Dalglish raises the coaching question

Ian Ridley hears a football icon voice concern over game's deficiencies
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The Independent Online
ALEX FERGUSON clearly does not court popularity. In his foreword to Kenny Dalglish's new autobiography, he writes of his former managerial adversary having only a few true friends and adds, in a probably unwitting insight about himself: "There's nothing wrong with that because, at the end of the day, you only need six people to carry your coffin."

There are many similarities between Ferguson and Dalglish, notably in their disciplined Glaswegian backgrounds and the subsequent drive for achievement. Such may indeed have been at the root of any professional friction between the two, even though exaggerated in personal terms. Where they differ is in their styles as players and priorities as managers.

Dalglish was the silky, inventive modern striker; Ferguson the muscular centre-forward of yore. Dalglish confirmed at the launch of his autobiography last week that he was not especially interested in pitting his wits against the best coaches in Europe, as his decision to stand down at Blackburn before their Champions' League campaign last season suggested. Ferguson is now chained to the Old Trafford obsession.

This week British clubs, chastened again by the events of a fortnight ago, re-enter European competition. Ferguson's job is to ensure that his team, unseated in Turin, get back into the saddle confidently. A convincing performance and a victory over Rapid Vienna is the requirement on Wednesday after the humbling by Juventus.

Perhaps Dalglish's European ambitions as a manager were doused by playing success or more pertinently his sadness at the Heysel disaster. They were certainly thwarted by the ban which followed. His career as a player was remarkable, however.

At the end of his first season with Liverpool, in 1978, Dalglish scored the exquisite goal against Bruges at Wembley that brought him his favourite moment in Europe and the first of three Champions' Cup winner's medals. It is why Blackburn's ignoring of him last season, and his own reluctance to get involved from his withdrawn role of director of football - which some of the players re-named "director of f--- all" - was so wasteful and hard to understand. Why, too, his views on playing in Europe bear examination. "There is a gap," he said. "Our football is great entertainment but it has got to change going into Europe. Players are a lot more educated football-wise than in this country and that might be because some of them have not grown up with European football."

Liverpool, he added, could adapt in the halcyon days of the 70s and 80s. They had men who understood marking assignments in Ian Ross and Sammy Lee; he himself would often play away from home in a five-man midfield behind Ian Rush. But had United not done the same in Turin with Eric Cantona? "Liverpool did not always get it right," said Dalglish.

"Then you thought you would be fitter than them. You could use that and your determination to see you through. There are an awful lot of foreign clubs now whose players are as fit as the British. They are just as strong psychologically and because the game is played a different way, they are better technically."

There had been an absence of good fortune in the campaigns of Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester United, even Nottingham Forest, last season, he said. Besides which, George Graham had shown how to win a European trophy with Arsenal. It was not good enough. Luck is no convincing reason and the Cup-Winners' Cup is the least difficult of the three to lift.

Dalglish was nearer the mark when he spoke of the development of the British player. "It's two things," he said. "If you go to school, the teacher can be the best in the world but if you can't take in what he or she is telling you, you can't educate yourself. It's the same in football. It is important that the coaches are well educated and are teaching players the right things and that the players take it in."

More vulnerable than he usually allows himself to be in public, Dalglish admitted gaps in his own education as a coach - though Jock Stein and Bob Paisley ensured there were few as a player - and hoped that any future role for him in the game might help him fill them in. A return as an assistant or consultant to the Scotland manager Craig Brown might not be far-fetched.

Honest though Dalglish's concession is, it does raise questions about a system that leaves one of the English game's most successful managers feeling deficient as a coach. It is the nub of the real problem of the game in this country and one that the FA's next technical director will need to address, as Gerard Houllier has done in France with conspicuous success in club and country's improvements.

With the acknowledgement of the value of the coaching, the potential of the Premiership to win European trophies, which foreign coaches believe to be immense, may be more properly realised in the long term. Terry Venables did, after all, show the capability of the English player, in spite of the system, and raise his esteem last summer. It is something that clubs can cling on to in the shorter term, rather than take refuge in the relief of playing against known quantities at home. Besides, a week hence, things may not look so gloomy.

Arsenal may well fall in Monchengladbach - though their reserves of spirit are legendary - but Newcastle United and Liverpool can be expected to pull through against Halmstads and MyPa-47. And despite a 1-1 home draw, Aston Villa should have the talent to overcome Helsingborgs in Sweden.

As for the standard-bearers, home comfort should redeem Manchester United as they turn to a formation that is more closely true to themselves with Cantona playing behind a main striker. Alex Ferguson is unlikely to be seeking pall-bearers for United's casket just yet.

Dalglish: My Autobiography. Kenny Dalglish with Henry Winter (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 16.99).