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A Decade of Liverpool Football Club: King Kenny’s Downfall

For a time, there was hope. In the end, what had to be done was clear—not that it made things any easier.

Liverpool’s Scottish manager Kenny Dalgl Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Liverpool’s two biggest off the pitch problems were solved by the arrival of Fenway Sports Group, but as the Reds struggled along with an unpopular manager leading a deficient squad, it was clear the removal of Tom Hicks and George Gillett wasn’t the only thing the club needed.

The problem for the club’s new owners was that they were new to football. They had lofty goals and a winning record in the sporting world, and they had some interesting ideas that just might translate if they could get the right people in place at their new club. But when it came to the specifics of what it would take to win in the Premier League, as cliche as it is, they quite simply didn’t know what they didn’t know.

One clear difference from Hicks and Gillett was they at least seemed aware of it. They also, having gained the club in no small part due to the fanbase’s role in helping to push out the previous owners, wanted to make an early statement. They wanted to do something that would signal to Liverpool fans that even if they were American like the last ones, that they were owners of a different sort.

It didn’t take long, then, for that struggling, unpopular manager to find himself out of a job. On the eighth of January, following a 3-1 defeat to Blackburn, just six months after being hired and a mere two-and-a-half after FSG took the club over, Roy Hodgson was sacked.

He managed the Reds through 20 rounds of the 2010-11 Premier League season with a record of seven wins, four draws, and nine losses. He ended his tenure in 12th. It wasn’t all his fault, of course. He’d been dealt a rotten hand with a sub-par squad and the club in turmoil. Even still, he’d done worse than he might have—worse than another manager, a better motivator more in tune with the fans, might have.

Kenny Dalglish was intended to be that manager, Liverpool’s King returning to save the club on the pitch after FSG had arrived to save the club from administration.

The first result almost didn’t matter. Which was perhaps a good thing as the first result was a 2-1 defeat to Blackpool. Still, whether it was simply the fans being energised, feeling as though a second crushing weight had been lifted off the club, or whether it was something more, there was an instant sense of hope. If nothing else, Dalglish sounded like a proper Liverpool manager after a half-season of Hodgson’s pessimistic defeatism.

And, after that first loss, results began to come. A draw with Everton in a hard-fought derby match, then five wins on the bounce—Liverpool’s best run in the league the entire season and enough to push them to sixth, where they would end it. The overall play improved, too, and even the departure of Fernando Torres at the end of the month wasn’t enough to dent fans’ confidence.

Mostly that was down to Dalglish, but it was also thanks to the fact Luis Suarez arrived and looked capable of making an instant impact on Merseyside. It also didn’t hurt that the club managed to turn Torres’ departure into something of a win for the new owners, as they were seen to have gotten an exceptional £50M fee for the wantaway star and to be willing to re-invest via the signing of Andy Carroll.

Whether Carroll was a good fit for this Liverpool side—or any side Liverpool should aspire to build, even—and whether the fee was at all sensible for a player with as thin a track record, was a question. But at least, following the Hicks and Gillett years, it was refreshing to see a set of owners willing to put their faith in the people they’d put in place on the football side and to spend some money.

In the end, Liverpool couldn’t catch Tottenham in fifth, falling four points shy of the North London club and missing out on Europa League qualification, but they hit a pace of 1.83 points per game under Dalglish, going 10-3-5 after managing just 1.25 points per game and a 7-4-9 record under Hodgson. It was the kind of improvement that, over a 38 game season, would secure not just a Europa League place but one back in the Champions League.

After where Liverpool had been after the first half of the season on the pitch—and after where they’d been the year before under Hicks and Gillett—that was enough. It was more than enough. Hopes were high and optimism reigned. King Kenny had saved Liverpool.

That optimism didn’t entirely survive the summer, which saw fans become familiar with a second name to go alongside Dalglish in the club’s footballing hierarchy. Damien Comolli had arrived shortly after Fenway Sports Group, with the owners having reached out to the people they knew who knew what they didn’t know about football and landing on the man they hoped would be bring a more modern approach to rebuilding their new investment.

