This article was first published in August 2016. Arise, Sir Kenny…
At first, Liverpool supporters simply refused to accept the news. Fans gathered outside Anfield as a show of strength, but also disbelief. Local radio stations and newspapers were overwhelmed by phone calls from those struggling to contemplate the new reality. Nothing changed the reality: King Kenny had abdicated his throne.
The shock that followed Kenny Dalglish’s resignation as Liverpool manager in February 1991 was shared not just among supporters, but players too. “I had no idea whatsoever about what was to come and neither did anyone else, not even those who knew Kenny best,” recalls Ray Houghton. “Ask Alan Hansen, he was his closest friend and he didn’t have a clue.”
That Dalglish had kept his departure so quiet was a testament to his intense privacy, but also a reflection of his love for Liverpool Football Club. It soon became clear that, deep beneath the public facade of normality, demons had eaten away at Dalglish’s wellbeing and sapped his energy.
To understand Dalglish’s reputation in Liverpool and that eventual departure, one has to appreciate the impact of the worst stadium disaster in the history of English sport upon him. As tragic as it is inescapable, a large part of Dalglish revolves around Hillsborough.
As April 15, 1989 approached, Dalglish was just a football manager, albeit a very good one. Taking over after Joe Fagan’s resignation following the Heysel disaster of 1985, he had become the most adept player-manager in the history of the game. Liverpool had won two titles in three years and the FA Cup in 1986, completing the club’s first double. The League Championship was achieved with 1–0 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season; Dalglish scored the winner. Without the ban on English clubs in Europe after Heysel, we could be discussing one of the most successful British managers of all time. We are still discussing one of the most successful British players.
Before Hillsborough, Dalglish was a certified hero to Liverpool fans, but in the aftermath of that horrifying tragedy he became the city’s champion and everyman. As Liverpool’s manager, the Scot understood his role in bringing the club into the arms of its public to mourn together, but his inbuilt decency led him to extend that role far beyond the call of duty. Dalglish wrote in his autobiography how he ‘pushed himself to the limit’; that’s an emphatic understatement. It’s worth repeating: Dalglish was just a football manager.
‘Most of the church services ended with “You’ll never walk alone”,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘I couldn’t sing through any of the songs or hymns. I was too choked up. The words could never come out. I just stood there in a daze, still trying to come to terms with what had befallen the club and the people I had so admired.’
Imagine that for just a moment. Having been your club’s greatest player, you agree to take over as manager following a terrible stadium disaster. Four years later, disaster is not only repeated but eclipsed, throwing your city and life into a semi-permanent haze of grief.
In that situation, most of us would take one of two options. We’d either continue our job, proclaiming that the club must act as the emblem of a city determined to recover, stay strong through adversity. Or we’d fall back into the shadows, offer our condolences respectfully but be unable to continue in the role of manager. Nobody would offer blame in that scenario, tragedy breaks even the strongest person and personality. There is no possible censure attached to an inability to find a coping mechanism; sometimes they just don’t exist.
Admirably, Daglish attempted a combination of both. “I thought to myself ‘Why should I feel any pressure’. The people under pressure were those who had lost their loved ones. In truth, I had wanted to leave Anfield in 1990, a year before I eventually resigned. In the 22 months between Hillsborough and my resignation, the strain kept growing until I finally snapped.”
Dalglish personally attended many of the 96 funerals – including four in one day – but took responsibility for ensuring a Liverpool presence at every one. He kept letters of gratitude from families under his bed for years. Most importantly, he carried the city’s grief on his own shoulders. Sporting success could provide distraction, but never an escape. No manager in history has done more to bring a football club and its community closer together.
“He only told my mum the night before he was quitting,” daughter Kelly later recalled. “He just couldn’t go on doing the job. All the emotion and stress of Hillsborough, all the weight of responsibility he felt, had taken its toll.”
Yet the most revealing assessment comes from Dalglish himself: “I decided that I had to get out. The alternative was going mad. Liverpool needed somebody who was going to be authoritative, somebody who could make a decision. I couldn’t do that anymore.” Even now, the predominant thought was what Liverpool needed rather than what Kenny Dalglish needed.
In fact, Dalglish had become ill through stress, blotches appearing on his body and his mind desperately in need of counselling. The best manager in the country had not been mastered by the opposition, but broken by the rigours of life. In truth, it was a miracle he’d lasted that long.
