x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Liverpool fans ready for Dalglish return

Fans of Liverpool have waited 20 years to see Kenny Dalglish back in the Anfield dugout.

Kenny Dalglish, left, watches Fernando Torres, who will be key to Liverpool's hopes against Everton with Steven Gerrard suspended.
Kenny Dalglish, left, watches Fernando Torres, who will be key to Liverpool's hopes against Everton with Steven Gerrard suspended.

Kenny Dalglish has come full circle. Just as the last match of his first spell as Liverpool manager was, so the first of his second stint at Anfield is against Everton today.

Though they did not know it, the Kop's last glimpse of Dalglish in his favoured bubble coat came in a 0-0 derby draw in February 1991.

Three days later, the rather more famous FA Cup replay contained a litany of Everton equalisers and finished 4-4. And two days after that, Dalglish was gone. Until now.

He regretted his resignation, he has subsequently said, a fortnight after leaving the club. Rather than two weeks, it took 20 years to effect a return.

The belated second act in his Liverpool life began last Saturday when "King Kenny" was summoned back from the Arabian Gulf to the choppier waters of Anfield. It begins in earnest today for the thousands who idolise him but who were unable to go to Manchester United or Blackpool, where Liverpool were beaten 2-1 on Wednesday.

Expect a raucous reception. With typical understatement, Dalglish deemed his return "a wee bit romantic". The romance has been diluted by the realism of back-to-back defeats, but the expectation remains.

Liverpool finally have a feel-good factor, albeit one that has nothing to do with results. Only 35,400 attended the last league game at Anfield, Roy Hodgson's final fixture on home turf. A capacity crowd of 45,000 can be expected today.

This is the Dalglish effect. He has rallied the club. His next task is to rouse the team, to prevent a relegation struggle from becoming the backdrop to an emotional comeback.

"I think the supporters will be more excited than ever because of Kenny, the situation of the team and because it is a derby and we need the three points desperately," Pepe Reina, the goalkeeper, said.

Everton are evocative opponents. They rank a lengthy mention in Dalglish's history: both of his FA Cup final victories came in Merseyside derbies. For the first half of his initial reign, these were the top two clubs in England.

That said, it was Hillsborough, with the lasting legacy of the 96 deaths in 1989, rather than Evertonian indefatigability, that took Dalglish to breaking point.

Twenty years on, another Liverpool side have a self-destructive streak. Losing to Blackpool for the second time in a season showed that even an icon like Dalglish is not a magician. He is ideally placed to end the backbiting at Anfield, but transforming an underachieving team into winners is not accomplished overnight.

Hampered by the suspension of Steven Gerrard and the injury to Jamie Carragher, Dalglish's call for others to show leadership is understandable. There has been a lack of it, on and off the field, in a traumatic season.

Dalglish's options are limited. He unveiled a new left flank of Glen Johnson and Milan Jovanovic at Blackpool, a selection that served as an indictment of others.

Before last week, references to a left winger in Dalglish's Liverpool invoked the incomparable John Barnes, not the unimpressive Jovanovic. Times have changed. Dalglish is now having to make do.

Friday's meeting with John Henry, the club owner, involved discussions of transfer targets. But, even in the event of a third successive defeat, a man with no input into the construction of the squad is blameless. For the players, the consequence is clear: there is no hiding place.

This is the people's champion against the people's club, to borrow David Moyes's smart soundbite about Everton. It is their misfortune that Liverpool can overshadow them. Last Saturday, Moyes's men scored five goals, albeit against Scunthorpe United, which barely rated a mention because of Dalglish's second coming.

This season's derbies have been framed in the context of their neighbours troubles.

Everton were outstanding in October's derby win and Liverpool abject, with Hodgson bizarrely describing their performance as their best of the season.

Now, however, Everton arrive at Anfield as Merseyside's top team, albeit on goal difference. So, indeed, they were in 1985 when Liverpool appointed Dalglish as player/manager and Everton were league champions. The circle, in some respects, is complete.

sports@thenational.ae