King Kenny has a heavy cross to bear
Dalglish’s return to Liverpool is just the latest in a series of Messianic - and mostly failed - second comings.
It’s an understatement to say that the return of Kenny Dalglish to Liverpool has divided national opinion. There were mawkish celebrations on the red-half of Merseyside, mirth and derision everywhere else. ‘He isn’t the Messiah, he’s just a caretaker’, as one caption writer quipped.
The decision by Liverpool’s owners to sack the beleagured Roy Hodgson and hand the reins to an Anfield legend follows a familiar Messianic template. A once-mighty football club in decline invests all hope in a saviour, a man who, though retired from football management is ‘one of ours’; a terrace hero attuned to the culture of the club ie, tearfully sentimental, living in the past, suffering from delusions of grandeur, craving a Messiah. Been there and bought that t-shirt before haven’t we? Are they Geordies in disguise?
Newcastle fans discovered to their cost that appointing a Messiah does not guarantee salvation. It’s a populist quick fix that might even lead to a short-term ‘Messiah bounce’. Newcastle have tried the Messiah option on more than one occasion – Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer were both given the unenviable task of transforming a squad of players that lacked togetherness, quality, hunger or fight. The fans complained that ‘cockneys’, who didn’t understand the Geordie Nation, had ruined their beloved Toon. Ironically it was an east Londoner, Chris Hughton, who transformed Newcastle from a circus to something resembling a football team again.
The euphoria that attended Kenny Dalglish’s appointment has not yet translated into an upturn on the pitch. It’s hardly surprising really. Roy Hodgson wasn’t able to stamp his authority on the club but that’s because the problems run much deeper. The playing squad simply isn’t good enough. The team has been carried by Gerrard and Torres for too long. Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano have not been replaced. The youth production line seems to have broken down. The existing group of players should undoubtedly be performing better. However, as with all great institutions in decline, the famous Liverpool shirt weighs too heavily on the shoulders of the players. It’ll take more than an upsurge of Messianic euphoria to stop the rot.
The triumph of sentiment over reason is, however, not a problem confined to the dewy-eyed residents Liverpool or Newcastle. It’s a football-wide tendency. Look at Argentina. Whoever put Diego Maradona in charge of the national team needs shooting (under the old military junta, they probably would have been shot). The logic probably went like this: ‘We’ve got great players. We’ve got Lionel Messi. They don’t need coaching or tactics. They just need a pep talk from a Messiah.’ The lunacy of King Diego was brilliantly entertaining to watch at the World Cup last summer. But the team’s defensive shortcomings were brutally exposed by Germany.
Even my own club Crystal Palace has its Messiah issues to deal with. The recent sacking of manager George Burley led invariably to clamour from supporters for the return our own house Messiah, Steve Coppell. As Messianic returns go, Coppell provides excellent value for money. We’ve not just had a Second Coming but a Third and Fourth Coming. Sadly, a fifth return to the Selhurst hotseat failed to materialise. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. The reputational risks facing a returning Messiah are immense. Sure, the fans will be more patient. But, the stakes are high and, should he fail to deliver salvation, the Messianic aura will be irreparably damaged.
Having failed to lure Eddie Howe from Bournemouth, Palace’s new owners, the CPFC2010 consortium, appointed a Messiah-lite in the form of former striker Dougie Freedman. The Scotsman is a genuine Palace legend who has already performed one miraculous act of salvation on the pitch: his eighty-seventh minute winner against Stockport in the last game of the season saved the club from relegation in 2001. The fear amongst Palace fans is that Freedman’s legendary status may be sullied if he fails to keep Palace in the Championship. The way we’ve been defending this season it will take another Dougie miracle to keep us up. Soon the fear of Messiah failure will start to gnaw away at fans. What if he’s not the Messiah after all? What if he has no miraculous powers? Messiah-anxiety is the downside of Second Comings that they don’t warn us about.
‘A game of simplistic philosophies, football is prone to the Messiah complex’, observed Jim White in the Telegraph. But why? Given the track record of messianic failure, why are fans seduced time and again by the saviour myth? The answer is that supporting a football club is a sentimental rather than rational activity. Football, as Mick Hume frequently reminds us, is the ‘home ground of the id’. Emotion leads the line and unreason anchors the midfield. Football matches, moreover, are often decided by lady luck. A game can turn on a miscued shot, a cruel deflection, an untimely injury, a defender slipping. ‘We didn’t get the breaks’, is a common managerial lament. It’s therefore inevitable that superstitions take root. An arch-rationalist, who won’t swallow a pill unless its efficacy has been proven in rigorous clinical trials, will insist on wearing his lucky socks to football matches.
No wonder that desperate fans look to Messiahs for salvation. We ought to know better given the lengthy list of failed Second Comings. Kevin Keegan, Howard Kendall, George Graham: all have returned and all have failed. But, fans being fans, we refuse to see reason.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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