Why time is running out for Liverpool and Kenny to recapture past glory

'It was the season of Light,' wrote Charles Dickens. 'It was the season of Darkness.' Then again, he didn’t have a major strategic review to conduct. You could pull off a bit of duality in 1859.

Unfortunately, John Henry has a football club to run. He needs something a little more finite. And that is the problem with the season at Liverpool; it almost defies evaluation.

The best of times, the worst of times? Glass half-full or half-empty? Rafael Benitez won the Champions League and, technically, failed to qualify for it in 2005 — UEFA's rules changed to get Liverpool in — but even that contradiction could not compare to this.

Red or dead? Kenny Dalglish (left)has had mixed fortunes since his return as Liverpool manager

Red or dead? Kenny Dalglish (left)has had mixed fortunes since his return as Liverpool manager

Football will always have the capacity to bamboozle. Birmingham City won their first trophy since 1963 and were relegated the same year; Chelsea were one win and a decent penalty away from a Premier League-Champions League double, delivered neither and sacked the manager; Leeds United believed they were on the cusp of joining the European elite when the money ran out and the abyss opened; Portsmouth got their mitts on the FA Cup and it bankrupted them.

Yet, somehow, Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish have earned a unique place in football purgatory, because their contradiction centres on the perception of one man.

Grey was always going to be the nightmare under Dalglish. Black and white were easily addressed; it was the shade between that would throw up imponderables. What if Dalglish was not bad? What if he was just OK? What if Liverpool took two steps forward and two back? What if the jury was out, and staying out, unable to make up its mind? Who would be brave enough to remove King Kenny if he had not failed outright?

If Dalglish proved to be a roaring success or a crashing flop, issues would be resolved and the way forward clear. Yet, somehow, he has contrived to be both. A trophy winner who is overseeing Liverpool’s worst League run since 1953; potentially Liverpool’s most successful manager in a single season since Gerard Houllier in 2001 and their worst in the Premier League since it began in 1992. And he is still the King, meaning nothing he does is viewed dispassionately.

Kings of Europe: Dalglish, a winner in 1984, needs his side to return to the top level before it is too late

Kings of Europe: Dalglish, a winner in 1984, needs his side to return to the top level before it is too late

Even if Henry and his Fenway Group brought the best team of statistical analysts in and went all Moneyball on Liverpool’s season, adding plus and minus points according to expenditure, divided by points won, multiplied by trophies contested, over goodwill generated, to the power of £35million down the chute for Andy Carroll, they would still have to  factor in around 10 million additional credits for Dalglish just being Dalglish. This is not an exact science.

Nobody should diminish the worth of winning a domestic trophy, even the often derided Carling Cup. Dalglish could only contend for three prizes when the campaign began, and may yet land two. Do that, and it would be impossible to question the merit of his first full season in charge.

Yet, does Carling Cup glory alone override the most unsatisfying League campaign of the modern era; or is Liverpool’s dismal League form unfairly diminishing the glow from the first trophy won since 2006? Riddles, riddles. If Liverpool spend in excess of £110m to finish close to 40 points off Manchester United, how can the manager be anything but culpable? What, even if he has taken his team to a Wembley final twice and won? You see the complexity.

Liverpool’s dilemma is that to live in the here and now demands praise for Dalglish the trophy-winner; but to consider the future demands that we question his buys, and his marshalling of a team who are struggling to make the top seven, let alone the top four. Henry, who said that anything less than a Champions League finish would be a disappointment, is now left to make sense of some pretty contradictory numbers.

While there is no question that the major strategic review will recommend removing Dalglish, the take on the manager long-term is vital. For the consequence of Liverpool’s inconsistent form and questionable acquisitions is not one lousy League position. Dalglish’s second coming is taking place at a critical time when UEFA’s financial fair play rules will change football’s outlook, perhaps permanently.

As it stands, Manchester United make £65m more from match-days each season than Liverpool, and when the club accounts are published later this month, the stalled progress of the plan to redevelop Anfield or find a suitable new home will be revealed.

