Often we fear for our heroes more than they fear for themselves

They say never go back but Graham Taylor says the fact that Dalglish is 'loved absolutely' at Anfield gives him a fighting chance

The journey would have been familiar. Past the Bill Shankly playing fields, just across the way from where the man who created the modern Liverpool lived. Then right into Crown Road, then left. Melwood. Even his old lieutenant, Ronnie Moran, was there, testing out his new knee. They would be playing Everton, just as they were when Kenny Dalglish last prepared for a home game at Anfield 20 years ago. Not the 4-4 draw in the FA Cup that everyone remembers, the one that sent his skin into blotches, the one that persuaded him to leave the madness of Liverpool behind – that was at Goodison – but the goalless stalemate that preceded it.

There is no hint of stress. Brian Clough once said Kenny Dalglish had "the most beautiful smile in football" and today it is frequently on display. Sir Alex Ferguson has probably not mellowed with age but Dalglish, a fellow Glaswegian, a decade his junior, certainly has.

Mark Lawrenson, the centre-half in some of his finest sides, said the Dalglish of 2011 has far broader horizons than the man of 1991. He enjoysa drink, travels, uses Twitter. But he still talks reverently about the old Boot Room, long ripped out of Anfield, where he, Moran, Roy Evans and "old Tom Saunders" gathered. "The people who went there were as sharp as tacks," he said. "Everything pertinent to Liverpool going onwards and upwards was discussed. It was so unified. Maybe in times gone by there have been divisions but there will be no divisions now, not while I'm sitting here."

Melwood, his old training ground, has changed. "I've been here a few times in recent years but I never realised it was this big," he said. "I always came in and went straight up stairs. There's a gym, all the physiotherapy stuff, a swimming pool, there are bedrooms... I'm moving in."

The derbies have changed; as success has drained away from Merseyside they have become darker, edgieraffairs. When Dalglish talks of derbies his memories are often drawn from the seven years in the 1980s when the championship never left Stanley Park; a time when football appeared the only thing that would thrive in what seemed a decaying city.

"It doesn't matter where Liverpool or Everton are in the League, this game is important," said Dalglish. "I remember 1986 when we were banned from Europe, they organised the Screen Sport Trophy. Both teams got to the final and it wasn't supposed to be that important – but the only problem was that nobody bothered to get that message across to the players and the supporters.

"But it was always a great credit to the fans that they could go to the game together, one red, one blue. That kind of thing isn't perhaps as common as it used to be but I still think it is the most friendly derby in football."

Howard Kendall, who managed Everton when Dalglish was appointed manager amid the shame and embarrassment of Heysel, and who was there when he resigned, has already phoned. "His message was that he hoped we got battered," said Dalglish, smile to the fore.

And Kendall is the great warning to Dalglish about what happens to those who go back. Twice, in 1994 and 1998, Kendall all but relegated the club he built and his reputation, while not wrecked, was stained. Often we fear for our heroes more than they fear for themselves. When in 1980 Muhammad Ali made one comeback too many against Larry Holmes, Boxing News' front-page headline was simply: "Don't Do It Ali."

The Liverpool Echo has not proclaimed: "Don't Do It Dalglish" and his reception from the Kop will be emotional and overwhelming. But Liverpool have changed. When they paraded the championship trophy around Anfield for the last time in 1990, Alan Hansen thought the reaction almost blasé, as if a championship was the minimum requirement the Kop demanded. Now Dalglish is in charge of a side that Lawrenson has called: "The most average Liverpool team of my lifetime."

As someone who returned to two clubs, Watford and Aston Villa, Graham Taylor has some idea of what has driven Dalglish back. "I had been through the mill with England and then gone to Wolves and, although I got them to the play-offs, I was asked to resign," he said. "As soon as I got home to think about where my careerwas headed I got a call from Geoff Smith, a director at Watford, and I just said: 'No, I can't possibly go back.'

"But then I was contacted by Elton John, who told me that it would be better for me as a person if I went somewhere where I was loved. And that is the analogy I would draw with Kenny. He is somewhere where he is loved absolutely."

Taylor added that Dalglish was being studied by a generation of managers. "Men who are around Kenny's age – 59 – who are maybe out of work but who have that old-school experience. If Dalglish succeeds at Liverpool, those values may come back into fashion. If he is not successful, if he gets it wrong, then it's another brick in the wall."

During his brief, turbulent time on Merseyside, Roy Hodgson saw it as his task to dampen down expectations at a club that 15 months before his appointment had beaten Real Madrid 4-0. It is not something Dalglish can be asked to do because, as a player and manager, he created that atmosphere of expectation.

"It is a huge task to get back to where this club was in the 1970s and 1980s but you always have to aim as high as you possibly can," he said. "The history and tradition we have I don't think should ever be forgotten.

"It certainly should never be used as an excuse that it is a problem for anyone coming to Liverpool. I don't see anything wrong with showing that this club has enjoyed success, is capable of success and that this is a target for everyone to aim for."

The King's last Mersey Derby

Everton 4-4 Liverpool, FA Cup fifth-round replay, 20 February, 1991 (Goodison)

"When the final whistle went, I thought, 'God almighty, what a game that was'." Graeme Sharp played in 28 Mersey derbies but, for twists and turns, nothing rivalled the night Everton and Liverpool drew 4-4 in a remarkable replay at Goodison Park.

"Four times we went behind, four times we came back. Liverpool scored four decent goals, our goals were scrappy but a goal is a goal and it showed you what derbies were all about. When you're in a derby atmosphere you don't want to be beaten."

The Scot provided the first two equalisers – his second after a horrible mix-up in Liverpool's defence – before substitute Tony Cottee pulled Everton back from the brink twice, making it 3-3 in the 89th minute, then 4-4 late in extra time. Liverpool's vulnerability at the back meant that superb strikes from Peter Beardsley and John Barnes were rendered redundant.

Sharp recalls Kenny Dalglish jokingly telling him: "I wish you'd get lost," afterwards and says his fellow Glaswegian's resignation two days later came as a total surprise to the Everton camp. "No way in our minds did we think Kenny would walk out."

The timing of Dalglish's Anfield return, Sharp adds, will ensure "a fantastic atmosphere" today but he believes "it is not a game Everton should be fearful of". They have not won at Anfield since 1999 but Sharp hopes David Moyes's men will take the game to their rivals. "Jermaine Beckford has got a couple of goals, Louis Saha looks as if he is in form. Most fans would like to see us have a go at Liverpool because they are [not] great defensively."

Everton Southall, Atteveld (McCall), Ratcliffe, Watson, Keown, Hinchcliffe, McDonald, Ebbrell, Nevin (Cottee), Sharp, Newell.

Liverpool Grobbelaar, Venison, Hysen, Ablett, Staunton, Nicol, Molby, Burrows, Barnes, Beardsley, Rush.

Scorers Everton: Sharp 46, 73, Cottee 89, 114. Liverpool: Beardsley 32, 71, Rush 77, Barnes 102.

Simon Hart