Return of the King
Football post time! Interesting times at Liverpool this weekend, as beleaguered manager Roy Hodgson was removed and replaced by Kenny Dalglish. As a Liverpool supporter I couldn’t help but feel excited at seeing a club legend, one of Liverpool’s greatest players and managers, back in charge.
Sentimental old fool that I am, seeing Dalglish, back on the touchline in his trademark oversized coat, was pretty special. Here was a man who left the post nearly twenty years ago, suffering from stress that in a great part came from coping with the Hillsborough tragedy and its aftermath. If anyone deserves a second chance, an opportunity to complete unfinished business, it is him.
I think Liverpool’s owners, New England Sports Ventures (NESV), were pretty canny is appointing Dalglish until the end of the season. Liverpool’s supporters had called for Hodgson’s head and Dalglish’s appointment. NESV have called their bluff. If Dalglish succeeds, wonderful. If he fails, NESV can recruit their own man without any fear of accusations of them failing to listen to fans. He was also, perhaps, the only man available who could guarantee goodwill from the playing staff, who may (or may not) have had a hand in Hodgson’s departure too.
I do feel sorry for Hodgson, though. Nobody becomes a bad manager overnight. Here was a man who was last season’s Manager of the Year, taking unfashionable Fulham to the Europa League Final. I think there were a number of factors that meant he was doomed to failure from the start. As poor as Liverpool have been this season, I doubt any other manager could have done much better.
So, what were these factors?
1. Rafa Benitez’s legacy
Hodgson’s predecessor left him with a woefully unbalanced squad. He sold strikers, leaving an injury-prone Fernando Torres as the main forward option. His actions, directly or indirectly, had led to the exits of two of Liverpool’s most creative and imaginative players, in Xabi Alonso and Yossi Benayoun. He may have also been to blame for an unsettled Javier Mascherano leaving soon after Hodgson took over. Indeed, over the summer Hodgson did well to persuade Torres and captain Steven Gerrard to stay. Many supporters wanted Benitez to return to the club, but seemed to forget that in his last season Liverpool finished only seventh. This was simply not good enough. It also meant Liverpool missed out on valuable Champions League income, and would struggle to attract new signings, as the best players would want to play in that competition.
2. The ownership situation
When Hodgson took over, the club was in the midst of a protracted and uncomfortable change of ownership. It was unclear who would end up in charge, if the club would survive the threat of administration, and what money (if any) might be available to strengthen the squad. This unsettling time was bound to have an impact on the squad, as well as on potential new recruits. It was an impossible time for anyone to navigate. When Hodgson eventually could enter the transfer market, time was tight and the club (beyond its history) wasn’t the most attractive option.
3. The players
It appears that at most clubs the lunatics are running the asylum. Once rumours circulate that a boss has “lost the dressing room”, his days are numbered. Did Hodgson get the whole squad’s support? Was it easier to blame him for bad results than the players playing poorly on the pitch? A great deal of the responsibility for the bad start to the season should lie with the players. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
4. The supporters
I don’t think the Liverpool support ever really warmed to Hodgson. They wanted a bigger name, or for Benitez to stay. Yet, they seemed unwilling to acknowledge that a seventh placed Premier League side in the midst of a bitter ownership wrangle wasn’t the most attractive prospect to ‘top’ managers. Once fans stopped going to games and orchestrating ‘Hodgson out’-style chants and campaigns, NESV were bound to act. They were always going to listen to the customers, particularly if the customer was going to stop spending.
Obviously, Hodgson made mistakes too. The signings he did make were not always inspired. Some of his comments were a little naïve at times. Yet I doubt anyone could have coped with the above and turned the club around in six months.
But onwards and upwards. What can Dalglish do to help improve the club’s fortunes?
1. Accept this season is for rebuilding
There is no point acting in the short-term. He would be best to write off this season and start rebuilding the team for the future. And so…
2. Give the younger squad members more playing time
The likes of Dani Pacheco, Jonjo Shelvey, Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing and Danny Wilson could all be future first-team regulars. Now, with nothing on the line, is the time to give them a frequent run out and build up their experience and confidence. If even one of them emerges as a proper first-teamer Liverpool will have saved a fortune on bringing someone else in.
3. Recreate the Boot Room
In Liverpool’s heyday, the ‘Boot Room’ was where the club’s coaching staff would discuss the team and tactics. Many of these coaches would then go on to become manager, thus ensuring a degree of continuity in the club. Dalglish has already recruited the former Chelsea and West Ham coach, Steve Clarke. He should look to recruit more coaches of this pedigree, with a view to having a first-class staff for now and the future. I do wonder if Clarke has already been earmarked as a possible successor for Dalglish. NESV seem to favour dynamic, younger coaches. If they can promote from within the club in future, for me, all the better.
4. Bring in new, good, young players
A team in decline cannot be turned around through good coaching alone – a few new faces always help. While I wouldn’t advocate blowing big money this January transfer window, it would make sense to bring in a few new names. The priority should be a striker. However, any new, quality players should shake up any complacency within the existing squad. Everyone’s place in the team should be on the line.
It should be a fascinating few months for Liverpool. It is hard to gauge how things will pan out. Will we realise that Hodgson wasn’t that bad after all? Or will we see the Second Coming of King Kenny? Only time will tell, folks…