James Lawton: Dalglish has turned to an old Shankly trick... making Liverpool's players justify their inclusion
'What was discouraging,' says Ian St John, 'was that the same mistakes were being made byHoullier, and then Benitez and Hodgson'
Tuesday 08 February 2011
A wild wind blew across the Mersey yesterday, scattering gulls and buffeting the river traffic, but then every gust of it seemed to bring a little more contentment. It was as though something as permanent as the Liver Building had gone missing but had now been put back in place.
This sense of restored perspective was particularly keen in the Wirral home of Ian St John, who was first in the line of heroes created by the work and the legacy of Bill Shankly. "It feels a bit like waking up from a nightmare," he said.
Most encouraging for the man who 50 years ago was whisked away from his native Motherwell in the Rolls-Royce of the Liverpool chairman Sid Reakes – and in the back seat had the words of Shankly drumming into his ears every mile of the way to Anfield – was that he saw not only a psychologically stunning victory at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but also the clearest evidence that Kenny Dalglish had re-established a founding principle of those first great years.
"Shanks," said St John, "had a thousand sayings, and many of them were hilarious. But there wasn't a match before which he didn't say one thing with deadly seriousness. It didn't matter who you were, and what you had done in the last game, you were told, 'Justify your inclusion.' He spat it out.
"Watching Liverpool beat Chelsea on Sunday – and beating them well in so many ways, not least in that each player was more committed to what he was doing and clear about his purpose – I kept thinking, 'Kenny is halfway there already, he has done the most important thing – he has made the players responsible for their own performances, yes, he has said, 'Justify your inclusion.' Of course, it was something so much easier to say with Fernando Torres gone. Yes, you knew he was a player of great talent and that at any time he might do something remarkable – but one fact was apparent for so long. His inclusion was automatic. He didn't have to justify it and that is something that destroys the rest of the players.
"I believe Liverpool can put that behind them now. Obviously, Kenny needs more players, but in the meantime he has shown that he can get so much more out of the ones he has."
St John has been for some years now an ambivalent witness of the club he served so well for so long.
Gérard Houllier railed against his criticisms and Rafa Benitez was also angered when the old player, having paid his respects to the initial Champions League success, despaired of the team's failure to make an authentic title challenge in six years of seeping decline. "What was so discouraging," says St John, "was that the same old mistakes were happening under Houllier and then Benitez and Roy Hodgson in his own brief time. You just couldn't see anyone getting consistently better."
But on Sunday, St John noted something remarkable, more thrilling in its way even than the huge performance of the returning Jamie Carragher and the latest example of the match-winning marksmanship of Raul Meireles.
He saw Lucas look like a midfield player, a real one who involved himself in joined-up moves, who passed the ball and then found more advanced and menacing positions with something that looked like genuine conviction.
"Kenny doesn't pretend to be a coach," St John goes on. "He's gone out and got himself a top one in Steve Clarke. Kenny doesn't take training but he watches training, he sees what's happening and when I saw Lucas on Sunday I said to myself, 'Yes, he's had a word with the lad. He's told him where he isn't coming up to scratch. He's told him that there really isn't any such thing as a withdrawn midfielder because every formation anyone ever dreamt up is changed by the movement of the ball and the opposing team.'
"No, there's no withdrawn midfielder in the books of football men like Kenny. There are midfielders with responsibilities, and they include the ability to adapt to the moving game.
"For a long time I'd said that as far as I was concerned Lucas could get on the next boat to wherever he came from – but not on Sunday, the boy looked as though he could play and that he really wanted to play. Of course, he has to prove himself between now and the end of the season, but you could see things happening, enough of them to make you wonder about old judgements."
St John, who once complained that the football of Houllier had turned Anfield into an arena filled not with some of the most boisterously witty fans in the land but so many zombies, sees little point in disinterring the polemics of the Benitez departure. "It was clear enough he had run his course in that last season," says St John, "and it's a bit bizarre that he's talking about returning to his old job. You have to say that already Kenny Dalglish has reminded us of what went missing in recent years."
What precisely? Maybe more than anything the understanding that players did not have to be taught how to play but how to grow stronger in their self-belief and demands placed on themselves. They didn't have to be chivvied into minute positional changes in front of a full house. They didn't have to feel part of some endless seminar, a sensation experienced by at least some of the Liverpool players in the dog days of Benitez and Hodgson and, it is reasonable to presume, those of Internazionale in the former's last days at San Siro.
Interestingly, the Internazionale goalkeeper Julio Cesar declared after Sunday's 5-3 victory over Roma, which took them still closer to leaders Milan: "Everything feels better, brighter now." There are similar stories emerging from Liverpool's recently sombre Melwood training ground. They include reports of players entering the facility with smiles on their faces, and leaving some hours later in more or less the same condition.
Heaven knows where it will all end but then at least one Saint of impeccable antecedents believes at least a little legitimate faith has been restored.
Forget appraisals, RFU should turn to Woodward as new elite man
Apparently the Rugby Football Union has an elaborate schedule of appraisals before selecting England's new director of elite rugby. This is odd because the decision, in favour of Sir Clive Woodward, is surely a no-brainer.
In the wake of England's World Cup triumph in Sydney in 2003 Sir Clive fell victim to a somewhat colossal attack of vanity. He allowed himself to be persuaded that he could do for the nation's ailing football team pretty much what he had for their world-conquering rugby cousins. So he launched himself into a new career.
Plainly, he should have stuck with the old one. Woodward understood perfectly the needs of the England rugby team. He treated the players like potential world champions, once producing his own credit card to ensure that they were fittingly accommodated – and then sorting it out with the business office back at Twickenham.
He realised that if England played to their strengths they might win the big prize. Along the way he made his bravest decision; moving Jonny Wilkinson out to centre and bringing in the experience of Mike Catt to negotiate a severe crisis in the quarter-final against Wales.
Gerald Davies, the most brilliant and most eloquent of wings, was for once unquotable when he left the Brisbane stadium. Cleaned up, his view was that an Englishman of questionable parentage had made his career decision against Wales.
Today's coach Martin Johnson could have no better support when he takes up the challenge in New Zealand later this year.
Anthem anguish strikes shrill note
You would have thought America had a little more to worry about than the fact that the diva Christina Aguilera got one word wrong and missed out a line of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Sunday night's Super Bowl in Dallas.
Not so, apparently. Ms Aguilera was as distraught as the nation as the Green Bay Packers proceeded to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sir Tom Jones was a lot more philosophical a few years ago when he mauled ever so slightly his Welsh language version of "Land of Our Fathers" before Joe Calzaghe's title fight with Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas. Indeed, he was at his world-weary best soon enough when he appeared before an ecstatic crowd of American matrons.
"Ladies," he announced, "it is more than 30 years since I first appeared before you. I have to say it doesn't feel a second less."
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