Dalglish steeled for the final push

...and, as domestic glory beckons for Blackburn, Norman Fox finds their manager in characteristically defiant mood
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALAN SMITH had seen his Crystal Palace team kept in relegation trouble on Thursday night but still had the grace to congratulate Blackburn Rovers. He was sure they would go on to win the title. "There is a steel about them - they deserve to be at the top." It was not intended as a clever play on words but Rovers are, of course, a team built with Jack Walker's steel money. Walker also bought Kenny Dalglish, who sometimes seems to have a heart of steel and could only bring himself to say: "The points were more important than the performance."

The cameo told a lot about the reasons why, if Blackburn get the five points they need to win the Premiership, they will not be universally acclaimed. Steel made them and cold steel is undoubtedly in their make- up. And Dalglish does little to dispel the idea; after Blackburn had recently been held to a goalless draw by the doomed men of Leicester City, the Rovers manager was in uncharacteristically talkative mood. Even then, he found it hard to be expansive about his opposite number, the young Scot Mark McGhee, who had just been appointed by Leicester. Asked about his own expensive team's failure to beat one so modest, Dalglish replied: "I'm not concerned about them. Why do you always expect so much and when we do it you never give us credit."

Curiously, it was following a home defeat by Leicester in 1992 that Dalglish first revealed the depth of his belief that, no matter what Blackburn achieved, they were destined to remain unacclaimed, perhaps even a reincarnation of Don Revie's Leeds. He said: "The players are disappointed for everyone who wants them to succeed. Outside the club, that isn't too many people." The "no one loves us" attitude is strong at Ewood Park but the difference between the defiant Millwall chant and Dalglish's outlook, is that he would never add "we don't care". He wants to build a team that succeeds and wins approval.

Recent weeks have seen Dalglish and his team getting ever more defensive, and not just on the field. They have a conviction that the whole country outside their corner of Lancashire wants Manchester United to retain the title. Dalglish himself seems to be convinced that people want Rovers to fail because they have an unfair advantage - the Walker millions. "All that's happened at Blackburn," he said, "was that while other clubs were spending money, we were spending it more quickly." As he reflected on the envy that other clubs had barely concealed, his muttering descended into revealing self-defence. "It's a matter of what you do with the money. It's no good having it and not spending it wisely. I'm not here to squander Jack Walker's money."

But there is no getting away from the benefits of Walker's deep pockets. Dalglish has had almost £30m to spend on players while at the same time vast amounts have been invested in a stadium that has risen out of the back-to-backs and is nowready to receive clubs like Milan without feeling all fingers and thumbs. What Dalglish knows is that only by getting Rovers into the European Cup can he begin to create the perception of a truly big club in world terms. But with him as manager, Blackburn will always struggle to win hearts.

Ask him why he chose to resume his management career after "retiring" from Liverpool and he is hardly likely to say he needed the money. He realised that more than anything he needed football. Why Blackburn? "They were the only ones who offered me a job." Ask Walker why he chose Dalglish and you get an equally terse answer: "We needed the best man for the job and a hard one."

Alan Shearer speaks for many of the players when he says that we, the media and television viewers, never see the lighter side of Dalglish because he only really enjoys himself when joining in training. It takes some believing unless you happen to be privy to his wicked grin when he still skins defenders years his junior. Squaring Dalglish's solemn approach with a desire to play the game attractively is quite a task. David Batty, whose long absence this season has been a considerable blow, is Dalglish's sort of footballer but not necessarily because of his spiky determination. Dalglish saw in Batty a maligned player whose creative ability had become submerged in a reputation for abrasiveness.

Batty himself recoils from the suggestion of Blackburn, being merely dull and tough: "I came here because they play good football, on the ground. People say money buys success but you have to buy shrewdly and fit the players into the system."

Shearer recalls that while he knew the deal he struck with Rovers would "set me up for life" he was a bit concerned that he was joining a club everyone knew had huge resources but no real tradition. "I felt that I was putting myself under pressure by not joining United or Liverpool." But it went deeper than that. Like all of the other newcomers, Shearer had to displace someone, in his case the popular David Speedie, who had scored 23 goals in the season Rovers won promotion. "I didn't make any promises about how many goals I would score," Shearer said, but he knew it had to be more than a few.

Dalglish becomes irritated when people forget that the team he guided to promotion was not suddenly acquired with Walker's money. He waited and bought carefully before going out to get Shearer. Then he raised the stakes by paying £5m to Norwich City for Chris Sutton and at the same time out-bid Manchester United, who must have realised that sooner rather than later they were going to have to take a Blackburn championship challenge seriously.

Interestingly, it was not Dalglish who did the talking to Sutton, but the club's greatest supporter, Walker, who took the striker to a Blackpool hotel for a meal starting, as Sutton recalls, with a chilled melon costing £1.85 and finishing with Monopoly money offers. But Dalglish had already made his point to Walker that a Shearer-Sutton striking partnership could be the priceless passport into Europe. And this was the very reason why Walker wanted Dalglish in the first place. "I don't just want us to get there, I want us to be the best in Europe as well," Sir Jack said. One of Sutton's former colleagues at Norwich, Ian Butterworth, remarked that Blackburn had done good business because Sutton had a heart as big as his new wage packet.

Having seen Blackburn spend on a scale usually associated with Manchester United and Liverpool but in months rather than years there was a good deal of criticism that Walker was inflating the transfer market at a time when the game needed all of its resources to update stadiums. Dalglish responds by pointing out that over a period United have spent as much. He also gets exercised by the suggestion that importing players destroys the production of local ones.

"When did a team last win the championship with players they produced themselves?" he asks. He claims that all the millions have done is to allow him to create a squad of championship- winning potential in double-quick time but that it took "good judgement" to know which players to buy. No one would argue with that, but the criticism of recent weeks has been that the side is looking too much like the unsmiling public face of the manager.

If there are critics of Blackburn's success, not all of them come from Manchester or Liverpool. Some used to live right next door in the terraced houses that have made way for Ewood Park's expansion (ironically, one of them used to be home for Colin Hendry). The voices of protest have fallen silent but the combined voices of support at Blackburn's impressively refurbished stadium still amount to no more than a whisper by comparison with the Stretford End or the Kop. So can Rovers ever join their northern rivals as equals in all respects? "Who knows?" Dalglish says. "But just look at what has been achieved here in the past three years."