We Fade to Grey

Study the Oxford English dictionary from cover to cover and one would still struggle to locate the vocabulary to surmise the emotion; the sheer elation when this moment of reality theatre twisted in your favour, after all hope was lost.

The heart-soaring image of your enemy slain, choked on the poisonous medicine they’ve so regularly prescribed to everyone else. The victory tasted as sweet as anything the previous 38 games had offered up and a conclusion that somehow managed to live up to what was probably the most incident packed season ever witnessed in Premier League history.

Sadly for Liverpool fans, these emotions were part of the now annual vicarious lifestyle of following the team competing against Manchester United. Predictably, any Liverpool fan, economic aspect of the dual aside, waded on the unfamiliar grounds of rejoicing in blue victory over red.

However as the dust finally clears from that four minute roller-coaster that surpassed even a week in Alton Towers without safety checks, the reality for Liverpool fans now is that they enter the most worrying time of the current owners’ tenure.

After a season-long version of said four minute roller-coaster, the owners decided the stomach turning lows outweighed the dizzying highs. Liverpool’s principle owner John Henry and club chairman Tom Werner decided that Carling Cup success was not enough to push an eighth placed finish under the carpet and sacked Liverpool’s greatest living legend Kenny Dalglish.

But was the house a development in progress or was there simply no room under the carpet any more, meaning a late spring cleaning was required? Kenny Dalglish’s playing career made him the greatest ever player at one of the world’s greatest clubs. His dedication to the club off the field only helped to add to his God-like stature.

His return was seen by the majority of reds as an event akin to that of Jesus playing drums at a Beatles come-back gig in The Cavern. ‘For when you are at your weakest, when you have been cast to your knees, I shall return in the full glory and power of salvation’.

And Liverpool were undoubtedly on their knees. Torn to shreds by civil war in the board room and practically sprinting backwards from the furthest point they had been since 1990. Then in January 2011 a band of white horses rode into town in the shape of Sports Illustrated’s ‘best owners in world sports’. Fenway Sports Group had ousted the previous American cowboys and removed the grossly unpopular Roy Hodgson. The true master stroke in their transition was encouraging Kenny out of retirement to save the club he still loved. It meant that they could retain their title as Americans, not ‘yanks.’

One year on and that reality reshaping dream has descended into a bed-wetting nightmare. 2012 has seen Liverpool break more records and deliver more mind-bending stats than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo; the worst home record in years, the lowest home-scoring record since 1904, the worst shots per goals ratio in the league and an overall goals tally that fell well short of either of the above player’s goal haul for this year.

All of this concluded with Liverpool finishing closer to the relegation battle than the title race. Any fan who has had any form of contact with logic in the last year should have been well aware that a title race was well beyond Liverpool, only one year from teetering on the brink of administration. This season was always going to be about progress.

Brave steps needed to be taken to get back on the road to redemption and to restore the club to a position that fans see as their birth right. Even a Champions League place was venturing into insanity and most supporters were content to aspire to a fourth spot battle. That fourth place challenge failed to materialise and unrest surfaced.

The staggering January and summer outlay did not guarantee a challenge but coupled with a season that saw the weakest Arsenal and Chelsea teams in a decade, it most certainly was there to be grasped. Chelsea’s problems mirrored events at Anfield with the difference being that that they opted to change manager early.

Arsenal survived early humiliating defeats to somehow secure a third place finish, driven by one man alone (ironically two goals from Van Persie in yet another Anfield game they should have won proved to be the final nail of Liverpool’s league coffin and the catalyst for the Gunners’ fantastic end of season rally).

Spurs punched above their weight before eventually crumbling like a virgin at the very allure of being chased. Although unrealistic in August, by May it was clear that fourth or even third spot would have in fact been achievable. Had the enormous financial muscle been flexed differently then Liverpool’s entire future would have seemed an entirely more optimistic prospect. A point which illustrates this clearly? -the 35 million spent on Andy Carroll could have bought the entire Newcastle team that finished above Liverpool.

Of course there are those that proclaim Liverpool are a club that win trophies. A team never content with finishing lower than first. That argument would suggest that a return of one cup and two final appearances should have been enough to save any manager in his first year. Liverpool’s form became even less comprehendible as they swept away Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and anyone else put in front of them across both domestic competitions.

The Carling cup offered Reds the opportunity to finally return to the ground once viewed as their home from home as a first appearance at the new Wembley beckoned. What unfolded though was a performance so underwhelming that it almost eroded the work of the earlier rounds. Liverpool’s new silverware was snatched from Championship side Cardiff after Dalglish’s side used up more lives than a middle aged cat. It was memorable only for what could legitimately be described as the worst penalty shoot-out in living memory.

The belief that a better side would surely have punished Liverpool on that day was only confirmed by their first half performance against Chelsea in the FA Cup final.
If Liverpool are indeed a club only focused on winning trophies, then losing a final is as relevant as going out in the third round. If Kenny supporters can burn through Shankly quotes all year in his defence, then second place is surely nowhere?After too many baron years for a club like Liverpool, a champagne moment on the Wembley turf was a welcome distraction indeed, but the idea that it is sufficient is now as dated as their last league silverware.

The reality was that without the midweek shackles of European football, Liverpool were free to play their best team throughout the competition, a luxury not afforded to their more contemporary successful counterparts. People can accept it or deny it but the Champions League rules the global market that is football. It provides the finances to build the projects owners preach of and construct the platform needed to attract the performers needed to drive this project.

Fans took solace in the identity of the club. Results may not have materialised as they had envisaged but comfort was sought in the fact that they were not only playing football that had hinted at a throwback to their glory years but that Liverpool were also being led by a man who loved their club with as much vigour as they do.
When Dalglish returned, his passion and enthusiasm oozed from every pour and was so consuming and contagious that optimism touched every corner of Liverpool’s worldwide fan base.

