Liverpool's problem? Dalglish was left to walk alone

Manager had little support as he attempted to handle difficult case

Kenny Dalglish is no stranger to contending with claims of racism. He was the manager, after all, who made John Barnes Liverpool's first black signing in 1987 and who railed against the notion that there might be a problem. "He's not a black player; he's a player," Dalglish insisted back then, though some of the dressing-room testimony from that time suggests that the club he managed was not an entirely wholesome place. The entertainment at the players' Christmas party one year involved the "comedian" walking up to where Howard Gayle, a local and the club's first black player, was sitting and tipping a bowl of flour over his head. "Now try walking into fucking Toxteth," said the funny man.

Football has travelled a mercifully long way from the Life on Mars antics visited upon Gayle 25 years ago, though an appreciation of what it takes to deter racism in its many forms requires a higher grade of sophistication, too. It's a complex business. Semantics come into it, linguistics and facial expressions. There are many shades of meaning to the Spanish word for black. It takes all of this and more to expunge every last ounce of racism. Dalglish has been asked to take it all in his stride and, having discovered football to be an incomparably more complex space than the one he vacated 12 years ago, has looked like an occupant of the old school.

His exasperation with the Suarez case is far more understandable than his generally miserable press has given him credit for, given that there is not a shred of hard evidence against his player. The only Manchester United "witnesses" are those who heard of their team-mate's experience, in the dressing room, after the event. We now know they were keen to accompany Patrice Evra and Sir Alex Ferguson to the referees' room at Anfield, though their testimony adds nothing to an understanding of what happened on the pitch. Goalkeeper David de Gea did not hear a word, incidentally.

This might have been marginally easier for Dalglish to take in had Manchester United's Evra behaved impeccably or had the manager, in the new multicultural environment he has found at Anfield, not witnessed signs around the place that "negro" is a perfectly acceptable word in Spanish. It was Damien Comolli, Liverpool's director of football, who pointed out to Dalglish a poster, belonging to Maxi Rodriguez, picturing the Argentina team before a game against Spain, clustered around a banner in which they sent a message of support for their compatriot Fernando Cacero, who was hospitalised having been shot in a carjacking: "Vamos negro" the banner reads.

None of this removes the possibility that Suarez might have had a negative intent when he sent the word "negro" in Evra's direction on 15 October. The complexities of who said what to whom are bordering on the arcane, though to Comolli's mind it all now comes down to a single question mark. Whether, in response to Evra's "Don't touch me, South American" – a statement only Suarez says he heard – the Uruguayan replied "Por que, tu eres negro? [Why, because you are black?]". Or whether, in response to "Why did you kick me?" – a question only Suarez says he heard – the Uruguayan replied: "Porque tu eres negro [Because you are black]". For the independent regulatory commission trying to make sense of the situation, it all came down to which witness they believed and Evra's story was certainly the one with far fewer kinks in it than that of Suarez.

What Dalglish has actually needed is an individual capable of helping him through these fiendish intricacies. Someone to point out that the rules of the Football Association to which Liverpool choose to belong dictate that when a player says "negro", you have a problem; and when your evidence has changed a few times, you have an even bigger one.

David Gill recently confessed to having received a few "hairdryers" in the past six years, but at Manchester United it would be for him, not Sir Alex Ferguson, to lead the executive decisions in a case like this. At Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour has some very smart people in Khaldoon al-Mubarak and Simon Pearce who hold sway over Roberto Mancini.

Yet it is somehow a part of the legend of King Kenny that he has had to lead from the front and it does appear to be he who has charted the course Liverpool have taken in the past weeks. He has thrown out some rot at times, with his complaints to the FA about delays in the quasi-judicial process particularly unjustified. Short on a grasp of the intricacies, he has fallen back on raw passion.

Since his return to the manager's chair, a year ago this weekend, Dalglish has spoken often of the men who led the club in the 1980s – Peter Robinson and John Smith – as "as good as anyone they have ever had at this club," as he described them in October. How he has needed them in the past few weeks and how especially late on Tuesday night as he cut a lonely figure, repelling all questions in the Manchester City press conference room – questioning the linguistic capabilities of football journalists and throwing out the only ammunition at his disposal: noise.

There was also his mad idea of some kind of concerted FA cover-up which – in the cold light of day, yesterday – clearly didn't exist. This has not made him a sympathetic figure.

The lessons of this saga for Liverpool are only beginning to emerge and a reappraisal of how equipped they are to fight their legal battles is one of the more practical. But another is an assessment of who runs Liverpool. The world has moved on from the old days of Gayle's humiliations, but the need of men outside of the boot room stays just the same. If someone doesn't relieve Dalglish of his executive responsibilities, he risks looking like an angry old man – a reputation ill befitting a personality whose reputation for grace and brilliance reaches so far into Liverpool's past.

Twists and turns: The Suarez-Evra affair

15 October 2011 Liverpool draw 1-1 with Manchester United at Anfield. Luis Suarez clashes with Patrice Evra and allegedly racially abuses him. The FA announces it is to investigate.

16 November Liverpool offer Suarez full support as the forward is charged with racial abuse by the FA.

17 November Brighton manager and former Uruguay international Gus Poyet offers to testify in Suarez's defence.

5 December Suarez makes offensive hand gesture after defeat at Fulham – charged with improper conduct.

14 December FA disciplinary hearing relating to Suarez-Evra incident opens.

20 December FA hand Suarez an eight-match ban and a fine of £40,000. He is given 14 days to appeal.

21 December Liverpool players wear T-shirts in support of Suarez at Wigan. Alejandro Balbi, Uruguayan attorney and Suarez's agent, says he is "convinced" the punishment will be reversed.

29 December Suarez banned for one game and fined £20,000 after Fulham gesture.

31 December FA publish 115-page report stating that Suarez gave "unreliable" evidence during hearing.

Tuesday Liverpool accept Suarez's ban and say there will be no appeal.

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