Football: Dalglish goes on charm defensive

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The Independent Online
Despite recent criticism, the Newcastle manager remains determined to keep his public and private

persona separate, as Glenn Moore discovers

WITH a series of clicks the tape recorders went off and Kenny Dalglish's smile came on like an electric light. As it spread warmth and bonhomie across a Durham restaurant the other Kenny Dalglish, the one with hooded eyes, curled lip and sardonic tongue, slipped away through some unguarded back door. It will wait in the shadows until the next press conference.

Dalglish is not unique among football people in apparently possessing two personalities: many great players have reacted to the referee's whistle like a hypnotist's subject to a click of the fingers. Mark Hughes is the classic example, metamorphosing from soft-voiced, gentle family man to rumbustious, mauling centre-forward at the first peep from an Acme Thunderer.

Dalglish's transformation is subtler but no less startling. It has also been influential. His wariness with the media - both print and broadcast - has, along with the nature of his teams and the actions of a couple of club directors, turned Newcastle from everybody's favourite other team to the Premiership's most unwanted.

Today they play host to Chelsea with many neutrals still hoping they fail to gain the point or two they may yet require to avoid relegation. In a fortnight they contest the FA Cup final in the position, unimaginable two years ago, of being neither favoured nor favourites to beat Arsenal.

The recent post-match press conference after these two clubs met at Highbury, when Dalglish spoke of "people like you wanting to put knives in my back" and criticised one journalist's girth, and another reference last month to newspapers "only being fit to wipe dogshit off your shoes", brought Dalglish's relationship with the media to a new low. Thus on Thursday, partly on the advice of trusted allies, Dalglish participated in what the PR people would call a "charm offensive", hosting lunch for a group of national journalists.

On the record, with the tape recorders working, he was polite but guarded, occasionally evasive and combative over team selection, Alan Shearer's conduct and the Stevenage affair. Off the record he was expansive, candid and often funny. This part of the conversation must remain confidential but, though the delivery was as defensive as ever, his on-the-record thoughts were still more revealing than customary.

Understandably Dalglish was at his spikiest when discussing Newcastle's season. "How far away are we from being in Arsenal's position? - 14 places, that's how far."

One hack boldly interjected: "It's actually 15 places," but Dalglish refused to rise to the bait. Instead he responded to the suggestion that Newcastle's League position did not reflect the quality of the squad. "It reflects our results. You can't hide from those. It is not something anybody gets any satisfaction from, nor is it acceptable. Is there more pressure at the bottom? The principle is the same. You are there to win games. I've been brought up all my life to win games and I've been used to winning games. We just want to win games for different reasons.

"There is disappointment, not frustration. It is not only for ourselves, it's for our supporters. That is the biggest disappointment. One or two things happened which have been positive. Getting to the FA Cup final gives the fans something to look forward to, something they've not had for 25 years; getting in the Champions' League gave a bit of a lift, a bit of glory. It's a mystery why we can't translate our cup results into the League."

Easier opponents? "We had Everton away, Stevenage, Tranmere who put out Sunderland, Barnsley who put out Man United. It's all right saying United weren't interested but I saw it on television and they were trying. Then we played Sheffield United who put out Coventry. It's not our fault opponents beat teams who were favourites to go through.

"We've no regrets over Stevenage. All we ever said was to put safety first and foremost. If we are wrong to do that we should not be a football club. If somebody wants to watch their team play, they should be able to watch in safety and comfort. If we don't ask the question, what do we do if we go there and something unforeseen happens? There's no way we were trying to be disrespectful. I phoned them up and told them that."

It is put to Dalglish that the memories of Hillsborough must have influenced his stand. The hackles rise. "Don't even ask that question. There's no way I'm going to go over that again. That's disrespectful to the people involved."

Dalglish's conduct throughout the Hillsborough disaster and afterwards has always been impeccable. We move back to discussing Newcastle's lack of goals. Is their perceived defensiveness a reason for Alan Shearer's apparent frustration?

"You justify that [charge]. There is no justification for that, and he's never levelled criticism at anybody. He's always the first to pay tribute for the service he gets when he is banging in goals.

"He may go wide now but he used to go wide at Blackburn and cross balls in. There's no difference. Now you're using Blackburn as a measure, but we got slaughtered when we won the League at Blackburn. We were top scorers twice in three years and we were still criticised."

If this sounds familiar it is because it used to be George Graham's response when his Arsenal team was accused of being boring. Goals may be the lifeblood of football but scoring them does not automatically equate to playing attractive football. Look at Cambridge under John Beck.

"I would much rather win a game 5-4 than lose it 1-0. You certainly can't criticise Liverpool or Celtic for lacking adventure. Anything we say to defend ourselves will be deemed as moaning but there are reasons for it. I have a fair idea of what they are, but I'm not going to go public on them."

Injuries are one aspect, so is the sale of Ginola, Ferdinand and Asprilla. All, said Dalglish, left because they wanted to go. "If someone doesn't want to go, they stay. Given the choice I wouldn't sell anybody, but every manager would say that."

Another problem Dalglish had when he arrived in January last year was the decision of his predecessor, Kevin Keegan, to disband the reserves (a factor in Darren Huckerby's departure before Dalglish arrived). Dalglish would not criticise Keegan but he did say: "People take decisions because they think it is right. I might make different decisions, but it doesn't mean to say the other person is wrong. I'll do what I think is right and the places I've been I've always put a heavy emphasis on development while remembering the first team is the most important thing."

There is a brief flash of on-the-record wit and disclosure when he discusses his appearance on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. "They do well to get his ego on the television screen," said Dalglish.

Then the tape recorders go off, football's Victor Meldrew disappears and the other Dalglish slips into his chair. The contrast is discussed and, since it is referred to in his autobiography, it is not betraying a confidence to reveal that the distrust stems from a bad experience with a journalist in his early days at Celtic. That may be a long time ago but he has seen ample evidence since to remain cautious and, while it may be unfair to tar all media with the same brush, he largely treats everyone equally, from golf partners to tabloid foot-soldiers.

However, neither the media, Newcastle, their fans or Dalglish himself benefit from the mutual antagonism that usually characterises his public relations. It is to be hoped that this week's meeting produces a thaw on both sides. It would be a shame if a great player and successful manager is eventually, and inaccurately, remembered by the public at large, if not those close to him, as a miserable curmudgeon.