Ahead of match days like this, Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial adversaries tend to praise him, not to bury him.
Tony Pulis discusses Ferguson in hallowed tones as "Sir Alex"; for Steve Bruce he is still "The Boss"; and even Liverpool's owner, John W Henry, shared the reverence this week when he said that "Mr Ferguson is a genius".
Kenny Dalglish dispenses with the worship, though. He is the only serving Premier League manager who uses the rough-edged old term "Fergie" to describe the man who stands between him and a victory at Anfield this lunchtime which would be the most stylish way imaginable for his club's owners to mark a year at the helm. Dalglish's strategy, where his most implacable opponent is concerned, has always been to project a mood of cool insouciance. So when Ferguson tried to crank up what looked like signs of strain in the younger man, during the nail-biting struggle for title supremacy with Blackburn Rovers in 1995, by suggesting that Rovers might "do a Devon Loch", Dalglish's dry reply was: "Is that an expanse of water in Scotland?" To his inestimable credit, Ferguson's typewritten letter of congratulations to the manager nearly 10 years his junior, when Blackburn took the title, included the postscript: "Devon Loch is a horse! I'm sure your dad must have backed it... mine did!"
Ferguson has never been able to resist basking in the fervour he feels for games against Liverpool, and the journey into the cauldron of the Anfield Road. For him it remains the domestic fixture sans pareil – one which for reasons of history and geography means more to him even than the Manchester derby in the Abu Dhabi era.
"This is the biggest game in the world," Ferguson enthused yesterday. And, once again, Dalglish met fire with cold water, that indifference as evident as it was back in '95 as he replied: "If that is what he thinks, then fine. That is up to Fergie. For me, I've always said the most important game is the next one." Liverpool's fixture list provided some memorable bathos. "It's Manchester United this time and next week it will be Norwich City," he continued. "I don't have a league table of teams I enjoy beating more than any others. We get a reward if we are successful and we get nothing if we are not. They all add up to the same in the end."
These observations come within Dalglish's 20-minute discussion of today's game with the national press and the way he dispensed with the painful, taciturn nature which has characterised these conversations since his return to the Anfield dugout – at Old Trafford on 9 January – suggests that he is savouring this game a lot more than he would like one to think. But attempting to wring a gushing sentiment about Ferguson from him is like trying to halt Luis Suarez in a six-yard box.
So did Dalglish write to Ferguson, congratulating him on the 19th title which was felt so acutely here? "Yes" was the word that dared not speak its name. "By the way, it is not just Fergie who did it," Dalglish eventually replied. "Everybody did it when I was working before. When I came back I just carried on the habit. I wrote to Tony Pulis when [Stoke City] got to the Cup final and Roberto Mancini. I just don't advertise it, but that's not something that is original." When it was suggested that the letter was his most recent contact with Ferguson, you suspected the answer might be "no". "I don't know," said Dalglish, pretending to recollect, but looking around for the next question to get him off the subject. He was indignant when it was put to him that he is the only manager who calls his compatriot "Fergie". "You just called him Alex didn't you?"
It is certainly hard to imagine the Fergusons ever raising glasses to the Dalglishes as they gather around the dinner table, at the other end of the M62. The Manchester United manager is reminded that unflinching determination is a Dalglish gene every time his adversary's daughter, Kelly, interviews him. She was the TV journalist who unblinkingly told him, in 2008, that she wanted to ask him about a Christmas party that led to the arrest of Jonny Evans over rape allegations, for which Evans was not prosecuted. (Ferguson declined.) And the most impressive part of her perfectly reasonable questioning of Ferguson's goalkeeping selection dilemmas, which led Ferguson to accuse her of searching for "stupid little things" in Lisbon last month, was the way she came back at him after the put-down.
Yet, for all that, it would be wrong to characterise these two as foes. They do have some serious history. Dalglish was part of the Liverpool team that beat Ferguson's Aberdeen in 1980, which is his most searing memory of the generation of Bob Paisley's supremacy. But when Ferguson was under severe pressure in his early United days, it was Dalglish who stood up at a Football Writers' Association dinner and told the assembled ranks about the older man's ability to manage. Ferguson's physiotherapist, Jim McGregor, took Dalglish aside a few weeks later and said: "By the way, the gaffer needed that." And though Ferguson was the one who, when their playing careers briefly intersected at Rangers, declared of a Dalglish carrying puppy fat that the "wee fat boy won't make a player", the older man organised and managed a team for Dalglish's Scotland testimonial in 1986 and also made him captain for his 100th Scottish international. He has always said they got on well during their time together with Scotland. The links actually go back much further. Dalglish's father-in-law taught Ferguson the licensed publican's trade in Glasgow.
It has not taken long for their interests to begin conflicting in the old, familiar ways. The two have shared a liking for a curious number of players down the years. Ferguson was angered by Alan Shearer's decision to sign for Dalglish's Rovers and not United in 1992; Roy Keane backed out of a move to join Dalglish a year later and went to Old Trafford. And all that after Ferguson and his chairman, Martin Edwards, flew out to Florence to investigate why negotiations for the Swedish defender Glenn Hysen had stalled after his tour and buffet lunch at Old Trafford – only to be told he had already signed for Liverpool. Dalglish's audacious inquiry about Phil Jones this summer seemed to be in the same bracket – though United's ascendancy gives them the edge in the market these days. "He's not our player, it doesn't matter what might have been," Dalglish said of that putative piece of business yesterday.
His club's American proprietor may hold Ferguson in awe and feel Liverpool are "a long way behind" them, but Dalglish has grounds for genuine belief today, with Steven Gerrard possibly starting his first game for six months. In his 250th game in charge of Liverpool – a landmark reached by only five other managers – Dalglish is seeking a fourth consecutive win against United on Anfield soil, a feat last achieved on Boxing Day 1979 by the all-conquering team he played in. And while the disintegration of Wayne Rooney's European Championship plans coincides with his visit to a stadium where he has scored only twice in 18 visits for Everton and United, Dalglish has Suarez, the man whose shimmering run past Rafael, Michael Carrick and Wes Brown produced one of last season's most luscious pieces of skill to set up the first goal of Dirk Kuyt's hat-trick in Liverpool's 3-1 win. "I don't know how he did it," Dalglish reflected. "It's not the first time he's done that. [Well] maybe it was in terms of how many he went past, but each of the individual things he used to get past people he had done before. He just collated them in the one run past three or four."
For their part, United will match Everton's record 23 league victories at Anfield if they can extend the gap on Liverpool to nine points. "It is not just Fergie [we want to beat]," Dalglish said, steadfastly, when it was put to him – one last time – that this adversary can surely not be just like any other. "Fergie's the manager of Manchester United, I am the manager of Liverpool. We play each other and we want to beat them. It wouldn't matter who was the manager. I am not egotistical, I am not going head to head with anybody, it is not in my nature. Our success is as a team."Reuse content