IT started how it finished. It ended how it began. It has done so for 23 years.
Kenny Dalglish’s second coming came after a cancelled holiday, with his first day back at work an FA Cup defeat. 18 months later, an FA Cup defeat preceded a holiday cancelled in what would prove to be his last day. The King was now relieved of his duties; long live the King.
Dalglish’s reign feels defined by its cyclical nature. Two cup final appearances; two long, laborious treks up the steps at Wembley. One saw Dalglish bound up and down them, slapping hands of fans and owners with every step, his bench coat unable to contain the enthusiasm inside. The other saw a slow, morose traipse of resignation; every one of the 107 steps one step closer to his usurpation. Even Andy Carroll could not manage to save him. John Henry couldn’t even manage a smile.
The two cup finals resulted in cyclic arguments – arguments over definitions of progress and transition; arguments on whether an eighth-place finish, six home wins and 52 points negate the two finals at Wembley and Liverpool’s first trophy in six years.
The football had improved from Hodgson, especially at its optimum level – but most important was what his return signified off the pitch. He strode out at Old Trafford and immediately united a fan base shattered by deceit and disillusion from the previous regime. It not only felt the club’s league position of 12th was at its lowest, but also the self-esteem of everyone involved with it. The Liver Bird’s head was bowed. Dalglish returned to pick up the pieces.
He soldiered on, soldering together players like Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt; new signing Luis Suarez, akin to watching a Minotaur perform Swan Lake, helped liberate them. But then was the summer of their discontent, made inglorious by some poor decisions in the transfer market, with little knowledge of who exactly to blame.
Some argued Liverpool’s failed buys were the fault of Damien Comolli, while others focused on Dalglish – if not for the purchases themselves, then for not building the mental strength of Downing, fitness of Charlie Adam or intelligence of Jose Enrique.
Liverpool’s issues didn’t just end there. Nor did the blame game. Most attacking players regressed over the course of the season, the midfield was a muddle and there didn’t seem to be a certain clear thought-process behind how Liverpool wanted to play. Every time, those points were countered. The Suarez debacle disrupted the squad more than can be imagined, the midfield missed Lucas and Gerrard for large parts of the season and Lady Luck didn’t just refuse to shine down upon Liverpool – it covered Anfield in a woodwork-induced cloak of darkness.
And so the circular arguments continued. Dalglish defenders were right to point to his unfavourable working conditions, with the summer bloodletting from FSG hindering him; his detractors were right to question the purpose of signing the players that were signed in the first place, especially at the prices paid. His defenders, rightly, pointed to success in the cups; his detractors, rightly, asked whether top four was achievable under his reign. It was a tug-of-war with no end in sight, until FSG decided to cut the rope themselves. Half the backroom staff fell face-first into the mud.
It started how it finished. It ended how it began. It has done so for 23 years.
Liverpool Football Club is a club that’s travelled in circles, both on and off the pitch, for a generation. Clubs that have failed to win the league championship since 1990 tend to do that.
The archaic Boot Room slowly eroded and transformed into a more technical, continental set-up under Gerard Houllier. Rafael Benitez followed and, with a European Cup and FA Cup in the trophy cabinet, sought to revitalise and redefine it even further. He never had the chance to finish it. The club brought in Roy Hodgson who started the cycle all over again. The good work from 1999 onwards from two astute thinkers of the game undone by Moores, Hicks, Gillett, Purslow and Hodgson.
To sack Kenny Dalglish was viewed as foolish by many; the cut rope from the tug-of-war serving as a noose around the neck of FSG. The rope wasn’t the only thing severed – his departure scythed the last tiny thread left connecting Liverpool with the values that’s made it such a global institution.
The mantra around Anfield was that the club don’t sack managers. The new appointment will be the fourth manager since June 2010, with the three previous incumbents all sacked, irrespective of terminology. Sacking Dalglish defies the Liverpool Way, a mythical phrase used to strengthen viewpoints about how the football club should be run. But what’s forgotten is how the Liverpool Way was compromised when the club became the first in England to have shirt sponsorship; how it was bruised when McDonald’s golden arches were erected upon the Kop; how it died the moment it become a multi-million dollar softball tossed between multi-millionaires across the Atlantic in front of a captive audience. Strike three – you’re out.
If sacking Dalglish was an exhibition of stupidity, it was also a display of bravery. Instead of watching the perpetual tug-of-war going around in circles, FSG decided to act. Their next move will dictate the direction of the football club for the next decade, generation and possibly lifetime.
The fallout from Dalglish’s sacking will reverberate around Anfield long after his successor is appointed as people mourn the death of the fabled Liverpool Way, but there is some consolation in that it wasn’t personal. FSG’s actions make Dalglish a victim of ruthless circumstance, so too Damien Comolli, Ian Cotton and Peter Brukner amongst others. FSG know they dallied on sacking Roy Hodgson who, in their first game as owners, described a 2-0 defeat to Everton as the second-best performance of the season. They were not going to do it again.
FSG have now made their bed – but before there’s any contemplation of lying in it they must choose their bed mates, and there’s a lot of seduction to be done. The club has suffered a jarring fall in recent years. Some of its best players have either left or forced moves, all passing up the chance play in a stadium that doesn’t seem to be getting built. The club went through an embarrassing and damaging battle at the High Court; they also went through a damaging and embarrassing battle with the FA over Luis Suarez. Lessons are still to be learnt.
