In May 1954 Liverpool were relegated from the old 1st Division, ushering in an absence from top flight football which would continue until the opening game of the 1962/3 season. Almost a decade of second tier purdah which was, of course, eventually ended by the nous and force of personality of one Bill Shankly. In between relegation in 1954 and sealing the 2nd Division title in 1962 the club won nothing, zip, nada, zilch.
I emphasise this last fact for the naysayers who are currently calling for an end to the second reign of Kenny Dalglish after an admittedly terrible run in the league since the turn of the year. One win in eight is indeed not pleasant but it is not without precedent in Liverpool’s more recent history, even if the current manager no longer recalls the league form towards the end of the 1983/4 season when he was still pulling the strings on the pitch. On 14th April 1984 Liverpool lost away to Stoke, 2-0. Then came a 3-3 draw with Leicester City, a 3-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion, a 2-2 draw with Ipswich Town, and a goalless match at Birmingham City. There followed a resounding 5-0 thrashing of Coventry City at Anfield before the season was rounded off with a 0-0 at Notts County and a 1-1 draw at home to Norwich. Two wins in eight, not quite as bad as Liverpool’s current form but it nevertheless drew sharp criticism of then manager Joe Fagan in the press.
Fagan was as hard done by in the media then as Dalglish is now. Liverpool had already clinched the League Cup prior to that less than dazzling run, just as Dalglish has brought that same trophy back to Anfield this season, our first silverware in six years. The criticism of Joe Fagan was all the more unfair considering that Liverpool’s relatively poor end to the league season was largely due to the fact that they’d sealed the title well before the end of April and were clearly focusing on a fourth European Cup success, which they duly won on penalties against Roma in May.
Dalglish cannot point to recent European successes or to a hat-trick of consecutive league titles as the Liverpool manager could in 1984. The club’s stock is far lower now than it was in the all-conquering 80s. But those who are urging the owners to sack Dalglish have memories as short as my own is long. Have they forgotten that eighteen months ago the club was on the verge of administration thanks to the nightmare ownership of Hicks and Gillett? Our previous owners ran the club into the ground; racked up the sort of debts that are currently threatening to kill off the mighty Glasgow Rangers north of the border; asset-stripped the playing staff to the point that world-class players such as Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano sprinted for the exit; and denied Rafael Benitez and then ‘Gentleman’ Roy Hodgson sufficient funds to purchase suitable replacements.
That was the base from which Dalglish started his attempt to turn the club’s fortunes around. A lack of European football ensured that summer transfers targets were predominantly young and ambitious like Henderson or smacked of unfulfilled potential as in the case of Charlie Adam. Dalglish and Comolli targeted Ashley Young and Phil Jones, both of whom understandably opted for Manchester United, and who knows who else, but had to accept the players who were willing to join a club living off former glories but no longer repeating them.
That Liverpool have won one cup competition this season and play in the semi-finals of another this coming weekend is actually rather a swift turnaround for a team who have had to bed in seven or eight newcomers. Dalglish’s insistence on a return to the pass and move values that made Liverpool great under a succession of managers in the 60s, 70s and 80s proves not that he is out of touch with the modern game, as the detractors would have it, but that he understands better than anyone the need of true Liverpool fans to be entertained as well as to see silverware lofted into the air. But when he was playing new recruits were eased into a well-oiled football machine – newcomers would learn ‘the Liverpool way’ in the reserves and step into the first team only when deemed ready. Not all of them made the grade. Ian Rush was the most expensive teenager in the country when he moved from Chester City to Liverpool in 1980 but Bob Paisley did not care about the price tag when he considered allowing Rush to move on after a less than impressive first season in which he failed to find the net. Fortunately Rushy was given enough time to prove his worth and he went on to become the club’s all-time record goalscorer with 346 goals in the red of Liverpool. Time will tell whether Andy Carroll will prove to be worth the money spent on him – a record for a British player – or whether he will go the way of other who showed youthful potential yet who could not displace Rush in the 80s (Michael Robinson, anyone? Paul Walsh?), but if Carroll had been walking into Fagan’s side in the 80s he would have been guaranteed better, more consistent service from team-mates who knew one another’s game as well as they knew their own.
Do not misunderstand me, I do not think that Liverpool’s current league position and form is acceptable at a club with our history and with our ambitions to rise once more to the pinnacle of the sport. What I do accept, however, is that eighteen months is not long enough to turn the club around considering how low it had been sunk by Hicks and Gillett. It will take several seasons to replace the quality in depth that Benitez accrued before the Gruesome Twosome leeched the lifeblood out of the club. It will take a new stadium (or the increasingly unlikely redevelopment of Anfield) to ensure the kind of match day revenues that mean we can begin to consistently compete for transfer targets with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea (I would add Arsenal but when does their manager ever actually throw money around?). It will take the memories of winning at Wembley in March (and hopefully May) and the pain of falling to eighth in the league for some of the current crop of players to begin to mature into the sort of winning mentality the supporters, manager and owners desire. And it will take patience on the part of the owners and the fans if we don’t want to take yet another step backwards.
The ‘Rafalution’ has largely been undermined by the previous owners and Hodgson was never anything more than a steady pair of hands while dramatic changes of ownership and philosophy were afoot. To cast Dalglish aside when he has already proven he knows how to bring cup success to the club again, when he is barely a year into his efforts to restore something of the spirit he knew as a player, would be a huge gamble. Whoever came in to replace him would suffer the same hostility Hodgson encountered simply for not being Kenny. And whoever came in would face exactly the same problems of needing to entice Champions League quality players to a club not competing in next season’s Champions League.
As for the ridiculous claims that Dalglish does not understand the game any longer, the squad system and the need to nurture fragile egos was already established by the time he took Blackburn Rovers to the Premiership title in 1995. That title, by the way, was his fourth as a manager, one more than even Shanks managed in the top flight, and four more than Benitez or Houllier ever won in this country. We can’t expect the delirious English media to stand back and let the master do his work in peace but as fans we can show enough dignity and respect to allow our manager – the greatest icon the club has ever known – get on with the work that needs to be done to restore Liverpool’s pride.