The last accounts stated a figure close to £50m had already been unsuccessfully invested, and much would have to be written off. A naming rights deal is now being sought — sacrilege to some loyalists — although the continued absence of Champions League exposure will depress the price.
As much as Dalglish insists on doubting the intelligence of critics, Liverpool’s problems are not solved by one Carling Cup win. What needs to be established is a means of returning Liverpool to the elite, before Michel Platini’s rules banish them to a relative wilderness.

Financial Fair Play demands that each club lives within its means. So if Manchester United accrue £65m more than Liverpool on match days they have £65m more to spend on players; plus extra from the Champions League and better commercial contracts as a bigger, more successful club.

Soon Liverpool, confined by terraced houses and Thursday night European football, will no longer be able to break the transfer record for a British footballer like Carroll, without incurring the wrath of UEFA. There will be no further recklessness, no way of recovering ground through significant owner investment in the transfer market.

Nor does Henry sound intent on bucking the system. Whatever the previous investment in Dalglish may indicate, the owner values self-sufficiency. 

'Tom Werner and I attended the European Club Association meetings,' he said recently. 'There are a number of critical issues such as Financial Fair Play and the economic problems of clubs large and small that need to be addressed. Just as the countries of Europe need a sound financial landscape, so does football.'

Off target: The form of £35m striker Andy Carroll remains a cause for concern

Off target: The form of £35m striker Andy Carroll remains a cause for concern

All very admirable as a business philosophy, but unless Liverpool can elbow their way through the clamouring mob, they will be as good as locked outside when the FFP door closes. Dalglish could then win a decade of Carling Cups, back to back, and it might not be enough. This season has to be a springboard for a return to the top four next season; yet how easy will that be?

Sir Alex Ferguson had one round of Europa League football with Manchester United before he started moaning about its impact on their Premier League form. Unless Liverpool win the FA Cup, their first Europa League match is a third qualifying round, first leg, on August 2 and, provided they get through, the last group game is on December 6. Dalglish has five months, minimum, of Thursday night football in Europe, probably more if Liverpool are successful.

'You play on Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday and it is going to take its toll,' he said last month, blaming domestic cup fatigue after losing at home to Wigan Athletic. Try Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday — a scenario familiar to any Europa League manager — with flights thrown in, for half the season at least.

Indeed, it is hard to see too many of this season's problems being tackled with ease. Doubts will remain over Carroll, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, and it is fanciful to think there will not be an opportunistic attempt to poach Luis Suarez in the summer, with Roma and Paris Saint-Germain already lurking.

Prized possession: But Liverpool will not be able to hold off Luis Suarez's suitors without Champions League football

Prized possession: But Liverpool will not be able to keep Luis Suarez without Champions League football

Most worryingly, Liverpool have won five of 15 home League games in this campaign, and Anfield’s reputation for fearsome, intimidating noise is increasingly misplaced. For the big matches, yes. When Manchester United visit, or the opponents are one of the clubs the fans regard as parvenus — Manchester City or Chelsea — the energy is there. As it once was even for the likes of Wigan or Norwich City, because invariably Liverpool were challenging for a title or a Champions League place, and the game had edge.

Yet, if Liverpool are just making up the mid-table numbers, and the opposition is uninspiring, the mood is subdued. Against Wigan, a conversation between Dirk Kuyt and a linesman was audible in the stands, as were the cries of Jamie Carragher, organising his defence. Without a flying start next season, it is hard to imagine that will change.

Indeed, will anything alter at Anfield as a result of the strategy review? Unlikely, for now. Damien Comolli, director of football, is more vulnerable than Dalglish, possessing none of his local cachet, but having been Henry’s first appointment he will surely be able to plead for more time.

Yet, this is in short supply for Liverpool. UEFA’s clock is counting down to the moment when a provincial club with a mid-capacity stadium and a cautious owner will find all manner of regulations hampering its development. Liverpool need to move quickly; above all they need to know whether Dalglish is the right man to orchestrate that leap forward.

'It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,' wrote Dickens. It is different for Henry. Sooner or later, he has to make his mind up.

Another fine mess, Michel

To the surprise of nobody in year one maths or beyond, the 24-team format devised by UEFA for the 2016 European Championship is proving problematic.