However as each weekend seemed to deliver another crushing blow that optimism eroded and the harsh reality of the huge demands of the Liverpool job were clearly etched on Dalglish’s face. His 21 years away from the club seemed like the generation ago it truly was as he struggled with the enormity of modern day football’s media involvement.

In his handling of the Luis Suarez racism row, Dalglish showed a glaring ignorance of today’s Twitter-driven internet coverage of modern day sport. One wrong decision or one misjudgement can be sent hurtling out of control quicker than it took for the event to happen.

In 2012, everyone has a soapbox. With the Suarez t-shirt incident, Dalglish’s intentions, as they always tend to be, were fundamentally correct –protect Liverpool FC at all costs. But as pressure mounted, results worsened and Dalglish became increasingly truculent with the media, to the point of embarrassment. His interviews morphed from being cagey and protective to being point-blank rude and abrasive.

There was a clear lack of acknowledgement that the expensive flops he had signed and promised would come good had only been secured due to the financial windfall that comes from Geoff Shreeves’ employers.

The Liverpool image he would do anything to secure was ironically being fractured all season long, fractures that would not go unnoticed by the PR- lusting American owners. FSG have a very real and comprehensive understanding of the need to globalise the brand that is the football club. Liverpool must be attractive to people and investors who are not fans, an idea some actual supporters seem to really struggle with.

Then there was the Comolli factor. Fans’ loyalty to the King cast the blame firmly in the corner of the French talent finder. It is unquestionable that he was the driving force behind the signing of Andy Carroll, a signing that could yet prove to be the worst in Premier League history. Although accurate knowledge of exactly what Damien Comolli’s involvement was with the process of signings is difficult to assess, it is entirely unrealistic to think that a man whose influence is so far-reaching in the club as Dalglish’s was, would not have final say in all transfers. It is unlikely that he would have agreed to come back without assurances of that nature.

Even with a fair spread of the blame, the window spending has been so disastrous that all involved must carry a heavy burden of blame. Still, the fans’ love for the man did not shift. The players were underperforming, the club was too big, they needed time and apparently there was no better man to resurrect them as ‘the best man manager in the league’.

Yet if Dalglish truly possessed these confidence-enhancing talents, how could it be that every player signed under his reign performed at a lower standard than they had done for their previous clubs? The most notable of these players was the absolute disaster that was Stewart Downing who contributed no goals and no assists. The outlay could well prove to have been a one-off one-window strategy designed to catapult the club forward four positions. Instead the spending has sent them in the opposite direction with the purse strings now surely tightened.

Support for Dalglish is so fervent in some cases that acceptance of mediocrity is excused. ‘Liverpool are now a mid table side, fans should not expect more and it’s an unfair burden to rest on the shoulders of a man simply doing his best.’ In all my time following football I have never seen a mid-table team spend over 100 million in one year.

The mid-table position can be attributed to the fact that almost the entire budget was spent on players accustomed to that section of the league table. Defeat is mentally accepted because it’s in their nature, the prevalent feeling must be that this is how things usually unfold at this point in the season so why should this be any different now?

Football is a tightrope with harsh consequences -stay upright and be the hero, but fall and you are at the mercy of the wolves. The FA Cup semi final could have seen Andy Carroll further cement his position as the number one comedy show on Merseyside with a glaring four yard miss. Instead, with moments remaining, a mere brush off his elevated ponytail and the much maligned striker was rocketed into the Liverpool hero stratosphere. The header was suddenly enough to merit his performance as star man across national media.

That line between success and failure seemed more tenuous than ever for Liverpool throughout this year. The width of a post seemingly denied them enough points to have already won the league by Christmas. The proximity to victory became a mainstay in the ‘Dalgish to remain’ campaign. The team was achingly close to turning one point into three on many occasions. Again the harsh reality to combat the woodwork propaganda is that it merely shepherded a herd of missed chances into the darkness. Time and time again Kenny’s expensively assembled attack were utterly toothless when they needed to be ruthless. Often the three points never came and stumbling in 2012, they would end the season crippled by a run of form so poor that the only club with a worse record was bottom club Wolves. That fact was more damning than any other in the ‘time for a change’ case files.

As a summer of questions, changes and new projects loom the lack of direction seems to be verging on the hysteric. Rudderless on almost every level the club is certainly not on course for what fans had envisaged as a bright future. Defenders of Dalglish are staunch and furious as they have been all season. Their rigid resistance has been as frustrating all year as the team’s performances. Kenny Dalglish’s identity is so ingrained into the very fabric of the club that he is a part of them. Questioning him became a personal insult which saw retorts with volleys of vitriol that are usually reserved for the defence of a family member.

But take away past glorys and regurgitation of Bill Shankly quotes and their points come up short. For every Alex Ferguson given time, there is a Roy Evans given time. For every Lucas that turned it around, there’s a Salif Diao who did not. The time is now crucial for FSG. The first real decision that could invoke the supporters’ wrath has been made. Their absence from the Suarez case has been duly noted and now they must get it right across a full sweep of Liverpool’s controlling figures. The decision to sack the Liverpool hero will only be the right one if the next decision is right.

One final thought. For those that feel Dalglish’s second tenure was sour enough to chisel away at the fantastic memories he brought before and for those that did not live through any of his original years and don’t hold him as dear to their hearts as many do, Kenny Dalglish turned down his severance package, telling the men who sacked him to ‘spend it on players.’ It was a moment of total class that perfectly sums up why no one should have wanted it to work out this way. It is exactly the kind of memory we should have of him and that memory will never die.

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