Goalkeeper DAVID PREECE, who has played for a string of clubs including Sunderland, Aberdeen and current employers Lincoln, recalls the time a Liverpool legend turned up for training
I’VE had my brushes with greatness. Some of them brief, some of them painful; some of them joyous, some of them humiliating. But none of them were as inspiring as when Kenny Dalglish came to Darlington.
Yes, you heard me. Darlington. It wasn’t long after King Kenny had been dismissed as manager of Newcastle United and, at the time, we were using the Durham University hockey pitches as a very picturesque training facility.
Perhaps it was a little counterproductive in our quest to get promoted from League Two when we were training on pitches that the Wembley groundsman would be proud of yet then playing matches on surfaces that could double as potato fields.
There can’t have been that many League Two clubs with the facilities we had at our disposal that season. It was certainly a step up from the Catterick Garrison army pitches we’d been using the season before.
One morning, our manager, David Hodgson, turned up with a guest in tow. Dripping with sarcasm, he said: “Lads, this is Kenny. Some of you might recognise him. He’s out of work at the moment so I’ve invited him down to help us out and do a bit of coaching with the strikers.”
A lone snigger broke the silence among the rest of us whose mouths were doing great impressions of Venus flytraps.
“He’s going to join in training and then take a few of you for a bit of shooting at the end. Be nice to him.”
Of course, Kenny and David Hodgson were old mates from their time together at Liverpool and had since continued to work together as Hodgey had become a well trusted agent to Kenny, Graeme Souness and Roy Evans.
After the jaws had closed and the awe ebbed away, we began training. What was more surprising than Kenny’s actual appearance at our training was how good he still looked with the ball at his feet. After a warm-up and some passing drills, we went straight into small-sided games.
I can’t remember a great deal of the action from those games, only the memory of every single player being outclassed by a 47-year-old who hadn’t kicked a ball in anger for eight years. The calmness, the precision of pass and the awareness of the play around him – it could’ve been the early 80s. The class had never left him.
We’d seen nothing yet though. A straightforward shooting session was put on. I was in goal and the rest of the team took turns to lay the ball to the previous shooter, who returned it first time for a shot. Standard stuff. It’s during sessions like this that you get to learn each player’s game. Their preferences, feints, weaknesses – you can almost read their minds before they shoot. In effect, you become a body language expert.
Before Kenny started giving some pointers to the strikers, he took part in the practice. As with any new player, they’re hard to read at first but I quickly realised that I could have trained with Kenny for a decade and I might as well have been trying to read Japanese writing.
Every shot was stroked with ease precisely into an area millimetres out of reach of my fingertips. Not once did he strike a ball with any power whatsoever. Every shot was placed with the inside of his foot and just when you thought you had enough on him to read his aim, he’d put it to the opposite side to where you had dived, making such a fool of me I might as well have been wearing a jester’s outfit.
That first session I think I got my hands to one of his shots. With the unerring accuracy of his finishing you’d have been forgiven for giving the old clairvoyant shout “Is anybody there?” There may as well not have been for all the use I was.
There are two things that stick out from the master classes he gave us. The first was the humility of the man. He wasn’t King Kenny – he was just Kenny. And if he was treated any differently from the rest of us it was down to how other people saw him, not the way he put himself across.
The second was a piece of advice he gave to our strikers during training. He was talking about dealing with a defender marking from behind as you receive the ball. He placed a defender behind him and asked him to try to come around either side of him and attempt to win the ball as it was passed up to him.
The first ball was played up to him and as the defender tried to nip in from the right, almost telepathically, Kenny angled his body to the left and spun him, leaving him dead. It happened the next time. Again and again, no matter which side the defender tried to approach him, he spun the other way a split second before contact was made.
When he asked us how he knew which side the defender was coming from, we just shrugged our shoulders. I thought about asking if he could see out of his ears but decided to keep quiet.
He pointed at the sun. Still, we couldn’t work it out. “If it’s a sunny day, like today, I can use the defender’s shadow to see which side he’s going to attack me from and stick my arse out to protect the ball and roll away on the other side.”
At the time, this blew my mind, showing how intricate his thinking must have been in moments of great pressure. Playing in the biggest stadiums in the world, in hostile atmospheres, against the best players in the world and still he had the presence and calmness of mind to bring those details into play and use them to his advantage when most players would find it difficult to concentrate on the ball and their marker alone.
Months later, Aberdeen came in for me and I moved north of the border, making my debut against Celtic, a club that coincidentally had a new recruit too. Their new Director of Football was Kenny.
As I walked down the tunnel to start my warm-up, Kenny was stood at the entrance with his back to me. As he turned to the click-clack sound of my studs behind him, he smiled and said “See Preecey, son. A couple of training sessions with me and you get a move. I’m not bad, am I?”
It was just a brief passing moment in my 22-year playing career but sometimes it’s the smallest of gestures that mean the most.
As I sat in my hotel room, replaying that moment, I thought to myself: “Aye, you’re not bad, Kenny. You’re great.”