Sacking the manager is an unusual way to prepare for a match against your greatest rivals, but of course it has its attractions. A bad result for Liverpool against Manchester United today and nobody will blame Kenny Dalglish; a good one and the short-term effect invariably seen from making such a change will be evident. Had a Roy Hodgson team left Old Trafford unbeaten, it would have looked peculiar to dispense with him immediately afterwards.
In the circumstances, Sir Alex Ferguson's welcome for his old adversary Dalglish will be cooler than the recent weather. Hodgson, unlike his fellow Scot, was a friend of Ferguson, who asked rhetorically before yesterday's events: "Why did they take him on? It's experience, he's been around the world, managing Inter Milan twice, managed the Swiss national team, the Finnish national team, and he took Fulham to the Europa League final. So it's his fault? It's a sad situation when managers don't have the time, they don't have the money, don't get the breaks and lose a few games."
Whether or not Ferguson would have been sacked had United lost their FA Cup third-round tie at Nottingham Forest 21 years ago this weekend is a matter of some debate. What is clear is that one of his many subsequent achievements has been to overcome the curse of great expectations shared by United and Liverpool. Hodgson won a lower percentage of matches at Fulham (39.37 per cent) than at Liverpool (41.38 per cent) yet he is destined to be forever remembered as one of the most successful managers in the history of the London club and one of the worst at Anfield.
Lawrie Sanchez stirred a hornet's nest last week when he suggested Liverpool were no longer a big club. Any club who have won five European Cups (and there are only three of them) is entitled to make that claim, and the point Sanchez was presumably trying to make is that they have won nothing of significance since the FA Cup in 2006.
"Chelsea's got no history," the Kop still love to chant, but there is a point, reached by Liverpool some time ago, at which history becomes a burden. For how long could the club bear to fall below their own high standards? No more than six months, it appeared.
What Hodgson hoped for, reasonably enough, was time to make his mark. The appointment was officially made only on the first day of July, which he believed left insufficient time to mould his own squad. Unfortunately, his efforts in that direction did not inspire confidence for that crucial decision which so many clubs are making now about whether to entrust funds to their manager for the January transfer window. Milan Jovanovic (effectively signed before Hodgson arrived), Raul Meireles, Christian Poulsen, Paul Konchesky and Joe Cole did not inspire that faith.
Crucially, he was unable to keep the disenchanted Javier Mascherano and, in terms of selecting those he was stuck with, had to face the fact that Fernando Torres, one of the three outstanding talents along with Steven Gerrard and Jose Reina, was not fully fit. When Torres was briefly at his best, as in the demolition of Chelsea at Anfield in November, there were encouraging signs, still not fulfilled.
The weight on Gerrard's shoulders was therefore all the greater and Hodgson was inclined to rest him more than some supporters would have liked. He still repeated his trick with Fulham of shepherding a squad through the Europa League group by unrepentant rotation.
It would not have been an easy transition from the age of Rafael Benitez, who had moulded the club for six years, even with full stability and support off the pitch. In Liverpool's case, under the American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the word "dysfunctional" had become almost an automatic epithet. There had been talk of a Chinese takeover almost from the day Hodgson arrived; it finally disappeared just as Mascherano did, following a 3-0 defeat by Manchester City at the end of August.
That result proved a good indication of where Liverpool, only seventh in the League last season, now stood, great expectations or not. It was October before the Americans were gone, to be replaced by another lot, the Fenway Sports Group under John W Henry. Then, after minimal consultation with the manager, came Damien Comolli, once of Arsenal and Tottenham, as a "director of football strategy"; not the sort of title or appointment that an old English football man would be expected to take to, for all his experiences in Europe.
Hodgson kept a dignified silence on that one, whatever he felt. How Dalglish, another man steeped in the older traditions of the British game, will work with an executive responsible for recruiting new players is one of the imponderables that this change brings. Another is how easily he will pick up the threads of a job he last did, with no great success, at Newcastle 13 years ago. Presumably he will attempt on the training ground and in the dressing room to return to the Shanklyesque old Liverpool way of passing and moving, supporting team-mates positionally and mentally. His presence will doubtless inspire the few local boys such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, if not necessarily the foreign legions.
A clear majority of supporters are also delighted with the appointment, which illustrates the one significant benefit of turning to a former playing hero, as so many clubs do almost instinctively. Popularity as an old favourite gives the new man time but does not, in the end, help him win matches; note the obsession that Leeds once had of putting Don Revie's former players in charge, none of whom achieved anything approaching the success of Howard Wilkinson, a Sheffield Wednesday man.
The wise old former Owl is now chairman of the League Managers Association, a body who seem to be attracting much criticism for fulfilling their raison d'être, namely supporting their members. Before Hodgson's sacking, Wilkinson wrote in a newspaper yesterday: "What we are seeing is an increasing mood not for making the best decision but the popular one." It was a prophetic comment to begin an eventful weekend.
Manchester United v Liverpool is on ITV1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
The contenders: Who will take the helm at Anfield full-time?
The bookies' favourite, who would almost certainly appeal to the owners if he can 1) substantially improve the team's prospects; 2) rub along with Damien Comolli and 3) regain his enthusiasm for the pressures of the job he left prematurely in 1991.
Hodgson's efforts after Rafa Benitez may have convinced the owners that there is limited benefit in employing a British coach. But proven success is available up the road at Bolton, where Coyle again enhanced his reputation.
Did himself no favours with potential employers (especially American ones) by walking out on Aston Villa five days before the start of the new season but is well qualified for a shot at a club even bigger than Villa.
Like Ralf Rangnick, who recently resigned after taking Hoffenheim up through the German leagues, the Portuguese is a modern young European coach. He also worked to good effect in England, as an assistant to Jose Mourinho.
Steve TongueReuse content