x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The return of Kenny Dalglish brings new hope to Liverpool

The former manager is back in the Anfield hot seat, and brings hope to a troubled giant.

Liverpool fans hold up flags and banners as Kenny Dalglish returned to Anfield for yesterday’s derby against Everton.
Liverpool fans hold up flags and banners as Kenny Dalglish returned to Anfield for yesterday’s derby against Everton.

The Kop is nostalgia's physical entity in the footballing world. It is a veritable mountain of memories, many of them involving one Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish. They celebrate the past and not just because it is more pleasant than the present at Anfield. The return of Dalglish, then, was a reason to indulge themselves.

The lovingly crafted banners were unveiled or, in some cases, reintroduced. There was an elegant, eloquent simplicity to one, simply proclaiming "The King".

On the half-turn, the iconic No 7 shirt visible, the familiar features of Liverpool's caretaker manager were visible. Others took a more irreverent approach.

"Kenny Dalglish is cooler than the Fonz," was another message. The very mention of Henry Winkler's character from Happy Days serves as a form of time travel, back to Liverpool's much happier days.

It took them back to the time when the PA choices of Queen's We Will Rock You and Neil Young's Rockin' In The Free World were contemporary.

But the 1980s were a bombastic decade. This was when, to paraphrase Young's misunderstood anthem, Liverpool rocked in the European world, including the parts of it yet to be freed from Soviet control. They were the era of Dalglish.

A third banner simply said: "And could he play." As any Liverpool aficionado knows, they are part of the lyrics to The Fields Of Anfield Road. So, too, are the choruses of "and Stevie Heighway on the wing" that comprise part of the soundtrack to any Liverpool game. There are no such paeans to "Milan Jovanovic on the wing", as they had on Wednesday. That is entirely understandable. Liverpool look back in longing.

The chants of "Dalglish" were as ominous to opponents then as they are reassuring to Liverpool now. As the VHS cassettes of his heyday become more torn and frayed, the solace lies in the imagination.

A galvanising force with a sure touch on the field then, he has brought urgency now. Providing the quality he possessed in enviable quantities is much harder.

It is there that Dalglish is reliant on his most gifted performers. He got a goal from one, as Raul Meireles belatedly opened his account, and conjured an improved performance from another; Fernando Torres hit the post after an elegant advance through a confounded Everton defence.

It is not Roy Hodgson's fault that he was an undistinguished footballer (plenty on Merseyside would argue he is an undistinguished manager, and would apply copious amounts of blame for that), but Dalglish is a man with whom Torres can empathise.

Understanding, perhaps, is the key. If Liverpool lost their way in 18 traumatic months, they have the man who represents their moral compass to try to steer them on the right path.

A record of one draw and two defeats is unpromising but Dalglish's decisiveness has included favouring those who share his devotion to the club.

The homegrown were granted chances. Martin Kelly produced another precocious performance at right-back, which endangers Glen Johnson.

"If he keeps playing like that, he could have a problem, Glen, but I'm sure he's happy to play left-back," Dalglish said. The more unexpected choice was Jay Spearing, the Scouse scrapper who deputised for Steven Gerrard. "Steven might not get in, you never know," the manager added, rather more fancifully. "But I don't care where they're born. If Jay had been born in Scotland, he'd still have played."

A man born in Porto put Liverpool ahead. It was a goal that reflected the persistence Liverpool showed in the first half. Johnson's deep cross was met by Dirk Kuyt whose downward header and subsequent shot were both brilliantly saved by Tim Howard. He was denied a hat-trick of saves as Meireles thrashed the third effort beyond him.

But Everton emerged for the second half with renewed purpose. After 40 seconds, Sylvain Distin headed in his first league goal for almost four years from Mikel Arteta's corner. Then Leon Osman, the recipient of Victor Anichebe's flick-on, provided an accurate impression of the soon-to-be-sold Steven Pienaar, darting away from defenders to set up Jermaine Beckford, who caressed his shot past Jose Reina.

Liverpool levelled courtesy of the composure of Kuyt and the quick thinking of Maxi Rodriguez. The Argentine reacted first to Martin Skrtel's miscued shot; previously outstanding, Howard brought him down and fared no better when Kuyt converted the resulting penalty.

It completed a Mersey derby as hectic as any in Dalglish's prime. These were defining fixtures in his time as both player and manager. His last year as a player before replacing Joe Fagan as manager contained Everton's last league double over Liverpool. Kuyt's cool spot kick prevented a repeat and denied the other Glaswegian manager, David Moyes, his first win on enemy territory.

For the majority present, it was a fitting place to reminisce. Unlike many of the modern stadia that pockmark the Premier League, Anfield is an anachronism. On this evidence, Dalglish might not be. Cooler than the Fonz? That is debatable. But more relevant? That is looking likely.

sports@thenational.ae