarrassment on the pitch despite everything seemingly being in place for success off it. By then, along with new owners, we had in place, a new board, a director of football, an excellent academy set up with some of the best young prospects in living memory and arguably the most dedicated supporters in the game. That dedication though was being tested to the absolute limit by what we were seeing on the park where we were tactically inept, impotent going forward, little or no fight and not an ounce of flair. Despite this, all we kept reading about was promises of a mini-revivals, yet the performances, never mind the results, beggared belief. Continually, teams of journeymen who were first and foremost looking at survival looked better, more organised and categorically more interested than us all over the park. In every department, we managed to look second best and the inquests continued as to why we could possibly look so bad.
The common denominator of course remained the manager and it was difficult to remember a time when so many of us had become so totally underwhelmed by a new man at the helm. The Liverpool way, as I say, was always to support our man but these were different times and it was difficult to remember a time when so many wearing the red shirt were struggling to justify their wage bill. Glen Johnson was singled out by Roy in this regard but let’s face it, he was far from being the only one. Every single one of them had struggled for form and not one of his signings had hit the ground running to the standard required. Quite what Glen had done to be hung out to dry is still a bit of a mystery when he was categorically in the majority where even the likes of Carra and the skipper were having a poor time. But open criticism of one of our own players in the media was the turning point for me. Sticking together and the siege mentality is the accepted, adopted strategy when things get tough and you just knew at this stage that it just simply wasn’t working.
We couldn’t even blame injuries for the lack of form as with the exception of Dan Agger, everyone was fit but the subsequent loss of Jamie was perhaps the final straw as the goals against column and the defeats tally soared. It was particularly galling to remember that these were largely the same players who displayed such consistency in coming second only a few seasons ago. But whereas most of us would play for free to wear that shirt, that sort of mind set and spirit, sadly, seems a long way removed from the modern footballer nowadays.
John W Henry and the lovely Linda were enjoying the atmosphere at the ground on occasions but the honeymoon period (ours and not theirs that is) had long since started to turn nasty and the sight of empty seats said it all. John’s company may well be excited at the potential revenue stream from merchandise but in sport it is all about winners and we were categorically not in that select band or even close to it. Roy’s removal, then, after only six months in charge was inevitable. It is not how we do things at this club but something had to give. It was business and not personal but nevertheless, it left a nasty taste in the mouth and is a part of our history that I am not particularly proud of.
Life and football move on, enter Kenny and the master stroke of appointing Steve Clarke and amazingly there seems to be a new spirit in the club and at last, if nothing else, we are all at peace with the club again. Even the departure of Fernando under such bizarre circumstances has failed to deflate the sense of well being. Those of you sick to death of hearing of this “Liverpool way” phrase need only look at the way Kenny and the club rolled back the years and excellently went about their business in dealing with what could have been a crisis at potentially the worst possible time. No fuss at the press conferences. The manager spoke courteously and said everything that needed to be said without creating detrimental headlines. Calmly and with dignity, we looked after the club’s interests, stuck by our valuation, identified our replacements and conducted our affairs without fuss to sign Luis and Andy before the Spaniard was allowed to travel south and sign for Chelsea.
Fernando did us no favours with the timing of his departure but we still came out of it remarkably well when you consider the bigger picture. There is no sense or feeling of great loss somehow. Whereas we have all moved on so quickly, that can hardly be said to be the case at Stamford Bridge. Amidst much debate it is difficult to remember a worse time in the Abramovich era and already there is conjecture with regards whether he jumped ship too soon. Indeed the prospect of them missing out on CL qualification is very real at the moment. What I will say is that they can copy our banners and our songs but it remains to be seen if they are as accommodating with their support if his stay there is as injury ravaged as it was with us. We stuck by him when, don’t forget, most of his injuries were picked up playing for his country. What price loyalty then?
The victory at the Bridge was a sweet leaving present of course but in looking after his own interests rather than the clubs, he joined a select band with Michael Owen and Steve McManaman who will never quite get the credit they deserve due to the acrimony of their departure. A fourth member of that fraternity is Kevin Keegan who announced his desire to play abroad during season 1976/7. For those of you too young to know, Kevin was arguably the best player in the country if not Europe at the time and none of us were best pleased with his decision to go or his anonymous performance against Man United in the cup final defeat when we were going for the treble. So much so, most of us wanted him to be dropped in favour of Davey Fairclough for the European cup final in Rome, the following Wednesday. History shows though that Kevin produced an imperious performance against the best man marker in world football, Berti Vogts and the first KK inspired us to the win and subsequently got his move abroad to Hamburg.
Amid derisory abuse and joy from Evertonians predicting the end of the world and our demise following our superstar’s departure, Bob Paisley subsequently signed Kenny Dalglish from Celtic. Kenny who?, we all said, but twelve months later he scored the goal at Wembley to beat Bruges and the rest, as they say is history and he went on to fantastic success and become the arguably our greatest ever player and a true idol.
Now I am not saying for one minute everything is now sweetness and light but at least everyone at the club is pulling in the same direction for once and all the talk is about what is happening on the park and not off it. Every manager in these last twenty years has had his critics and since Kenny left in 1991, we were never quite the same again. Graeme Souness took over but tried to revolutionise the club but it was a case of too much too soon and the trophies dried up. Roy Evans tried to restore some sanity with a return to the boot room culture with little success until the French revolution arrived under Monsieur Gerard Houllier and he duly restored the club on to the European stage but the league title still evaded us. The Spanish inquisition under Rafa was certainly fractious at times as he presided over the worst internal boardroom struggles the club had ever witnessed and although we won the greatest prize in club football, still we had to settle for second, at best, domestically.
Those twenty years without the league title is predominately down to one genius from north of the border presiding at Old Trafford. The catalyst for his sustained success was the introduction of a host of kids from within the ranks who went on to become household names. Let us hope that another scot can emulate that template of success at Anfield. Like so many I witnessed the kids score nine the other night to further enhance the notion that we might just have something special happening here under our very noses. Now we all have to keep our feet and expectations firmly on the ground as we have heard this all before but Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell really do seem to be creating something special at the academy. Even before that result, positive vibes were emanating from within the club and even Kenny has a glint in his eye when asked about the quality we have there. It was Rafa who brought these in to create a set up for the next dynasty where there was a smooth transition from youth to the first team as opposed to the white elephant that the academy had threatened to become. Having overseen the graduation of the likes of Xavi and Iniesta at Barca, it is difficult to imagine anyone with better CV to do the job. Along with exciting, young, quality signings, the picture, all of a sudden, looks a whole lot brighter than it did.
Someone once said that you win nothing with kids but United, Barcelona and potentially Arsenal are living proof that not all Scotsmen know what they are talking about.
Optimistic times to be a red?