WHEN ‘that’ announcement finally came this January, that Kenny was to return as our manager, the joy that greeted the news was something of a strange communal experience for the Liverpool FC supporting fraternity. One sensed that for the younger generation the return of the king was more about a palpable sense of relief. A relief that the last dragon of the Hicks and Gillett era had finally been slain (in the form of the unloveable Roy Hodgson) . The new generation would take ‘our’ word for the fact that Kenny was truly the saviour, but actually weren’t overly concerned as to the credibility of that belief, as the more important immediate objective of ‘moving on’ and re-unifying the support, had been accomplished.
For those of us fully cognisant way back when Dalglish was in his pomp and master of our kingdom, his second coming (the messianic metaphors are going to be relentless here, be warned), was about way way more than Hicks and Gillett, Roy Hodgson, qualifying for the Champions league and other fripperies. It was like ‘coming home’. Like the club had been instantly reverted to the form it had always taken in our collective consciousness, but slowly been allowed to mutate from.
It was as if Liverpool FC had been cryogenically frozen in 1991, and now finally re-awoken. As though time had stood perfectly still for 20 years. A bit like that truly bizarre scene in 80’s soap opera ‘Dallas’ (that bemused and confused all children of that era) when producers air brushed out a whole series, by having main protagonist Bobby ‘Man from Altlantis’ Ewing simply wake up one morning to find it ‘had all been a bad dream’ .
No one, the time honoured LFC mantra told us, ‘was ever bigger than the club’. THAT was the much vaunted ‘Liverpool way’. Except it was never true. Shankly was, and Kenny was (bigger than the club, bigger than Jesus). Shanks was the God in our biblical sporting history, and Kenny was the Christ (you were warned). There are many other heroes and prophets in our rich red past but if Shanks was the father of modern LFC , Kenny was the son he never had.
Kenny Dalglish and me go way back. To 1977. I unreliably recall that it was one of those years with mythically hot summers. Punk was being invented, The Queen was Jubilee-ant , Elvis died on the bog, keks were in transition from flared to drain-piped, the country was on strike, the Met was being bent (for it was ever thus), the cold war was still chilly and Liverpool football club were indisputably the best team in the world.
I was a 10 year old school boy and Kenny, at a tender 26 years of age, had recently joined Liverpool FC. We were both about to embark on journeys that would overwhelm our lives. Kenny won’t remember much of it now (actually he won’t remember any of it) but our coming together was as a consequence of my possession of his image as a ‘sticker’ for the Figurine Pannini Official football league 1977/78 sticker book.
As a ‘glory hunting’ 10 year old kid in North London, I was drawn to LFC in that immortal year of 77’ and so in turn to its new icon – the flaxen haired, steely eyed, goal machine Scot, Dalglish who had replaced yesterday’s Merseyside and England hero, that curly fizz-bomb, Kevin ‘Superstars’ Keegan.
Upon reflection, Keegan was a bit ‘show business’. A top player alright. A real ‘trier’ , but ultimately a bit of a ‘national treasure’, a bit too Michael Owen. Also, quite frankly, the be-permed judas went and fucked off and left us at the height of his fame.
Nonetheless, he left big shoes to fill, and boy did Kenny fill them. In fact he thoroughly outgrew and wore them out. Within 6 months KK was a distant side-burned memory.
I was beguiled and on board. I was a Kenny man. I was a Liverpool FC boy ready to become a Liverpool FC man. Unfortunately, I was also, just a kid becalmed and marooned in Muswell Hill, London N10, some 216 miles due south (ish) of L4. Getting to pay homage to both my team and hero was logistically awkward.
Cutting a long one short, by the time I left school at 18 and was looking for my ‘next big move’, I ensured that my education would be completed at Liverpool University, and that my appetite and addiction for all things LFC, that I’d only been able to feed sporadically from afar in London, could now be fully sated.
My Liverpool career (living here, working here, being a husband and dad here) has lasted from 1985 onwards. Kenny’s career, back then, had two phases, that morphed so seamlessly from one to the other that it’s hard to regard ‘Dalglish the player’ as something distinct from ‘Dalglish the manager’. I recall, as a younger fan, being riddled with anxiety, as the years passed, that the day would come when Kenny would no longer pull on a red shirt – that age would ‘wither him’ and that he would ‘grow old’ and prove himself inevitably mortal.