If Dalglish’s conduct post-Hillsborough made him a true son of Liverpool, the King Kenny moniker was already well-established. Arriving from Anfield in August 1977 from Celtic for a British transfer record fee, Dalglish had already scored 167 goals in 322 games in Glasgow, won nine domestic trophies and been named Celtic’s captain. His reputation at Parkhead may be tarnished by that exit, but his standing in Scotland as a whole remains higher than any other player. Dalglish is still Scotland’s highest-capped player and joint-highest goalscorer.
Signed to replace the Hamburg-bound Kevin Keegan, there were initial doubts about Dalglish’s effectiveness for the role. Thirteen years, 179 goals, six league titles, three European Cups, 13 other trophies and a Member of the Order of the British Empire later, those doubts were firmly extinguished. Not only did Dalglish end his playing career as Liverpool’s greatest player (sorry, Steven Gerrard), but as the most decorated player in British domestic football.
The first thing to say about Dalglish as a player was just how ‘normal’ he looked. There was no imposing size, intimidating physique or searing pace; the magic lay beneath the tousled brown hair. Dalglish’s secret weapon was a speed of thought that blended with a technical ability to create arguably the greatest post-war British forward. Dalglish’s finishing ability with either foot matched any other forward of his generation, while his hold-up play allowed him to forge successful partnerships with an array of strikers and midfielders: Ian Rush, David Fairclough, Terry McDermott, Graeme Souness, Ray Kennedy.
The best way to describe Dalglish’s footballing intelligence is through an anecdote relayed by David Preece from a day when the then-unemployed manager assisted at a Darlington training session. Preece, a goalkeeper, described how Dalglish would receive the ball to feet and continuously turn away from the (far younger) oncoming defender without looking to see where his opponent was.
“He pointed at the sun,” Preece says. “Still, we couldn’t work it out. ‘If it’s a sunny day, like today, I can use the defender’s shadow to see which side he’s going to attack me from and stick my arse out to protect the ball and roll away on the other side.’ At the time, this blew my mind, showing how intricate his thinking must have been in moments of great pressure.”
Liverpool’s greats agreed. “Keegan was quicker,” Bob Paisley once said. “But Kenny runs the first five yards in his head. He had this rare quality of being able to know where the other players were without looking, and finding them with the perfect pass.”
“Kenny is almost impossible to mark,” was Liverpool captain and defender Emlyn Hughes’ take. “His thinking during a game is both incisive and decisive.”
Given Dalglish’s iconic status in Liverpool, it is considered a shame by many that he returned to the club in 2011. Time can be a healer, but it can also act as a blanket, muffling the memories of glorious times past. Too often in modern sport you are only as good as your last game and, to a generation of supporters, Dalglish will only be the Liverpool manager between Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rodgers. His public backing of Luis Suarez during the race row with Patrice Evra was misjudged and brought an equally public apology.
Yet the return of Anfield’s ‘King’ was actually soaked in its own pathos, two decades spent believing he still owed Liverpool for leaving them in February 1991 when nothing could be further from the truth. Dalglish had tried to resign at Blackburn Rovers before winning the Premier League title and struggled at Newcastle United too. Only Anfield ever truly felt like home; only Anfield ever will do.
Dalglish has always been a proud Scot, but Merseyside will remain closest to his heart. In a city that has always considered itself separate from the rest of England, the boy from Glasgow’s East End became Liverpool’s poster boy. His successful tenure as manager only added to that reputation, but it was Dalglish’s emotional maturity in the face of terror that most sculpted his stature. Despite having no warning of – or expertise for – the situation, Dalglish did more than most to rebuild a broken club. He only stopped when he’d broken himself.
That distinct melancholia associated with Dalglish is a real shame, and I hope it changes. To picture him as a player is to think of a smiling, happy striker, taking delight in outfoxing defenders and scoring goal after goal after goal. To remember him as a manager is to think of furrowed brow and tense stare. If the eyes were haunted, they had seen plenty of ghosts. After everything, this is a man who simply loves every aspect of football, who is captivated by the minutiae of the game.
Hillsborough hangs over Liverpool like a fog and always will, despite the overdue justice the campaigners are finally closer to achieving. Yet there is a hope that we can finally see Dalglish in a happier context: Liverpool’s greatest player, perhaps even Britain’s greatest striker. Dalglish’s service to the city of Liverpool merits a lasting legacy. King Kenny deserves to sit proudly on that throne.