Another of Michel Platini’s idiot ruses — perhaps he is in a situation similar to the film Speed, where unless he comes up with a really bad idea every day, Geneva explodes — the issue is that UEFA also require a round of 16 after the group stage, meaning it will actually be harder to get knocked out than to qualify.

Is that why you won't listen to us, Michel? UEFA President Platini (centre)

Is that why you won't listen to us, Michel? UEFA President Platini (centre)

When 24 teams go into 16 the result is invariably a sterile final series of matches between teams who know a draw will do.

‘The question is how you can arrange it so that results can’t be organised and you don’t know in advance what you need,’ said UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino.

Eight groups of three, with only the last placed team going out. Whatever the result of the first two games, the last fixture will still be live. Looks ridiculous on paper but, seriously, nothing else works. Although, when has that ever bothered UEFA?

Toon should enjoy it while it lasts

There was much fun to be had at the expense of former Newcastle United defender Jose Enrique during Sunday’s game with Liverpool. ‘The club are allowing the major players to go,’ he said, last July. ‘Newcastle will never again fight to be among the top six with this policy.’ Soon after, he departed.

As you can imagine, when Newcastle beat Enrique’s new team to consolidate sixth place — they have the same points as Chelsea in fifth, while Liverpool languish in eighth, 11 points shy — the laughter was long and loud.

Watching Enrique going in goal after Pepe Reina was dismissed only added to the hilarity.
The irony is that he wasn’t altogether wrong.

Embarrassed? Liverpool defender Jose Enrique (centre) had to take over in goal against his former club

Embarrassed? Liverpool defender Jose Enrique (centre) had to take over in goal against his former club

Newcastle are not where they are because they sold good players; their revival has happened despite Mike Ashley’s cutbacks.

Newcastle owe a huge debt to the management skills of Alan Pardew and the astute recommendations of his chief scout Graham Carr who, together, identified and inspired the talent that has avoided calamity.

Anyone who thinks this plan can thrive indefinitely, however, is delusional. Without exceptional managerial acumen, all selling clubs pay the price eventually.

Seeing Red

More power to Manchester United fanzine Red Issue, who are threatening to sue over the 1,600 copies impounded by police prior to the match with Liverpool on February 11. The cover featured a joke about the Luis Suarez controversy, with an imitation Ku Klux Klan mask. Police over-reacted and stupidly seized the material claiming incitement to racial hatred.

Red Issue wants compensation for loss of earnings. Good luck to them. We need more gags, and fewer daft coppers.

FA shouldn’t lounge around

Get a move on: David Bernstein

Get a move on: David Bernstein

Football Association officials have already visited Brazil to scope the best training venues and hotels prior to the 2014 World Cup. We don’t know who the manager or captain will be at a tournament that starts in two months, but David Bernstein and the board have already got their towels on the sun loungers for one that is more than two years away.

Meanwhile, part one in a series entitled Things An England Manager Could Have Been Doing Had The Football Association Got Its Finger Out And Bothered To Appoint One, which will be running each week until somebody at the FA gets round to doing his job.

To begin, an example of the minutiae that need the manager’s attention because it’s not just about putting Joe Hart in goal. Deciding whether and when the team should visit nearby Auschwitz, from their Polish training base in Krakow.

Believe me, I’ve been. ‘Are we going to Auschwitz?’ is not the sort of question a distracted coach needs to be answering on the hoof in a frantic fortnight of initiation. Visitors leave mentally wiped out, and in no mood to care about football for several days. The trip, if it is undertaken at all, must be meticulously planned and discussed.

Still, never mind.

Lesson from across the pond

Terry Edwards, the former Amateur Boxing Association coach, who steered Great Britain to their best Olympics in more than 50 years in 2008, was lined up to take over the United States team in London. Then the coaches of the USABA got to hear about it.

Despite the United States winning just one Olympic gold this century, the prospect of a foreigner coming in to run their team caused such fury that Edwards got the message and withdrew.

Those old boys actually wanted an American to represent America at the Olympics. How quaint.

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