James Lawton: Dalglish's street-smart attitude can't disguise Liverpool shabbiness

 

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The Independent Online

We know the gift Kenny Dalglish brought back to Anfield at the start of this year, we know how he reminded a great football club of what it used to be and what it might become once again.

But then if Dalglish couldn't do that, who could? Certainly not Rafa Benitez, for all the quasi-religious support that still rose up from so many corners of the city even after it was clear that whatever momentum and aura he once created had long disappeared – and of course Roy Hodgson was a mugging waiting to happen.

The trouble, if there was going to be any, was always likely to come in the longer run and there are some indications that not only has it already started but that it may well be given its most serious expression at Stamford Bridge tomorrow afternoon.

As messiahs go, Dalglish may have a longer shelf-life than most but slightly less than a year into his assignment some uncomfortable arguments are beginning to surface.

Most damaging is the suggestion – voiced with rising force after the extremely underwhelming goalless draw with Swansea City at Anfield – that if the hugely excoriated Hodgson was still in charge and had authored such a performance there would have been a tidal force of criticism.

As it is, a few sceptical voices have been heard – and received the usual disdain from the man who so illuminated the old ground in his playing days.

Dalglish does disdain almost as well as he used to cut the heart out of a rival defence. Willie McIlvanney, poet and creator of the world-weary cop Laidlaw, once suggested that the great player came across as a classic example of Glaswegian streetsmart-arseary. "You know how it is, you show a Glasgow street guy Helen of Troy and he will tell you: 'She's not the worst looking lassie I've ever seen'. Kenny always had quite a bit of that in him."

A little of it surfaced after the Swansea game. He was asked to comment on the boos which came when Liverpool not only failed to score but were required to play in a hush created by the Welsh club's ability to outpass their much more expensive opponents. Dalglish said he would wager the number of those booing was much less than those who were not. But then of course while street smartness may serve some purposes, it probably doesn't include addressing the stirrings of a perhaps seriously challenging problem.

Dalglish won his chance to re-animate the club he served so brilliantly because he understood that of all the needs of a professional footballer perhaps the greatest is a certain belief in the man who is directing him. That dissipated under Benitez and never survived the battering Hodgson took from the stands but there was always for Dalglish the obligation to build on his first impact. He created a superb change of mood and left the American owners with little or no option but to run with this new sense of regained horizons. They were even obliged to throw in some serious money.

Unfortunately, the unsayable is beginning to be said because for all the signings, all the old excitement of a club on the move, the now unavoidable truth is that the records of Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson are not exactly separated by a chasm that might readily explain the joy with which one was received and the contempt that went into the dispatching of the other.

Hodgson averaged 1.25 points over 20 Premier League games, Dalglish is running at 1.80 in 29. In all competitions, Hodgson won 13, drew 9, lost 9 with a winning percentage of 0.42. Dalglish emerges only a little to the good with figures of managed 37, won 19, drew 9, lost 9 and a percentage at 0.51. Yes, we know that if there are statistics and damned lies there is also something else that builds over the football months. It is the sense of a team finding itself, moving towards the conviction that something quite soon might dramatically change all of the prospects.

It is a brave spirit that would make this claim on behalf of Liverpool at this formative stage of the season.

Their most luminous figure, and by a vast margin the most talented of their signings, Luis Suarez, has to emerge from his increasingly rancid disagreement with Patrice Evra before recovering all of the confidence that he is a player who might kickstart any season quite brilliantly – and as Dalglish curses the distraction of the racism controversy, he must also wonder if there will be a moment when his raid on the north-east for Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson begins to look any less like one of the great misadventures of the transfer market.

Dalglish has reserved his most withering scorn for such questions and no doubt his nerve will hold strongly enough under the pressure produced by a Chelsea who are also being asked by their manager Andre Villas-Boas for some convincing evidence that they too are a team on the move.

It was, however, unlikely that Dalglish would not understand the scale of his challenge at Liverpool – or that the odds were against deliverance coming in his first full season.

That, though, has never been the unreasonable demand. It has been that Liverpool produce, sooner rather than later, some evidence that they have indeed moved back a little nearer to an old level of potential achievement.

It meant that when the boos drifted over Anfield, when another home draw against some of the Premier League's less weighty opposition signalled one more impasse, King Kenny would have probably been wise to pass on the street smarts. Helen of Troy's beauty is mostly self-evident. So, sometimes, is an unwelcome football reality.

Full marks to Twickenham for trying to nail Mallett

There haven't been many reasons to bombard the Rugby Football Union with compliments these last few months but we may have found one in their reluctance to give up on Nick Mallett as the outstanding candidate to replace Martin Johnson.

After a long stint with the Italians, the mature and intellectually rounded Mallett says he relishes the idea of a little time with his family in Cape Town. But by refusing to go away at the first rejection, the RFU seemed to be saying that they recognise that they are in need of certain qualities as a matter of extreme urgency.

These include not only a good track record in the game but also some clear understanding of how the world works beyond the touchline. Johnson, the great warrior, seemed unable to shake off his belief that the challenge of playing international rugby remained more or less precisely the same as when he was a hugely committed young player learning all the competitive nuances in New Zealand.

Mallett has immersed himself in different cultures and has an excellent record as a working international coach, being able to boast of 17 straight Test victories when he was at the helm of the Springboks.

His hand-off for England may prove permanent but some marks, certainly, to Twickenham, for attempting a second tackle.

Spare a little pity for this broke Punter

In all the shattered timber of the second Test in Johannesburg between South Africa and Australia, nothing was more poignant than the latest disaster for Ricky Ponting.

Playing for the remnants of his Test career, he lasted just a few deliveries before marching back to the pavilion with a duck. The manner of his dismissal provided more evidence that the once glorious certainties of his technique continue to erode. At such moments, the temptation is to avert your eyes.

"Punter" may not be every Englishman's favourite cup of "char" but it is a poor, diminished soul which doesn't hurt more than a little at the demise of one of cricket's greatest fighters and finest players.

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