Liverpool: desperately seeking a saviour
The idea that Kenny Dalglish could be Liverpool’s Messiah is as idiotically sentimental as it is desperate.
As Liverpool succumbed to their latest humiliation – defeat at home to newly promoted Blackpool – the Kop started chanting the name of Kenny Dalglish. The clamour for the former Anfield legend to return speaks volumes about the decline of Liverpool FC. Kopites tell us they’re the most knowledgeable fans in football, but seeing Dalglish as the Messiah is as idiotically sentimental as it is desperate.
The recent defeats against Northampton and Blackpool underlined what many visiting fans have long come to realise: Anfield is no longer scary. The Kop has long since lost its mythical ability to ‘suck the ball into the net’. Rival fans have been chanting ‘You’re not famous any more’ at Anfield for a number of years now. Liverpool, to be fair, is still a famous club, but one that’s living on past glories. The aura of invincibility which the Reds enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s is just a distant memory these days. Yes, we all know they’ve been champions of Europe on five occasions – Liverpool fans never stop banging on about it – but the most telling statistic is this: no league title for 20 years.
Kenny Dalglish was the last Liverpool manager to win the league. The Kop want Dalglish re-appointed as manager because he is one of ‘their own’. More importantly, he represents a link with Liverpool’s heyday. Dalglish is the last successful manager schooled in the famous Anfield ‘boot room’. But, successful as the boot room was, it is now history. You can’t just turn the clock back to the 1970s and 80s. The accumulated wisdom and know-how of the backroom coaching staff simply isn’t there any more (and no, having little Sammy Lee in the dug out doesn’t count). Dalglish himself hasn’t managed a football team since he left Celtic in 2000. Even if he hasn’t lost his coaching mojo, Dalglish would still inherit a mediocre playing squad. With Javier Mascherano gone, Liverpool are even more reliant on Stevie Gerrard and Fernando Torres than they were in past seasons. Take the pair of them out of the team and Liverpool resemble Bolton but without the team spirit.
The demise of Liverpool isn’t Roy Hodgson’s fault. He simply hasn’t had the time or the resources to turn things around. Nor is it entirely the fault of the much maligned owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks. The Americans have, it is true, saddled the club with dangerous levels of debt but they made substantial transfer funds available to Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard is still revered on Merseyside for winning the Champions League in 2005. But that victory – possibly the greatest sporting fluke in history – has masked Rafa’s role in Liverpool’s decline. Benitez spent £240million in his six-year tenure at Liverpool and, to be brutally honest, there have been too many sub-standard signings. Not every one of Rafa’s buys has been a flop but for every Mascherano or Torres there has been an Aquilani or a Riera. If Harry Redknapp or Arsene Wenger had been given the amount of money Benitez had to spend do you think they’d have bought so much dross? Of course not.
Benitez argued that he needed to spend a lot of money because Liverpool were playing catch up with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. It’s true that his predecessor Gerard Houllier had frittered away plenty of money on poor players. Benitez inherited a lot of dead wood which needed clearing out. Moreover, the production line of homegrown talent had dried up. But, although Rafa was at the club for six years, there has been no discernible improvement in youth development. When Rodolfo Borell joined the coaching staff at Liverpool’s Academy in 2009 he was surprised at the poor quality of the under-18s. ‘The reality of what we found here was unacceptable’, said Borrell. ‘The under-18s had no centre forward, no balance, no tactical level, no understanding of the game.’
Benitez is lauded as a tactical genius by Liverpool fans after supposedly masterminding the Miracle of Istanbul in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan. His misty-eyed acolytes will recount how the game swung after half time when Rafa brought on Dietmar Hamann to cut out the supply from Kaka. But this is Scouse mythologising at its most preposterous. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that stopping Kaka, who was carving open the Liverpool defence for fun, might be a good idea. Furthermore, if Benitez was really such a master tactician, why did he have no plan to deal with the best midfielder in the world before kick-off? Why was Hamann, the only specialist holding midfielder, left out of the starting 11 in the first place?
Winning the Champions League, I’d argue, was the worst thing that could happen to Liverpool. It bought Benitez a considerable amount of credit amongst the fans. But it also masked the problems. Even though he kept buying poor players; even though his man-management skills were dreadful; even though his defensive style of football was about as entertaining as watching paint dry; the Liverpool fans kept the faith. ‘In Rafa we trust’, they declared. Everything that went wrong was, as they saw it, the owners’ fault.
Getting beaten by Northampton and Blackpool is embarrassing but it’s probably the least of Liverpool’s worries. The fans aren’t entirely enamoured that the club may swap one set of Yank owners for another. But if the prospective sale of the club to New England Sports Ventures, owners of the Boston Red Sox, is blocked by Gillett and Hicks there is a very real chance that the club could go into administration and incur a nine-point deduction.
Liverpool’s problems have striking parallels with another crisis club. Enduring ‘massive club’ delusions of grandeur, owners who are detested on the terraces but won’t leave, sentimental fans with a Messiah craving, silly money wasted on underachieving players. Sound familiar? Liverpool, it would appear, are the new Newcastle.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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