One constant of Liverpool FC is that when it comes to sacking managers we don’t do Night of the Long Knives-style decapitations. From Dalglish to Dalglish, the removal of managers has been flagged in advance. It’s a well-worn football meme that the vote of confidence is to be ‘dreaded’ but all other things being equal a public expression of support is more useful than a public display of non-support, and the deafening silence from Boston when Kenny Dalglish went there to present his vision for the future spoke volumes.
Personally speaking, by which I mean I have zero evidence for this assertion beyond a vague feeling about the nature of old-school football men and their attitude to the suits who govern their lives, I think it is likely that Kenny had a chance to salvage his job when he spoke to John Henry et al last Tuesday and he blew it. The men (I’ve not researched it, but it seems unlikely there are any women involved beyond trophy wives/mistresses) of Fenway Sports Group are not immune to sentiment, or at least they are capable of seeing the value of sentiment. They’ve made a virtue of the ramshackle nature of Fenway Park, touting it as ‘America’s Most Beloved Ballpark’ and had Kenny gone to them and said that he had the support of the fans, Anfield was sold out every game because of his presence, give me another year and I’m confident I’ll turn it around, they might have been swayed.
I doubt that’s what happened though. Instead Kenny would have gone in and asked for one hundred million bucks with which to improve the squad. That’s what chairmen are meant to do, right? Just sign a blank check [sic] and leave the football to the football men. Not any more, Kenny, not any more.
Now, I emphasise once again that I have no evidence for any of the above. It’s possible he walked into the room, was told he was fired, could he please not make a scene as it would be damaging for the club’s future prospects and don’t touch anything on the way out of the building. Whatever happened, he’s gone and it administers the last rites to what has officially been the worst season since Liverpool were last relegated. That was the reality facing the owners, and in the end that was what did for Kenny.
What on earth went wrong this season? It was just over a year ago that we beat Fulham at Craven Cottage with a performance of sublime virtuosity, so much so that most fans assumed the emphasis would need to be on the defence (where little was done during the summer) or the midfield (where, with the arrival of Henderson, Adam and Downing, lots was done). No-one was talking about problems up front. Carroll would probably come good and Suarez has already arrived so there was little to worry about on that score.
Yet it was up front that did for us in the end. Our propensity for hitting the woodwork did mitigate the incompetence to some degree. All season long Man Utd fans would pompously declare that since neither the bar or the post was ‘the target’ hitting either was a sign of bad play rather than bad luck. Which would be fine, except they all started bleating about how unlucky they were when Evra hit the post against Everton when 4-2 up. Had that gone in, Man Utd would have won the league. That’s how close they were, and that’s even before you factor in the helter-skelter finish to the Man City-QPR game on the final day. We have been unlucky with all the shots hitting the woodwork, and we shouldn’t be made to feel that it’s sour grapes to say so.
But if even half of those chances had gone in, and you’ll probably find in more than a few cases we scored moments later, we’d probably be ten points better off at best – you can’t just add a goal to every draw and say presto! that’s ten extra wins. Ten points would do no more than lift us ahead of Everton. So bad luck can only hold you back so much. The only game I got to see in the flesh this year was against Blackburn and the one-dimensional nature of our play was terrifying. For years people lamented that we weren’t getting the ball wide and Stewart Downing’s stats – 2011/12 Premier League record: goals 0 assists 0 – would suggest that we didn’t do much of that this season either, but against Blackburn he dutifully got to the endline and got decent ball into the box on numerous occasions. It was so utterly predictable though that Blackburn, who conceded the most goals away from home all season, had no problems counteracting it. Stuff bodies in the box, don’t lunge at anything. It was a lesson not heeded by Charlie Adam as he slashed at a corner to give Blackburn the lead. Things improved in the second half but it was more by accident than design and you couldn’t begrudge Blackburn the point they took from the game. When you’ve been outfoxed by Steve Kean, you’re in trouble.
The management must take the blame for the lack of a Plan B that so blighted our season, especially at Anfield. But the blame for what happened after the Carling Cup final can be laid at the feet of the players. The win over Cardiff has to have been the least-pleasurable penalty shoot-out victory we’ve ever experienced. Quite apart from coming against a team we should be battering – their most noteworthy name would only be recognisable in the same manner that Steven Spielberg’s non-union, Mexican equivalent, Señor Spielbergo, is recognisable – penalty shoot-outs are a lot more satisfying when you come from three goals down or equalise in the last minute. Nevertheless, a win was a win and it was not unreasonable to think that the season would be a success. Newcastle United haven’t won a major domestic trophy since 1955, yet within months of arriving at Anfield and for all the brickbats, Andy Carroll had already won something. That’s what it means to be Liverpool FC, and surely the players could play with more fluency now they had that first piece of silverware in the cabinet.
Not unreasonable, but wrong. Instead they threw in the league towel, an insult to each of the people who paid good money to see the ground be stunk out week after week. The most impressive individual performance of the season came in the FA Cup final when Carroll tore Chelsea apart for thirty minutes. Part of his awesomeness that day was situational as he revelled in the wide open spaces of Wembley against the increasingly carthorse-like figure of John Terry. But much of it must be ascribed to a player saving his best form for the biggest occasion. The only luck Liverpool got in the cup competitions was the penalty given against Manchester City’s Micah Richards for handball. Otherwise, Liverpool got through by dint of being the better team in every game. With that in mind, you’re entitled to ask what team turned up for all those league games – two super cup wins over Stoke, two utterly dire performances against the same opposition in the league.
There’s enough in all of the above to make you come to the conclusion that, however much a giant he might be, Kenny had to go. Now that the deed is done though, what next? Bring up André Villas-Boas’s name and suddenly sacking Kenny doesn’t look too clever. Given his experience at Chelsea, Villas-Boas would be entitled to some manner of reassurance that he’ll get longer than 256 days to implement his vision for the club, reassurance he won’t get from the treatment of his predecessor. If the club’s greatest player can only get one full season to make the club a success, how long is Villas-Boas going to get? The season has been a barely-mitigated shambles, and one can’t accuse John Henry of being duplicitous about his short-term targets. Anything less than fourth-place was a disappointment given the investment made. But if that’s the case, he’d better prepare for a lot of disappointment. The two Manchester clubs are surely locks for the top four for the foreseeable future, Arsenal have developed the knack of qualifying and Chelsea are likely to make the investment necessary to get back there before too long. Would any manager relish taking the job in those circumstances? A time may come when we’ll regret not having Kenny’s presence on the touchline as a lightning rod for criticism.
Arsene Wenger expressed the opinion this season that qualifying for the Champions League is as good as a trophy. To my mind it’s a daft proposition. What good is being in the CL for fifteen consecutive seasons, as the Gunners will be next year, if you haven’t won it? Arsenal fans will no doubt have some happy memories of individual wins but ultimately they all pale into insignificance against our one win from a mere eight appearances in the competition under its current format. Still, the evidence of this season suggests that Fenway Sports Group agrees – fourth is first, eighth is nowhere. I’m still inclined to think well of their intentions. If anything, firing Kenny suggests that they really have bigger plans for the club, that they’re willing to make the investment to knock either Chelsea or Arsenal (most likely the latter) out of their perennial spot as top four contenders. They’d better be ready to do this, because if things don’t improve they’ll regret not having the King to intercede with the mob on their behalf.