Can King Kenny stop the Reds falling apart?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am

With the ink barely dry on his contract, Kenny Dalglish is already trying to avoid a third defeat in a week - in a Merseyside derby no less. And facing up to Everton so soon will no doubt have Liverpool's caretaker boss pondering how his life seems to have come full circle.

Almost 20 years ago - in February 1991 - Dalglish walked away from the top job after Liverpool and Everton battled to a pulsating 4-4 draw in an FA Cup fifth-round replay at Goodison Park.

The Reds were defending champions and having a good campaign under Dalglish who had been voted manager of the year the previous season. But the Scotsman said he was suffering from stress and admitted the pressure to maintain Liverpool's high expectations of success had become too much.

Although his coaching comeback has been greeted with euphoria from the Kop faithful, the honeymoon period could come to an abrupt halt if 13th-placed Liverpool lose to 12th-placed Everton. Having watched the struggles of his predecessor Roy Hodgson, Dalglish has quickly discovered the challenges of producing consistent results with an inferior squad in desperate need of reinforcements. The reality is that the Reds of 2011 will probably be closer to the relegation zone than to the chase for European spots.

When Dalglish last managed Liverpool against Everton, John Major was British prime minister, Fernando Torres was six years old and Jason Donovan and Queen were riding high in the music charts. But even though English soccer is dramatically different to two decades ago, former players are confident that Dalglish can make the necessary adjustments to lift Liverpool from the doldrums. 'Football has changed an awful lot but Kenny has not been in Siberia; he's been living in Birkdale on the outskirts of Liverpool and working in the academy and as an ambassador of the club,' ex-Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston said. 'Kenny knows intimately what is going on in football and in the club - better than Roy Hodgson or Rafa Benitez.

'The problem of player power at Liverpool means that bad personal and team performances are being passed off as someone else's fault. But as only a prodigal son could, Kenny will tell them to pull their fingers out, get stuck in and stop blaming the owners or management any longer.'

Johnston, who made 271 Liverpool appearances in eight years, played under Dalglish in the mid- to late-1980s when the Reds were arguably Europe's leading club. He observed that there were immediate signs of improvement when Kenny took over for last weekend's FA Cup third round tie at Manchester United.

'Even when everything was going wrong at Old Trafford, the players had more determination, passion and cohesion than they'd showed for a long time and never gave up or looked confused as they have of late,' he said.

'You could say that Kenny has a very direct management style. It's a bit like Braveheart. When Kenny is in your face - even if you don't understand all of what he says because of his accent - people listen and respond.'

But while most observers believe it will be a tough task to rejuvenate a struggling squad, former Thailand and Indonesia head coach Peter Withe argues that it will be relatively easy for Dalglish to shine.

'It is not such a difficult job as he is coming into a team that is not firing on all cylinders,' Liverpool-born Withe, a former England international striker, said. 'I think any manager would relish the opportunity to take this on.

'His priorities are to win games and play attractive football like they did when he was manager before and get back to the old school that Bill Shankly created.'

Shankly was the first in a dynasty of four British managers over 31 years - Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Dalglish were the others - who accumulated an abundance of silverware, including 13 English titles and four European Cups.

The 1990 triumph under Dalglish, with the likes of John Barnes, Ian Rush and Peter Beardsley leading the way, was the last English top-flight title that Liverpool have won. Fernando Torres was on the scoresheet in the Wednesday night loss at Blackpool and the way that former striker Dalglish deals with his star Spanish import will be crucial to Liverpool's short-term success.

But while Torres seems in desperate need of support up front, the reality is that the club may have to learn to do without him. 'I think Torres will just last the season before heading back to Spain,' said ex-Hong Kong international Tim Bredbury, a former Liverpool junior. 'But with Kenny in charge he will get them reorganised and we will see Liverpool show some spirit and move back up the table.'

The Merseyside derby is a pivotal fixture. Victory, and the Reds' confidence is partially restored as they move to the relative comforts of mid-table. Defeat, and they could be just one point above the drop-zone.

Even without suspended captain Steven Gerrard, Liverpool won't need too many motivational speeches to get fired up to face their city rivals. The stinging 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park in October is only too fresh in their minds. Dalglish has the Liverpool job until the end of the season and would love to carry on.

But one wonders how keen King Kenny, turning 60 in March, will be to stay if the Reds' season continues to fall apart. His leisurely life of celebrity golf days and luxury cruises with wife Marina will suddenly seem very enticing again.