x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Kenny Dalglish's rocky return to the Liverpool throne

Kenny Dalglish's troops gave him a less-than-perfect welcome back to Liverpool hot seat against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Kenny Dalglish, right, leaves the field after losing to Manchester United in their English FA Cup match on Sunday. Jon Super / AP Photo
Kenny Dalglish, right, leaves the field after losing to Manchester United in their English FA Cup match on Sunday. Jon Super / AP Photo

If, like me, you have watched too many Vietnam War films, you will know the term "fragging".

Not to be confused with The Fraggles - those loyal, fun-loving, cloth-brained descendants of The Muppets - fragging describes the practice of soldiers deliberately killing their own platoon commander during a battle, usually by means of a "fragmentation" grenade. The grenade was the preferred weapon for such conspiracies because it is hard to prove who threw it and exactly what they were aiming at.

I was reminded of this grisly term when Roy Hodgson's brief tenure as Liverpool manager was terminated on Saturday. While one cannot exactly prove that certain players were deliberately undermining Hodgson by a lack of effort and murmurs of discontent, let's just say I would not fancy turning my back on Fernando Torres or Pepe Reina in a paddy field.

On Sunday, however, in Liverpool's FA Cup match against Manchester United, it felt like the opposite phenomenon was taking place: anti-fragging. The enlisted men were so keen to protect their new leader, "King" Kenny Dalglish, that they were committing all manner of reckless acts, as if to deliberately draw down enemy fire upon themselves.

Daniel Agger could not wait to do his bit. After just 30 seconds of play, he was ably shepherding Dimitar Berbatov away from danger in the penalty area when he decided to give him a pointless nudge. Penalty awarded, 1-0 to United.

Not to be outdone, Steven Gerrard launched a two-footed, studs-up challenge on Michael Carrick. Legtimate red card given, game over.

It worked a treat. Dalglish, allegedly the saviour of Liverpool, had kicked off his arrival with a humiliating defeat by the old enemy, but it was not his fault.

Ryan Babel then put the icing on the anti-fragging cake by posting on Twitter a spoof image of Howard Webb, the referee, apparently wearing a United shirt.

The implication was that Webb, a fine referee and a serving police officer, is somehow in the pocket of Manchester United or in awe of Sir Alex Ferguson. The "proof" of this delusional claptrap is that Webb awarded United two debatable penalties against Liverpool (the Agger incident and last season's felling of Antonio Valencia by Javier Mascherano, which replays showed to be just outside the box) and dared to send off Gerrard, for only the sixth time in his career.

Babel captioned the image: "And they call him one of the best referees. That's a joke. SMH."

In Twitterish, SMH officially means Shaking My Head. On this occasion, it surely means Saving My Hero. Or possibly Shooting Myself in the Hoof.

He later tweeted an apology but the story was already rolling, and the spotlight was truly off Dalglish.

The Football Association has charged Babel with improper conduct but heavy punishment would be harsh. Yes, it was foolish but Twitter does bring out one's inner fool. It is a medium which does not value subtlety or nuanced argument - you try being nuanced in 140 characters - but rewards the outrageous and the knee-jerk.

Babel was probably not making a serious allegation against Webb but simply acting out of misplaced loyalty and a cloth-brained sense of fun. Yes, by that definition, Ryan Babel is a Fraggle.


Fairy-tale ending is too far

We all love a good redemption story, and sport provides fertile ground for the hero-to-zero-then-back-to-even-bigger-hero fairy tale.

American Football was teeing itself up for such a yarn with Michael Vick, the brilliant quarterback who was jailed in 2007 for his part in a cruel and illegal dog-fighting ring, in which “underperforming” dogs were executed by hanging.

Vick lost his fortune and his contract with the Atlanta Falcons, but was taken on by the Philadelphia Eagles after his release from prison in 2009.

He played sparingly last season but, thanks to squad injuries, won a starting place last September and his red-hot form helped the Eagles to the NFC East title.

On Sunday, the Eagles faced Green Bay Packers in the NFL play-offs.

Vick played brilliantly, mostly, but his team lost and his redemption narrative arc was halted before it reached the fantasy ending of a Super Bowl. Good.

Most people would agree that Vick deserved his second chance. Barack Obama, the US president, certainly did, as he telephoned Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles owner, to say so.

But waltzing out of jail and straight to the Super Bowl in what was effectively his first season would have been a little too smooth for my liking.

Personally, I like my redemption tales to have a little more graft and grit along the way, a la Rocky. Vick needed to chase a chicken or two, maybe pound some frozen beef (stay away from dogs, though, obviously).

Perhaps Sunday night’s loss was a necessary setback for the redemption story to work.

Vick seemed genuinely crestfallen after the game, and assessed his strengths and weaknesses with unflinching honesty.

He said he plans to spend the break working on those faults. He also said he believes he has at least two more years of top-flight football in him. Time for a Hollywood ending yet.