November 4, 2010

MY LIVERPOOL HOME

by Kenny Dalglish (with Henry Winter)
332 pages, Hodder and Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

Front cover: a red brick house resting on four red bricks. A har-de-har har. Not really.

The title suggests a nostalgi-tough memoir, like Angela's Ashes except populated by Scousers. There'd be tea at yer auntie's, supernumerous, monobrowed families, the Germans bombing the chippie, Gerry Marsden, Beatlemania, dandruffy haircuts and Miss Cilla Black drowning out tortured cats.

But it's actually a sports memoir by (adopts Hugh McIlvanney drawl) one Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish, arguably the greatest British football player of all time.

Dalglish played for Celtic and Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s and won every major prize in Scotland and England. He scored more than 300 career goals and collected three European Cup winners' medals with the Anfield side (though we shouldn't neglect to mention that he got to the semi-finals twice with Celtic). Then there's the small matter of 102 caps and 30 goals for Scotland, spanning three appearances in the World Cup - still a national record. That's right, Scotland used to get into the World Cup... yes, I know.

In his first season of management at Liverpool in 1986, while he was still a player, he steered the Anfield side to the English league and FA Cup double, then a rare feat. Even when Liverpool lost out on big prizes, they seemed to do so in the most romantic fashion possible - such as in the 1988 FA Cup final defeat to the ultimate underdogs, Wimbledon, or when Michael Thomas's last-minute goal clinched the title for Arsenal at Anfield in the 1989 league decider.

Dalglish's football life wasn't all about winning medals and scoring goals, though - he also witnessed three appalling stadium disasters, resulting in the loss of 201 lives, which had massive repercussions throughout British football. And while his Anfield dream turned sour in 1991, you don't need to remind Liverpool fans that in the 19 years since Dalglish left, they've never regained England’s top prize.

Dalglish did, though - guiding unfashionable Blackburn Rovers to the title in 1995 and becoming the only man to win the top division with two different sides. Barring some financial cataclysm or outrageous foreign investment, they'll probably be the last provincial side to take that honour outwith the Sky-bloated behemoths of the national game.

Strewth. Was there ever a more decorated footballer?

As the title suggests, My Liverpool Home focuses on the Anfield years, trimming out just about everything before and since. So, although he talks about great Scottish players, there’s very little about his time in Scotland, managerial stints at Blackburn or Newcastle, and, perhaps wisely, nothing about his disastrous stint as Director of Football at Celtic (though he did win the Scottish League Cup while he was there).

You might say that Dalglish is putting all his eggs in one basket by focusing on his time on Merseyside. But there is something about that Liverpool side that's particularly iconic. In my childhood, they were the giants of the game, even when they got banned from Europe; a fearful team capable of - and accomplished at - beating anyone. Dalglish was my brother's idol, a natural successor to Denis Law adorning the bedroom walls of a generation of Scottish youngsters.

Dalglish does mention his acrimonious departure from Celtic in 1977, recalling the late Jock Stein's efforts to guilt-trip his star striker into staying with the Hoops. Kenny reckons he told Stein he had done a lot for Celtic, having cost nothing, and adds that he'd stayed at Parkhead against his wishes to guide the Bhoys through a dark period when Stein was badly injured in a car crash two years earlier. There's no-one about to contradict Kenny's claims, here; whatever the case may be, he went to Liverpool for around £400,000 to replace Kevin Keegan.

It seems hard to imagine now, but this was thought to be a tall order for Dalglish. He inherited Keegan's number 7 shirt, and while few doubted his pedigree I would be prepared to bet that even fewer suspected he'd not only equal the feats of the Mighty Mouse, but surpass them. Dalglish's journey is peppered with homespun logic and hearty advice - his father, a close confidante and advisor at every step of his career, urged him to make the move, and his wife Marina also urged him to join Liverpool as "the time is right". It was.

On television, Dalglish can come across as monosyllabic, prickly, dour; a difficult character with a microphone thrust in front of him. Seldom will you ever see a man so uneasy in the media spotlight, revealing an almost childlike diffidence and distrust at press conferences. These pressures are among the main reasons he would walk out on Liverpool in 1991.

And yet, this is in stark contrast to the man in his natural element, on the pitch - archive pictures show him with a smile on his face, his arms outstretched celebrating a goal, running over to the supporters.

This book's great joy is that it captures this latter Kenny Dalglish, the real one, happy to share a drink and a joke with his team-mates, a family man as well as a born leader. He spills a lot of beans regarding hi-jinks in the Anfield dressing room. There's a monumental laugh to be had when we hear about Ian Rush's mishap involving a cake and Dalglish's wife, and the lengths she went to in order to get her revenge.

Drunken tomfoolery on the road with Liverpool and the morning after Cup final wins are also delved into, including some merciless ribbings for the dressing room’s new boys, such as Ronnie Whelan and Ian Rush. It's a great thing to humanise sporting Titans such as John Barnes, the fearsome Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and all those other stars of that Liverpool team – although the multiple nicknames do get confusing on occasion.