There’s a lot of seducing to be done with the fan base, too. Sacking Dalglish and the seemingly non-existent stadium steal the headlines, but FSG’s tenure has been littered with mistakes and miscommunication throughout. Their absenteeism and lack of leadership, so prevalent during the Suarez case, is cause for concern; so, too, any time when Ian Ayre opens his mouth. Ayre, like a corporate hydra, seems to spout three new heads every time his is on the chopping block. Each new mouth is formed with a foot firmly placed in it, denouncing Dalglish and detaching any importance to cup competitions. The self-congratulatory tone of his post-season interviews were delusional at best, egomaniacal at worst.
But the vision might be starting to take shape; the bible has its first chapter. On the first day, it appears likely Louis van Gaal will join as a director of the sporting or technical kind, with a young, progressive man as head coach. Ajax’s Frank de Boer and Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp were not seduced; instead, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez have been lured by FSG’s apple. Both fit a certain profile: intelligent, good records with developing youth and an acute tactical astuteness. Most importantly, both have a clear philosophy regarding football. It is now FSG’s job to marry that philosophy throughout the club, from top to bottom.
The last man who attempted to do similar is a name conspicuous by its absence on FSG’s shortlist, but it does not fit their hope for year zero. The removal of Roy Hodgson was prompted by intuitive calls for a former manager to restore former glories. FSG acted upon them. Dalglish had barely touched down from Boston with his P45 and those calls came back; this time, though, it was Rafael Benitez who was asked to replicate the victories of yesteryear. FSG have ignored them. They will have to live or die by that decision; time will tell whether it’s the correct one.
But the direction of the club extends far beyond who is appointed to sit in the dugout. There must be the realisation that the club is not a mere piece of paper in the filing cabinet, nor is it a party-piece for the portfolio. The appointments of Jen Chang as Director of Communications and Bill Hogan as Commercial Director are the first steps, but giant strides still have to be taken. There must be more communication; there must be a presence within the city and a genuine attempt to understand and connect with the supporters of the club and the people and culture of the city itself. That must be ingrained into their vision for the football club above any formation or fanciful Director of Football.
Whatever route is chosen for Liverpool Football Club, the ownership now must be fully committed. To wipe the slate clean, begin at year zero and look to end the endless circling is bold; to not follow through with it properly would be barmy. It’s not something successful businessman would do. Whether they prove to be successful is another matter.
FSG have not simply dedicated themselves to applying a new lick of paint to the Liverpool squad, it’s an entire renovation. The role of head coach isn’t as important as it has been in the past. To reduce the man in the dugout to a mere cog in the machine is sacrilege to a club like Liverpool, who have routinely forged an emotional attachment with the manager. That lasting image of Shankly, arms outstretched before his adoring disciples after the 1971 cup final defeat to Arsenal, encapsulates so many ideologies about the club. It is another change from familiarity, one of the most difficult to adjust to. Nobody said the renovation would be an easy sell.
No one said it would be easy for Barcelona, either, in 2003 . When Joan Laporta wrestled the club presidency from Enric Reyna, he promised David Beckham; what he would deliver would be much more important. The club had finished sixth in 2002/2003, 22 points behind Real Madrid and – most importantly – a lack of direction both on and off the pitch. FC Barcelona were not producing a football team worthy of the city’s pride. Laporta looked to change that. He looked to install a culture throughout the club both on and off the pitch; a culture that would be present from the first-team to their ‘Cadete A’ team – a team which included 16-year-old Lionel Messi. It was a culture, most importantly, that reflected the Catalan people.
The old guard were removed and replaced with purchases such as Ronaldinho, Deco, Ricardo Queresma, Rafael Marquez and Ludovic Guily. Youngsters such as Iniesta, Xavi and Victor Valdes were also promoted. Most were comfortable on the ball. Most enjoyed to press up the pitch. All would learn to abide by Barcelona’s mantra. The man charged with introducing this new philosophy was Frank Rijkaard, who had experienced relegation in Eredivise with Sparta Rotterdam the year previous. But the cog worked fine, winning two La Liga titles and a Champions League. Once he stopped working, Pep Guardiola slotted in. The rest, literally, is history.
FSG have drawn similarities between Barcelona’s travails in 2003 and the current state of Liverpool Football Club. It would also explain why Johan Cruyff has been named as a potential advisor to the ownership given he was pro-active with Laporta in changing the entire culture of the club. But imitation will only get so far – FSG must also learn to innovate. Whether they are willing to spend big like Barcelona did in the summer of 2003 remains to be seen, while the trio of Suso, Sterling and Belford are not at the level of Xavi, Iniesta and Valdes – but it took six years for Laporta to see the full fruit of his labours with the treble of 2009.
The argument will forever remain whether Dalglish could have been a successful cog in FSG’s new machine, so too whether sacking him and exorcising the famed Holy Trinity was a risk worth taking. The answer will only come over an indeterminate period of time. If successful, the club will have re-written the rulebook for English football; if unsuccessful, the club and FSG could head towards mediocrity or, even worse, ruin – the Liver Bird reduced to a guinea pig, poisoned by an antidote too strong to stomach.
FSG have taken the risk. The tug-of-war has ended. The circular arguments have stopped. This is Liverpool Football Club, but not as you know it. They’ve tossed the King to the wayside – it’s now time to see whether there’s an ace up their sleeve or a mere joker. Sit back, you could be waiting a while. Check.