Given their path to success in Baseball, John Henry and Liverpool’s new owners had been quickly saddled with a term for their hoped-for approach. Moneyball. Not that there was anything especially revolutionary about the idea of seeking out undervalued assets—aka players—using them to improve the squad, then selling them on once their market value increased and reinvesting to buy slightly better undervalued assets.

But it got the owners a bit of a reputation, a perception they wanted Liverpool to be a selling club, that would take some time to fight free of. Still, fundamentally it was really no different than horse-trading approach Rafa Benitez had taken in the transfer market as he looked to build his squad the previous decade, and it was no different than the approach Tottenham had taken to build themselves up from mid-table also-rans to a side that could expect to finish ahed of Liverpool and fight for a place in the top four.

Which meant it made a kind sense that FSG brought in Comolli, the man who had been director of football at Tottenham from 2005 to 2008. He was the one who landed on Andy Carroll as the man to replace Torres—though knowing they needed an instant response to the Spaniard’s departure, it was the owners who sanctioned paying the £35M fee—and he was the one who was meant to dig into the statistics and find players who would return Liverpool to the top.

It’s difficult to know just how much of what followed was down to his embrace big chance creation numbers as the route to recruitment success and how much was Dalglish’s input, but either way the club turned its recruitment focus almost entirely towards England and players whose numbers said they created chances. In particular, the sorts of chances a striker like Carroll might thrive on.

The club followed up Carroll’s big money signing by bringing in Stewart Downing for £20M, Jordan Henderson for £16M, and Charlie Adam for £7M as fans and pundits alike raised a collective eyebrow. These didn’t seem like bargains or undervalued assets. They didn’t even entirely seem, in what they would bring to the side, like Liverpool players—or at least the sorts of players most fans imagined Liverpool players to be. They seemed like the sort of players you’d stock a mid-table side with. The sort of side that would lump balls in to a lump of a central striker.

Which is rather what the club got. Despite going on to win the club’s first trophy in six years by capturing the League Cup in 2012, Liverpool was a side that felt stale. And as the hope of Dalglish’s first half-season faded into the past—along with the good results, as Liverpool fell back to a 1.36 point per game pace, finishing six points and two positions worse than the year before—it began to feel as though he had perhaps taken the project as far as he could.

It began to feel as though for all his motivational talent and love for the club, Dalglish was perhaps not a manager fully in tune with the modern game. King Kenny was the right man for Liverpool Football Club. He will always be the right man for Liverpool Football Club. Just not, perhaps, the right man to lead it back to glory in 2012.

He wasn’t the first architect of Liverpool’s stumble to depart. Damien Comolli left on April 12th. The club statement said it was by mutual consent. In retrospect, accusations he had unearthed some gems but also left Tottenham unbalanced, and that he led Saint-Étienne to the brink of financial disaster after moving there from Spurs, seem missed warnings. About the kindest that can be said for his time at Anfield is that amongst spending a lot of money on the wrong players and leaving the squad as a whole worse than when he arrived, he did find the club’s future captain in Henderson.

He was also the easy departure. The one without any real links to the club. It was far more difficult for fans to try deal with Dalglish leaving four days later. It was far more difficult, for a club and a fanbase, to love a manager more than perhaps any other figure associated with the club in its long and storied history and to then have to accept that his signings and his tactics were unlikely to take them where they wanted to go.

It was a difficult thing, to so desperately want Dalglish to be the right man for the job but to have wondered, watching the players who were signed and the odd personnel choices and the at times sluggish football that resulted from it all, if perhaps he might not be.

The owners took some criticism, naturally. The American owners who had pushed out the most beloved figure in the history of the club. The results of Dalglish’s first full season in charge, though, had seemed clear. He had done his job to help get the club back on its feet the season before and given the fans hope again, but that hope in the end had been short lived and a clean break was needed. Liverpool, it was clear, needed to move on.

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