There are on-field revelations, too. I was particularly struck by Dalglish's affection for his fellow Scot, Souness, while never shying away from the aggressive qualities of the man known to Celtic fans as The Beast. His recounting of Souness's ferocity and sometimes outright criminality on the pitch becomes more endearing when you find out how committed he was in support of his team-mates. Souness, a man whose memory at Anfield has been somewhat sullied by his time as Dalglish's successor in the managerial hotseat, is in some ways redeemed here.

Dalglish’s clash with infamous soccer hard-man turned Hollywood star Vinny Jones was also a surprise, one which Jones apparently threatened to stab him for. Indeed, Dalglish isn’t shy about the dark side of his game, one that's rarely examined in public – a steeliness that sometimes left some of his many on-field tormentors on the deck when the referee wasn’t looking. These included Michel Renquin of Standard Liege, whom Kenny relieved of a couple of front teeth in retaliation for repeated assaults in a European game.

There are two necessarily harrowing chapters covering the ghastly catastrophes involving Dalglish's Liverpool in the 1980s. At Heysel Stadium, Brussels, in 1985, 39 people were killed in a crush amid crowd trouble before the European Cup final against Juventus. And at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, four years later, 96 Reds fans died during a crowd surge before the FA Cup semi-final. (Dalglish points out that this wasn't the first such horror he'd encountered, that being the Ibrox disaster of 1971 in which 66 Rangers fans were crushed to death during an Old Firm match in Glasgow.)

The Scot lambasts the authorities in both cases. Heysel was a decrepit stadium and Dalglish rightly notes that such a high-profile game should never have taken place there. He also points out that Liverpool fans (who many blame for the deaths in the Italian fans’ enclosure after ‘rushing’ their rivals) were provoked after being pelted with stones by opposing supporters; something they had encountered in the European Cup final of the previous year, when Liverpool beat AS Roma in their own stadium.

Of course, he very wisely points out that there was no excuse for the crowd trouble.

For Hillsborough, he is scathing of the failures of senior police at the match in Sheffield and some key decisions which could have been taken to at least lower the terrible death toll; and he is also mindful of the families' continuing fight for the truth of the matter, spearheaded by local MP and Labour front-bencher Andy Burnham.

I didn't know that Dalglish's young son Paul was in the crowd at Hillsborough that day. Dalglish describes the chilling fear that his boy might have been among the casualties before the lad appeared before him on the pitch, safe and well. We can only guess at what the man must have felt, being confronted with the grief of an entire city as the scale of the tragedy was revealed. “I can barely bring myself to even say the word ‘Hillsborough’,” he writes.

Dalglish defends Liverpool's fans to the death, even going so far as to suggest Everton supporters were behind racist graffiti daubed on the walls near Anfield after Liverpool signed the high profile black player John Barnes. Contentious, at best... Sure, they threw bananas at Barnes during his first Merseyside derby, but that's hardly proof. Even in the late 1980s, British football grounds were not the world’s most enlightened places when it came to such matters.

Kenny's candid about his split from Liverpool and his feeling that things were getting on top of him, explaining: "I thought my head was going to explode." I'll never forget the press conference where his shock resignation was announced, the images of this great man squirming under the gaze of all those cameras. The book contains a terrific photograph of this moment. And it's touching to note that he dreaded going back to his children that day and telling them, "You can't go back to Anfield."

Kenny's come home now, though - working in youth development, where all that experience and accomplishment must, you feel, bear fruit for a club beset by troubles at boardroom level. Although Dalglish is understandably coy regarding any opinions of his current employers (at the time of writing, it's unclear who will end up owning the Reds), he's unstinting in his praise for manager Roy Hodgson and the current crop of players, and clearly revelling being back at the club where he feels he belongs.

This book is indispensable for Liverpool fans. It's thrilling to recall the man's deeds on the field and in the dug-out, but it's also great to have your faith in a footballing hero rewarded. He comes across as a thoroughly decent, honest, loyal man, with a good old-fashioned Scots work ethic balancing out that Liverpudlian/Irish notion of being part of a large family.

What a contrast to the sorry mob of snarling, money-grabbing prima donnas which populate the upper echelons of English football today.

On the page I was expecting a staccato delivery, something akin to his earlier media appearances. But this manages to be a warm book, while never shirking a tackle or ignoring the drive that made Kenny Dalglish the best at whatever he did.

1 comment:

  1. No one ever held a ball up, spun and lashed it into some corner of the onion bag with such finesse as Kenny Dalglish. Or such regularity, as it seems looking back. Great review, Pat. I'd forgotten King Kenny also guided Blackburn to the top. And Ibrox '71 -- why haven't we southerners heard more of that down the years? This sounds like a footie fan's feast. Impossible to know Kenny from his interviews. That Glasgee-Bronx chewing of consonants and nasal drone left much guesswork to fill in the gaps. (I imagine Kenny off camera to Rushie and Sammy Lee: another one down, you'd think those TV boys would have got the message by now.)

    Might well buy this self-portrait of a sporting artist, and I'm Chelsea. Can you hear the drums, Fernando? Well done yesterday, Scousers.

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