When Robbie Fowler left Anfield for the first time, he took a little piece of me with him, specifically the piece that hero-worshipped men who played well for Liverpool. Admittedly it was a slightly shop-soiled piece of me. All of three picoseconds were spent pondering the hypocrisy of cheering for Paul Ince when he was signed by Liverpool, having previously expressed a fervent wish that the Kray twins would take offence at someone misusing the name of the Guv’nor . . . the notion that players could be more than simply very good servants went with him. When Steven Gerrard’s media boosters made a virtue of his loyalty despite his blatant flirtation with Chelsea, the overwhelming emotion was that I didn’t want that piece of my life back, a piece so treacherous that the Bee Gees could have written a song about it to be performed by Dionne Warwick.
But the viper is back in the form of Fernando Torres.
To Err Is Human, Torres Divine, 2 March 2008
Looks like I was right the first time. Even if one comes from the perspective that all footballers are mercenaries, and I think we all accept that to a greater or lesser degree at this stage, they’re not equally mercenary (see: Cashley Cole). Fernando Torres seemed a little bit different from the norm, his famed armband typifying a player for whom money wasn’t everything. So to see the cynical manner in which he engineered a move away from Anfield took your breath away. We have it from the horse’s mouth that negotiations had been going on behind the scenes for twelve days prior to the transfer. The tapping-up doesn’t bother me. They’re all at it, including Liverpool (see: Charlie Adam). But had he revealed his desire to leave two weeks ago, Liverpool would have been in a better position to deal with it. In retrospect, the assumption that they were pursuing Luis Suarez to replace Torres was completely wrong. They were playing coy with Ajax in the hope that the player would demand a move and we could then get him on the cheap (see: tapping-up, Charlie Adam). Instead, Liverpool had to meet Ajax’s evaluation of the player and then desperately scramble around looking around for a replacement for Torres. Andy Carroll may well turn out to be a star, but at this moment he looks horribly over-valued – he is *assumes Lloyd Bentsen voice* no Fernando Torres. Is it any wonder that Mrs d, who I met at Anfield donchaknow, is gradually finding her relationship with Liverpool to be an increasingly painful one? And before you say that’s because we’ve been crap, she is having an increasingly more cheerful relationship with England – they’re crap too, but at least they’re identifiably her crap. So adios and thanks for the memories, Nando, of which there are many glorious ones. But thank you too for reminding me that no footballer is to be trusted. Don’t let the door hit you on the arse on the way out.
So an old verity has been depressingly reinforced. But the last few weeks have seen another one loosen its grip on my psyche, i.e. the idea that pride and passion has no place in the running of a modern football club. The main reason I was content with the appointment of Roy Hodgson was that he could be relied upon to take a sober, serious attitude towards the business of managing Liverpool. No one would be signed because he had heart or guts or all those other things that a player can have in abundance and still be rubbish because he lacks such qualities as talent or skill. It was the cultivation of the latter qualities that made Liverpool great. Yes, Bill Shankly had talked about the passion, but talking the team up when they were due to play Ajax in the second leg of their second round tie in the 1966/7 European Cup hadn’t led to an improvement – first leg: Ajax 5-1 Liverpool; second leg: Liverpool 2-2 Ajax. And a few years later, after a cup defeat to lower division Watford, even he had to admit that he had persevered with the old stagers for too long. Compare this to Bob Paisley who ruthlessly trimmed any player as soon as they were past their peak. Result? A period of dominance that was without parallel in English football. Leave the passion to the fans, and leave the football to the mercenaries. That would be Roy’s philosophy.
In addition, he also stood in the way on the nonsensical reappointment of Kenny Dalglish. One of the most entertaining things in football in the Premier League years has been the comical contortions at Newcastle United where great stock was put in quick-fixes, such as appointing a club legend to the post of manager. So we saw Kevin Keegan come back and Alan Shearer come in. Both started with much fanfare and talk of the passion, and ended in failure, abysmally so in Shearer’s case. The thought that Liverpool could go down that road, and there’s echoes of Kenny’s return in both cases, is an appalling vista. To compound the irony his last job was managing the Geordies, which was an amazing 13 years ago. If you were looking for someone called Dalglish with knowledge of football in the 21st century, you’d be better off giving the job to Kelly.
You always become the thing you hate the most. During the repeated heaves against Houllier and Benitez part of the reason I was so defensive of them was that their critics seemed to be having it both ways. If they were failures in the end and got sacked, the I-told-you-so’s would be unbearable. But if they were eventually successful, the critics would be able to surreptitiously submerge their rage under the tide of celebration. Yet this is the position, barely a couple of weeks into Kenny’s second coming. It is, of course, early days, but even the first game at Old Trafford had positive signs. Not because the team played well – they did, but Kenny admitted he had nothing to do with the selection – but the sight of him standing alongside Alex Ferguson had a reassuring feel to it. When the likes of Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger take on Demento, their only weapon is their managerial wiles. And they will always, no matter how hard they strive or how well they do, lose out in the end. The roles are reversed in the case of Kenny Dalglish. Kenny is a footballer who can be mentioned in the same breath as Maradona and Pele, while Alex Ferguson is the bitter little man who wouldn’t bring Kenny to the 1986 World Cup – West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay were clearly going to be more cowed by the likes of Paul Sturrock. Do what you like, Alex. You’ll always look small next to Kenny.
Then we were soon treated to Kenny’s biting wit. When Kenny was last manager, the media circus had yet to get to full three-ring status, so the stories of his zingers were just that – stories. Now we can see them in full Sky Sports News-a-rama. To begin with, we had his winding-up of the unfortunate Sky man after Andy Gray and Richard Keys’ infamous clanger. The video also shows him playing a dead bat to silly questions yet somehow not being obnoxious about it. Classy to his fingertips.
None of this is to say that Kenny is going to return us to the glories of old. Things have definitely picked up, but Sunday against Chelsea and Whatsisname will be far more telling. It’s just that there’s a spring in the step of the club that is almost entirely down to the return of the King. In my commitment to keeping it rational, I’ve forgotten that a club is more than the sum of its parts. I was wrong to be so dismissive of the intangible. When Phil Thompson said after Istanbul that “Liverpool FC is the greatest club in the world”, he was channeling the spirit that produced that night to beat all nights. It weren’t Djimi Traore and Milan Baros who turned Milan over. It was Liverpool. Perhaps everything will go belly up in the next few months and I’ll regret ever committing these words to disk space. But right here, right now, Liverpool fans are smiling again. I’ll settle for that.