Why that anxiety ? why be so melodramatic about it ? Because, simply, he was THAT good. Those who saw him play, don’t need telling, but those who’ve only seen the show reels do. He was the best player in our club’s history, and will probably remain so in our lifetimes. Many many words have been written about just what he could do, and have described his talent and his application more than sufficiently.
The richest tribute, I can recall, was from Kenny’s spiritual guide and Obi Wan, the legendary Bob Paisley. Although his 80’s autobiography ‘Paisley’ was undoubtedly largely ghost written, I like to think Bob was a literary man, and that he insisted, verbatim, on that line at the end of his chapter dedicated to Kenny, the poetic paean ‘when Kenny shone, the whole team was illuminated’.
Those who felt they knew Kenny, knew what Bob meant. Knew he meant it on many levels. It was wasn’t just Kenny’s football, it was how he came across as human being. On the one hand grim, stoic, upright and all gritted toothed determination, but on the other, when released from the shackles of his mission by the fulfilment of goal scoring, a daft football loving kid who could ‘light up a room’ with that iconic Kenny celebratory smile. A smile that took all comers, because it was a child’s smile. There was no ego, no sense of self congratulation in Kenny’s goals celebrations. He looked and smiled like a kid does when it knows it’s done well and will receive the grown ups approbation.
They are well chronicled but Kenny’s achievements can never stop being restated or relevant. He morphed from being Liverpool’s new megastar striker ( a Torres, an Aguerro –plus) into being it’s superstar playmaker ( a Gerrard, a Bergkamp, a Messi), and finally metamorphosed into it’s leader, as player manager.
Not just any old player manager, mind, but one who was still the team’s best player and now also its back room genius plotting ever more trophy laden seasons. The club was on the wane when Kenny took over from the broken hearted Joe Fagan in 1985. It had endured its first trophy free season in virtually a decade but that paled by comparison to the collective pain felt by the sense of responsibility towards those who had lost their lives at Heysel in 1985.
The heartbeats of the team had gone or were past their best – Souness to Italy the year before had not been replaced, and Kenny himself at 35 years old could clearly not be expected to be the magician he had once been. Veteran full backs Neal and Kennedy were finished, Sammy Lee not the same player, and there was no sign of any new talent coming through from the youth set up.
It wasn’t even as though there was a transfer kitty there to re-energise the squad either. If Alex Ferguson now has one of those occasional seasons where Arsenal or Chelsea have knocked him off his ‘fucking perch’ then he usually put his hand out and gets a couple of new world class players to cheer him up. Kenny started his debut season in management with more or less exactly the team he’d inherited, minus himself.
After a modest start he crucially pepped up his squad by re-instating his ageing frame into his team structure just in time for the ‘run in’. He lifted the team on every level and lead them to league championship and FA cup success, bringing home LFC’s first ‘true double’ (only the 3rd side to do the legendary domestic double that century).
Then, when just winning became routine he moulded and redefined the club as the most exciting the country had ever seen ( the Barnes-Beardsley team of 87’ onwards). Liverpool FC were now playing football from another planet. Cue the quote from the legendary Tom Finney after the 5-0 drubbing of a highly rated Brian Clough side in 1988 : “It was the finest exhibition I’ve seen the whole time I’ve played and watched the game. You couldn’t see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil.”
At the pinnacle of Kenny’s personal fame and achievement, Hillsborough happened and nothing was ever the same again. Kenny knew that, like all survivors of that day, that he was relatively speaking a bit part player, but nevertheless he ‘stepped up’ in a way that all concerned will remember and appreciate. It’s often been surmised that that ‘stepping up’ was at the route of his emotional stepping down, 2 years later. The day he called it quits in 1991 grown men cried (well, I did) and the most glorious chapter in the history of Liverpool football club fittingly came to a close. Dalglish had given us so much, it was truly his to take away. That’s why no one recriminated. Many asked ‘why?’, but all accepted. We had always trusted Kenny, and always will.
So here we are. Kenny and LFC. Kenny and me. Re-united. Some 34 years later. Older, wiser, and both still anchored to a city we both can’t imagine ever being away from. Here’s to the next phase Kenny. God knows what the future will hold, or whether or not there will be a glorious conclusion to this final chapter of the Dalglish story. It would be great if it was great again. No pressure though Kenny. You’ve already done more than enough. We owe you. Now as then.