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The Last Word: Shankly spirit is reduced to a mere ghost

Walking alone through Melwood training ground reveals a club adrift in sentiment and hypocrisy

Michael Calvin
Saturday 19 May 2012 20:44 BST
Waving, then drowning: Kenny Dalglish salutes Liverpool supporters at Anfield during his second, recently terminated spell as manager of the club
Waving, then drowning: Kenny Dalglish salutes Liverpool supporters at Anfield during his second, recently terminated spell as manager of the club (Reuters)

The scent of fresh lilies fills the lobby at the Melwood training ground, where men in late middle age wait at the gate with defiantly unfashionable scrapbooks. The eye is drawn to a bronze bust and an inscription, set in polished granite, which extends from floor to ceiling.

It reads: "Above all, I would like to be remembered as a man who was selfless, who strove and worried so that others could share the glory, and who built up a family of people who could hold their heads up high and say: 'We are Liverpool'."

It is signed, in a spidery scrawl: "Billy Shankly".

That family is dysfunctional, splintered by corporate brutality, doomed romanticism, emotional incontinence and institutionalised ignorance. The football club with which Shankly sustained the socialist ideals of the Ayrshire mining community which shaped his character exists only in the imagination of its followers.

His Liverpool is the equivalent of Nye Bevan's NHS. It enshrines an admirable principle, relies on an undervalued workforce, and is being gently smothered. It belongs in a better world.

This being football, the last rites will be read by hysterics in cyberspace. The eulogy will be delivered by a glib bookmakers' runner, shouting online odds on the identity of Kenny Dalglish's replacement. The cortège will be led by Americans accustomed to reading between the lines of a baseball box score.

Street wisdom from the Boot Room decorates the walls outside deserted offices in the inner sanctum. It is as if a neutron bomb has detonated there, in the dog days of a fateful season. Fixtures and fittings endure: all evidence of humanity has been erased.

At a key moment in the player- recruitment process, when long-term strategies are activated and deals are done, the club is in a state of paralysis. Some 200 scouting reports are sent electronically each week, but there is no one to act on them. Good men remain, but they are impotent, fearful for their futures.

Great clubs, important institutions, look after the little people, the small details. Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group, are behaving with a stunning lack of class and professionalism. Senior staff feel isolated and ill-informed.

The usual array of ugly people – agents, advisers and fevered fantasists – is dictating the terms of the beauty pageant. The populist gesture of using Twitter to canvas supporters about a new manager was crass and pleasingly comedic, since Ronald McDonald emerged as a more viable candidate than Rafa Benitez. John W Henry unfollowed Dalglish as soon as he sacked him.

Nothing is more certain in football than the use of a black bin-bag, for a hurried accumulation of personal effects, and the distribution of a disingenuous statement, to maintain the pretence of civility.

Damien Comolli left Melwood with a French coffee-table book, Le But, a framed copy of the two-page press release announcing his arrival at Anfield as director of football, and a small photograph of his daughters. The laptop, containing databases and target lists, might as well have been chained to his wrist.

He has been subtly putting his side of the story in recent days, andremains a polarising personality. When he broke cover on a radio programme, a leading PremierLeague coach sent a single-word text: "Imposter".

He is a watchful man, vain, driven and knowledgeable. He routinely sent emails to his scouts at 4am. Whenwe met just before his sacking, hehad watched six matches in five countries in the previous five days.

When I doubted Dalglish, he sprang to his defence. His eyes, though, told a different story. I suspect he knew the Scot was the wrong manager, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

Replacing Dalglish is Liverpool's most important act since they tooka chance on young Billy Shankly.They are insulting his memory, and our intelligence.

Football's morality is gone for a Barton

Football has its hallowed double acts: Kevin Keegan and John Toshack, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, Sven Goran Eriksson and Nancy Dell'Olio. Few have the perfect symmetry promised by Michael Barrymore's offer to counsel Joey Barton.

The prospect of collaboration between self-publicists with a persecution complex is a seminal Get Me Out of Here moment. It also invites an investigation of an uncomfortable truth, because Barton no longer needs the game he pollutes with his presence.

He's the pet chimp of the chattering classes, who enjoy the vicarious thrill of exploring the psyche of a sociopathic sportsman. Barton is their equivalent of the inmatewho writes poetry ondeath row and marrieshis social worker.

He can afford their indulgences. QPR have every reason to sack him, for dereliction of duty, but are committed to paying him £12 million for the three remaining years of his contract.

Barton will see no moral dilemma in haggling, and finding another club to milk. A generation of players without any conception of the correlation between actions and consequences will applaud him forhis ruthlessness.

Life in the football bubble is becoming more comfortable, as the atmosphere becomes more toxic.

* It is easier to sneer than cheer when Team Beckham annexe the Olympic Games. "Sir" David no longer merits a place in Stuart Pearce's squad on form alone. But he brings stardust to an austere world, and embodies unfamiliar virtues, of hard work and humility. Ignoring him would be a treasonable offence.

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