The chief problem for Dalglish on Tyneside was that he wasn't Keegan

It was the closest he has come to failure – a stormy time involving 'Toongate', bad signings and that Paxman interview

Failure is always more box-office than success. There have been eight films made about the Titanic's one voyage and none at all about her sister ship, Olympic, nicknamed "The Old Reliable". It is why Brian Clough's 44 days at Leeds are always picked over and why Jose Mourinho's nine games at the helm of Benfica fascinate in the light of what was to follow.

His 20 months at Newcastle United are the only part of Kenny Dalglish's career that came anywhere near failure, although this week he remarked that when he thought of St James' Park: "I can put my head on my pillow and go to sleep. I gave it my best."

In January 1997, their epic failure to win the title still lingered in the air above St James' Park along with the smell of yeast from their sponsors and neighbours, Newcastle Breweries. Dalglish's last job at Blackburn had seen him become the third man, after Herbert Chapman and Clough, to win the title with two different clubs. It needed just a touch on the tiller.

He threw himself into the task. One writer remembers calling in at Dalglish's home near Durham, where his televisions were wired into virtually every available European football channel. Perhaps he tried too hard. Before the 1998 FA Cup final against Arsenal, his players said Dalglish became obsessed by the pace of Marc Overmars and switched left-footed Alessandro Pistone to right-back, with traumatic consequences.

Two games into the next season, neither of which Newcastle lost, Dalglish was sacked. The timing, everyone agreed, was sheer lunacy but the club's directors have long shown themselves to be chronically impatient men.

As he did on his return to Liverpool, Dalglish made an immediate impact, arriving in January and driving a faltering club into the Champions' League. The academy and reserve teams, neglected and scrapped by Kevin Keegan, were reinstated. Newcastle still figured in a list of potential champions. The summer spending had been heavy.

However, Dalglish's chief problem was that he was not Keegan. One supporter, spotting him in the dug-out at St James', said it was "like seeing someone in bed with wor lass". Then, the overblown talk of "The Geordie Nation", fanned by the club president Sir John Hall, was at its height. Keegan had been the perfect frontman for the club's self-image of Barcelona-on-Tyne. He was as open and engaging as the young Tony Blair. Dalglish was more Gordon Brown, crabbed and suspicious. His most celebrated media moment was allowing himself to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Nine years after Hillsborough, Dalglish explained his unwillingness to play an FA Cup tie at Stevenage because of safety issues surrounding the temporary stands at the non-League club. He made a decent argument but all anyone could remember in a car-crash of an interview was Paxman's opening question: "You're a big girl's blouse?"

Later, he would be pinned by questions about his response to "Toongate" when the chairman, Freddy Shepherd, and Hall's son, Douglas, had been entrapped by the News of the World's fake sheikh, Mazher Mahmood, boasting about how little the replica shirts that were sold on Tyneside by the truckload cost to make and how Geordie women were "dogs".

It would have taken a brave man to condemn his employers, especially one struggling against relegation as Dalglish then was. His loyalty did him little good but his silence was held against him by those who wore the shirts in the Gallowgate End.

So too were some poor transfers. The £15m transfer of Alan Shearer – then a world record – had exhausted the club financially. Bringing in ageing stars such as John Barnes and Ian Rush while banishing the brilliance of David Ginola smacked of jobs for some elderly boys. Stuart Pearce, who joined Newcastle at the same time, thought it a mistake. "When John Barnes, Ian Rush and I went to Newcastle together, I felt I went as a professional to further my career, while they went to finish theirs," he said.

Neither did Pearce think much of Dalglish's training methods. He felt he missed having Ray Harford, his coach at Blackburn. There were too many five-a-sides and too little focus. None of the young players brought in – from Des Hamilton to Stephen Glass – made any kind of impact. At one reserve game, Ruud Gullit sat in the press box at Kingston Park and predicted where and when Andreas Andersson, another player signed by his predecessor, would lose the ball.

There was also far too little luck. Dalglish's fate was probably sealed on the afternoon of 27 July 1997 when in a pre-season tournament at Goodison Park, Alan Shearer, with no defender anywhere near him, slipped and wrecked his ankle ligaments.

On the same afternoon, Les Ferdinand was completing his move to Tottenham. Ferdinand was 31 and £6m was a decent price but, at a stroke, Newcastle were deprived of a partnership that had brought 49 goals the season before. Not even a man of Dalglish's gifts could make good that loss. It was a hole beneath the waterline.

Liverpool v Newcastle United is on ESPN today, kick-off 12pm

Kenny cool about Real jaunt

It was a situation that would have horrified Rafael Benitez or Gérard Houllier during their time at Anfield. Four Liverpool players – Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Andy Carroll and Glen Johnson – spent Wednesday and the small hours of Thursday travelling to and from Madrid to watch the Champions' League semi-final at the Bernabeu.

Although Kenny Dalglish was unaware of the trip, his view, when informed of it, was far more relaxed than his predecessors might have been. "I am not going to babysit them," he said. "They are grown men and they know their responsibilities. Besides, it would have taken them the same time to fly to Madrid as it would to get the train to London."

Tim Rich

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