Football: Rovers' return marks Dalglish's recovery

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The Independent Online
WHAT a strange, strained atmosphere there will be at Anfield today when Kenny Dalglish goes back as manager of Blackburn Rovers. The story of his departure from Liverpool was always assumed to be much more personal and complicated than a simple matter of being over-stressed, but in spite of a subsequent biography and continued delving by the sort of media people who spend their lives looking for skeletons in cupboards, nothing of any consequence has yet emerged. So what did happen?

That there had been a prolonged power struggle in the months preceding Dalglish's resignation could hardly have been coincidental. That only added to Dalglish's main burden, which must have been a growing obsession with the prospect of Liverpool going into decline while he was in charge. On the pitch there had been several signs, and they were compounded by injuries and the continual rumours about John Barnes going to the Continent. Dalglish saw it coming and bought players. Still he felt that things were going wrong.

If Liverpool were dragged down into the foothills of the table, or worse, his reputation would flounder. Better to resign for 'personal' reasons than be associated with the fall of the most successful English club in history. A shrewd move, even a selfish move, but an understandable one for such a young and still uneasy manager. He had yet to come to terms with the fact that he could no longer play and he desperately needed a break to complete his own conversion from player to manager.

He wanted time to adjust. At Liverpool the memories of his playing days remained all too close. He had to sever the links with everything to do with his radiant career as a player. For him there was always the extra pressure of an adulation that had nothing to do with his ability or preparation for being a manager. It would have been humiliating to have his stock diminish as his team began to sway from his own immensely high playing standards.

The intensity of Dalglish's involvement with any football team is difficult to live with, not least for himself. Liverpool's expectancy and his fear of personal failure eventually got the better of him and he resigned. After getting away from it all, his return to football was inevitable but it had to be at a place where he thought success was not expected to be immediate but where the resources were there to help him succeed if he had the will. In agreeing to join Blackburn, he thought the millionaire Jack Walker not only had the money but a degree of patience. Whether Walker is quite the man Dalglish may have thought he was now seems debatable. It was recently suggested to Walker that Dalglish had already achieved considerable progress and that he must be a proud man. He turned on the questioner with the remark 'We haven't won anything yet'. Dalglish ought to have been in the business long enough to know that in football there is no such thing as a patient benefactor.

In spite of some recent setbacks, and a championship challenge that now seems to be in doubt, Dalglish's work at Blackburn suggests that he has not lost his gift for communicating his knowledge of football in a way that players understand. His communion with footballers is his art. His communication with the media remains a necessary but unwanted fact of life.

Not many words will be spoken when, or if, he appears in the Anfield boardroom this afternoon, which in many ways is a pity since the club still owes him gratitude for considerable success and for his willingness to speak the right words of dignified sympathy after Hillsborough. The disaster brought him face to face with the absurdity of that off-the-cuff remark by his predecessor, Bill Shankly, that football was more important than life and death.

How he must be relieved that Blackburn's recent run of five league games without a win brought less of the personal melancholy and searching publicity that a similar sequence would have inflicted upon him had he still been manager at Liverpool. In spite of the cost of building the Blackburn team (high, but lower than that of Graeme Souness's rebuilding of Liverpool), in theory the expectancy should remain limited. After all, second, third or fourth for a team promoted only at the end of last season would be no disgrace. But Walker is not so easily persuaded. He says that he is not spending his money to end up second best and he makes it clear that if Blackburn do not win something this season he will not be best pleased.

There was plenty of speculation and little, if any, foundation in the recent suggestion that David Platt was Walker's next target, but any prolonged let-up in Alan Shearer's goalscoring would certainly see Dalglish out in the market again. He must have been enormously thankful to see Shearer play an important part in the midweek victory over Watford, but the real test comes today.

Most people expected that, sooner or later, Shearer would hit a bad patch or be hit and laid low by the cynical tackles that come crashing in on any new 'hero'. And once his scoring dried up, it was more than likely the tactics of the whole team would fail. With a side geared to finding a target man, when that player begins to lose his scoring touch the rest lose confidence. Dalglish says it would be wrong to judge Shearer by his goalscoring because he creates so many goals for others. Equally, Blackburn are judged by the scoring record of Shearer.

Liverpool are not the club they were, on or off the field, but this is such an illogical season that even after their weak start they could still challenge for the title, and that says as much about the overall quality of the division than their own recovery. The situation is fascinating, and for once emphasis on managers, rather than teams, cannot be avoided.