As a student and gentleman of the game of football—though some of his recent actions may not have given that appearance—it will probably not take long for Roy Hodgson to accept that Liverpool had to end their association.
Though there are some mitigating circumstances—few clubs glide on through a change of ownership; the effects of Tom Hicks & George Gillett’s proprietorship will still reverberate through the club for a number of seasons yet—the simple fact is that the 63-year-old failed to deliver what is expected of a modern Reds manager.
Hodgson admitted as much when his number was finally called, but couldn’t resist hinting at his feeling of unfinished business:
“Liverpool is one of the great clubs in world football,” he told the club’s official website in a statement, “I have, however, found the last few months some of the most challenging of my career. I am very sad not to have been able to put my stamp on the squad, to be given the time to bring new players into the club in this transfer window and to have been able to be part of the rebuilding process at Liverpool.”
But for all his talk of needing time to mold his own squad, the signings and decisions Hodgson did make were poor. He bought players he knew—Paul Konchesky, Christian Poulsen—rather than those who were up to the standard expected at Anfield (dropping the accomplished Daniel Agger for the more rugged Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos was another ill-advised move). Raul Meireles looks a fine player, but the decision to offload the injury-prone but clearly cultured Alberto Aquilani so soon after the loss of Javier Mascherano diminished the tactical flexibility—so key in the modern game—and quality of the first-team squad.
The team played unimaginative, disengaging football under Hodgson, restricted by an initial 4-4-2 formation that never really evolved into something truly modern. Players of the quality of Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina lost confidence and faith. On the touchline and in the post-match press conferences, Hodgson gave every indication of being overwhelmed by a job that was simply too big for him.
"Ever since I came here the famous Anfield support hasn't really been there,” Hodgson said after defeat to Wolves at the end of 2010, a surprising criticism of the fans that was always asking for trouble.
As that quote highlights, Hodgson’s troubles were mainly of his own making—but they weren’t exclusively. The drawn-out takeover saga between Hicks & Gillett and New England Sports Ventures caused understandable disarray, but he also had to deal with a rival for his job sitting above him at Anfield every week, Kenny Dalglish.
"There was the problem with the former owners and there was the fact that Kenny was so popular, but the job went to me,” Hodgson also noted, not entirely inaccurately, after that Wolves loss.
In Greek legend, the Sword of Damocles was a device the king, Dionysus, used to show a courtier, Damocles—who believed being king must be the greatest, and easiest, job in the world—the true difficulties of being a leader. Dionysus agreed to swap places with Damocles, but dangled a sword, held up by a sliver of horse hair, mere inches from the man’s head.
It did not take long, but soon a fearful Damocles was begging to swap places once again. The moral, soon to be picked up by William Shakespeare, was clear: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
Hodgson did not cope well with the extra weight of expectation that came with being at one of the biggest clubs in England—that much is obvious. But he was hardly helped by the fact another sword, that of Dalglish, was also so precariously positioned.
Dalglish was always there, a ready-made replacement called for by the club’s fans at every wrong turn the incumbent made. The pressure was always going to be on Hodgson after bad results—especially of the ilk of home defeats to Northampton and Blackpool—but that pressure was magnified by a considerable factor with Dalglish waiting in the wings.
If your car is struggling to get you to work on time every day, then you take it to the mechanic. But if you’ve got another model—one with a track record of success—waiting in the driveway, you might as well just change the keys.
What manager is going to thrive under such pressures? Which players will be able to focus fully on their current boss’s instructions—especially if they don’t like them? Torres for one is known to have a close relationship with Dalglish, while also disliking the regimented training methods of the former Inter coach.
Such unnecessary tension was always going to add an extra layer of difficulty to a club already struggling to stay on course.
In a fairer world, perhaps Dalglish should have ruled himself out of any interest in the manager’s job as soon as Hodgson fell into trouble and the calls for a coup began. It would not have mattered if it was a lie—u-turns in football are hardly uncommon—but it would at least have given the former Fulham man the time and space needed for his tenure to run its own course.
Instead he did nothing. Explicitly or not, he positioned himself just above Hodgson’s head, increasing the turmoil and speculation. Implicitly, he put his interests ahead of those of the club.
Considering the number of titles Dalglish won at Anfield as both a player and a manager (eight of the club’s famous 18, the last in 1990), the Kop faithful will no doubt be able to forgive that—at any rate, losing Hodgson is no disaster. But at any other club, such actions would be viewed dimly.
Being away on a cruise at the time of Hodgson’s firing might well be viewed as a coincidence—in another circumstances certain sections of the British media would no doubt build it into a conspiracy.
Dalglish’s last successful managerial stint was in 1995, as he guided Blackburn Rovers to their only Premier League title to date. Fifteen years (nearly 16) is a long time to be away from the game in such a capacity (subsequent spells at Newcastle and Celtic were far from smooth), and it remains to be seen if he retains the Midas touch he once had.
But Liverpool fans wanted Dalglish. Online polls suggested more than half of them approved of Hodgson’s appointment at the time, too. More recently, one poll suggested 50 percent of Reds fans would welcome back Rafael Benitez—who split supporters when he left in the summer—to replace Hodgson.
The temptation is to suggest Liverpool fans don’t know what they want. They just want the glory days back.
For better or worse, they think Dalglish is the man who can deliver that, or at least put them on the right path.
Dalglish’s tactics, in that title season at Ewood Park, were not vastly dissimilar from those of Hodgson’s this term—a rugged and uncompromising back four, with the wide men providing the attacking thrust in a relatively vanilla 4-4-2. In such circumstances his eye for talent was clear, but over time tactics have come to have an equally significant impact on results.
FIFA’s technical report for the 2010 World Cup proclaimed such a formation dead—it will be interesting to see how much Dalglish has been keeping on top of such progressions in the game during his time away.
The 59-year-old now has until the end of the season to let us know. His presence—and the respect for him from key members in the squad—will likely provide an initial boost in performances and results, not to mention lift the influential Anfield crowd, but his difficulty will be in ensuring such a standard is maintained.
Unlike Hodgson, Dalglish will have to go vastly wrong to be made the scapegoat for any future troubles. The players, who undoubtedly haven’t given their all to the cause in recent weeks, will now have nowhere to hide, no scapegoat to deflect from their shortcomings. That should aid the upturn.
But the club is a long way from returning to the position in the English game they held 20 years ago. As much as fans might want to believe it, removing Hodgson does not clear the way for a return to the "Big Four". The hangover from Hicks & Gillett's blood-sucking era is still ongoing, and will take time to clear.
NESV's big job is to rebuild from the ground up—by removing Hodgson they've begun that process, but in returning to Dalglish (even temporarily), it seems they are either pandering to the masses or hoping the Scot's recipe for the 1980s and early 90s still works today.
But the modern game is a complicated place. What will Dalglish have to do to gain the job on a permanent basis—surely something he will want if his health (stress ended his tenure at Anfield last time) remains intact? At any rate, is someone who has spent over 10 years away from the dugout really the right man to oversee the full-scale overhaul of the club that appears to be required?
Only time will tell.
The suspicion remains, however, that Dalglish will have to run himself out of the picture over the next six months for Liverpool to truly cut ties with the past and move on towards that brighter future the club’s fans are pining for.