Understanding Kenny Dalglish has never been easy. It is precisely 20 years since The Independent's observations on the manager hurtling towards an FA Cup fifth-round replay under the floodlights at Goodison Park were that he was "not a natural public relations man and will not enter into popular discussion save only to stay a shade on the acceptable side of rudeness."
The passage of time has changed nothing and though supporters welcome the return of "the Liverpool Way" – a culture of keeping your business behind doors – Dalglish was offering no assistance yesterday for those seeking to conjure romance from the story of how he will return to Goodison as Liverpool manger for the first time in 20 years tomorrow.
There can be little doubt that the memory of that February night is burnished across his soul: a 4-4 draw between a Liverpool whose side, blessed with Ian Rush, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, stood three points clear at the top of the First Division, and an underperforming Everton languishing in 12th. The events on the field of play led Dalglish, suffering the acute post-traumatic stress of the Hillsborough disaster at the time, to feel he was "going mad," as he later put it. He resigned in the Anfield trophy room two days later. The memory of the Liverpool Echo's stunning black and white front page - "Kenny Quits" – remains indelible.
From the moment he was re-appointed as manager in January, Dalglish has bristled at the notion the pressures of the 21st century Premier League, with its Abu Dhabi sheikhs and £20m Champions League appearance money, are vastly greater than anything he faced back then. There was "pressure with every job" he shot back on 10 January at his inaugural press conference.
The pressures have changed, though. And the side he put out on Wednesday 20 February 1991 was a more commanding one than the present incarnation, even though the talk in the week leading up to the fateful game was of how Dalglish was departing from the way Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly stuck to an established team, developing players as direct replacements within a system of gradual evolution.
The first shoots of promise have been there this season. Liverpool briefly topped the table after the 3-1 home win over Bolton and victory at Arsenal seven days earlier suggested a scaling of heights. But the sunny picture has since been suffused with doubt. It is desperately soon in the season – too soon – to start divining whether Liverpool will challenge for the Champions League place which their prinicipal owner, John W Henry, has declared should be theirs. But the 4-0 defeat to Tottenham – the kind of side with who are challenging Dalglish toe-to-toe for Champions League lustre – was a desperate one. Liverpool need another half dozen fixtures before anyone can rush to judgment but Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam – for the 28 minutes he was on the field – did not resemble players to take the side back to the place where they want to be. Neither do we know whether Andy Carroll might be – Dalglish's touchiness on the subject offers no illumination – even though the shimmering Luis Suarez leaves no shadow of doubt.
With the club as far as ever from the stadium development plan which every Premier League clubs knows is a road to riches, it is the TV and sponsorship money which must power on. The commercial deals they have struck include bonuses for Champions League football.
Naturally, Dalglish resisted any suggestion yesterday that the Merseyside derby has a lesser significance these days, as the Manchester clubs stride away at the top of the Premier League while the north London fixture, with the prospect of Emmanuel Adebayor facing Arsenal in the colours of Spurs, is the one that makes the mouth water. "It was more intense then as what it is now," Dalglish said, remembering the 1980s. "But I don't think the Merseyside derby has devalued in any way. It's a Merseyside derby and everyone involved will think it's the most important. It probably is the most friendly derby of any in the Premier League. But is it the same as it was before? That's up to other people to judge."
The judgment must surely be that, for Liverpool fans, it is more significant than ever. Their fans, restored to responsible, ambition ownership at last, believe they are returning to old territory, which is why this season is vastly more significant than the last four or so, in the stifling company of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The investment has come and raised the stakes. In one moment of levity, Dalglish said he remembered his first derby but could not recall seeing the ball. "Football has changed," he said. "It's less physical than it was." The challenges come in other ways and are no less uncompromising.
Unfinished business: Dalglish takes Liverpool to Goodison for first time since that eight-goal thriller
Kenny Dalglish returns to Goodison Park with Liverpool tomorrow for the first time since the Reds' 4-4 draw with Everton in an FA Cup fifth-round replay 20 years ago. Liverpool led on four separate occasions that evening but were pegged back each time, including late Tony Cottee equalisers in the final minutes of both normal and extra time. Dalglish's shock resignation two days later left Liverpool rudderless for the second replay, which Everton won 1-0.
20 February 1991 FA Cup fifth-round replay:
Everton 4 (Sharp 46, 73, Cottee 89, 114) Liverpool 4 (Beardsley 32, 71, Rush 77, Barnes 102) [aet]
Everton Southall; Atteveld (McCall), Hinchcliffe, Ratcliffe, Watson, Keown, Sharp, Nevin (Cottee), Newell, McDonald, Ebbrell.
Liverpool Grobbelaar; Hysen, Burrows, Nicol, Molby, Ablett, Barnes, Beardsley, Staunton, Rush, Venison.
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