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Feb 19, 2009

King Kenny abdicates his throne

All dynasties come to an end. Whisper it, Manchester United's edifice will one day crumble and when those days do arrive, their fans will anxiously recall their predecessor as England's leading club and pray it does not take them anywhere near as long to recover from their fall from grace.

In the always 20-20 vision of retrospection, Liverpool's decline may have already been in session, yet one date always rings out as that when the club's playing fortunes began to collapse.

Sunday, February 22, marks the anniversary of Kenny Dalglish's resignation from his Anfield managerial post. Back in February 1991, Liverpool, defending league champions, though showing signs of fragility, were still the pre-eminent force in the old First Division.

This was not the club's first "JFK" moment. In 1974, Reds fans had been stunned when Bill Shankly quit one July morning. Those feelings of bewilderment emoted in TV footage showing shocked fans being told by reporter and future rock impresario Tony Wilson that "Shanks" had retired were echoed by the amazement that greeted the abdication of "King Kenny". Though the signs had been in place for a while, few had seen it coming.

February 20's legendary 4-4 FA Cup draw with Everton at Goodison saw the away side surrender a lead four times. It was the night Dalglish decided he had enough. His team had defended horribly, the last equaliser coming from a Glenn Hysen mistake that let in Tony Cottee to take the tie to a second replay Liverpool would eventually lose. By then the club had changed forever. Eighteen years on, prior to the two clubs' recent series of matches that conjured up memories of bygone derbies, Dalglish admitted that blind panic had struck him before the Everton sub had struck that eighth goal.

"I knew that night I had to go," he said. "After we took the lead for the final time I was standing on the touchline and I knew that I had to make a change to shore things up at the back. I could see what had to be done and what would happen if I didn't do it, but I didn't act on what I knew I had to do. That was the moment I knew."

Accounts of the post-match Liverpool dressing room have documented scenes of insurrection with rottweiler-like coach Ronnie Moran joining Ian Rush in lambasting the defence. Everton player Pat Nevin later said the noise could be heard from the Everton dressing room, saying: "It was mental. We were elated because we had got away with a 4-4 draw, but our lads went quiet when they heard all that. It was kicking off like nothing on earth." Dalglish, meanwhile, is said to have stood with his back to the wall, breathing heavily and saying nothing.

Dalglish then went silently to his Southport home to let those closest know of his inner turmoil. "The wife was busy planning my 40th birthday and I just came in that night and told her I was done. I needed the break. I was shattered and Marina was stunned," he recalled. The following day he met with club chief executive Peter Robinson and the chairman and handed in his resignation. The news was made public on a Friday while Liverpool's players were training on Luton Town's plastic pitch in preparation for a Saturday league game with the Hatters.

Liverpool, who had been top of the First Division table, lost 3-1 at Kenilworth Road and were overtaken that day by Arsenal, who celebrated the deposing of their rivals' monarch with a 4-0 romp against Crystal Palace. Until this season, Liverpool have rarely been in as good a league position since. The following week, club captain Alan Hansen called time on his playing career as a long-term knee injury finally gave out on him. As Dalglish walked away, Moran, a graduate of Shankly's famous "Boot Room", took over the reins for a while, before making it clear that he did not want the job full-time.

Hansen soon declared his lack of interest in management, saying he wanted his hair "to stay relatively black". Eight weeks after Dalglish's departure, in strode the third member of the triumvirate of Scots who had been key to Liverpool's European and domestic dominance of the previous decade.

Though he inherited a team that was ageing badly and needed overhauling, Graeme Souness' reign, despite the lifting of the FA Cup in 1992, is ultimately remembered as a failure, most keenly for his sale of the story of his heart bypass operation to The Sun, the tabloid that had so defiled the memory of those who had died in the Hillsborough disaster.

It is the effects of those horrific events in April 1989 that are most often blamed for Dalglish's decline and eventual fall. In the aftermath, Dalglish had acted as his club's ambassador, attending as many fans' funerals as he could, while trying to keep the football flame alive. Grief can often have a delayed effect, leading to the type of depressive breakdown that Dalglish eventually suffered. In his 1997 autobiography he confessed that at the time of his leaving of Liverpool he had felt as if his head would explode.

The 1988/89 season had ended with a conclusion of almost indescribable drama as Michael Thomas' last-minute strike grabbed the title for Arsenal at Anfield. Dalglish's demeanour that night, as opposing manager George Graham tried in vain to stop his players celebrating too wildly barely six weeks after Hillsborough, was one of catatonic shock, with ITV commentator Brian Moore saying: "Dalglish just stands there." That face of stark dejection would be echoed 20 months later at Goodison Park.

In the interim, Liverpool had regained the league title in 1990, their 18th and so far their last. Though this was no vintage triumph. After all, the team that had run them closest, Graham Taylor's Aston Villa, had featured a strike force of Ian Ormondroyd and Tony Cascarino.

The addition of Swedish defender Hysen had done little to augment a backline that had failed to adequately replace Mark Lawrenson and featured Hansen on his last legs. A catastrophic 4-3 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Crystal Palace had denied them a chance of the double but also exposed their growing frailties.

The following season saw Liverpool again at the top of the table in January. Though again, this was no vintage crop of opponents. With Manchester United still rebuilding, Villa lapsing after the loss of Taylor to the England job, Everton in decline and Leeds only just back in the top division after a decade of absence, it was left to Arsenal to again be the challengers. Graham's team were far stronger this time, with goalkeeper David Seaman now augmenting that fabled defence.

On December 2, the Gunners had crushed their rivals 3-0 at Highbury, their relentless chase for a second title in three years beginning to gather momentum. They would end the season with just one defeat, seven points clear of Liverpool, the tale of the season told by their concession of a mere 18 goals to Liverpool's 40.

Prior to his resignation, the cracks had been beginning to show at Anfield. Tales of a rift between Dalglish and record signing Peter Beardsley have been latterly denied but the club was doing something it had rarely done during a quarter of a century of unmatched success; airing dirty linen in public.

Beardsley had been dropped for the Highbury game and Dalglish's transfer policy, which had revived the club in 1987 with the triple signings of Beardsley, John Barnes and John Aldridge, was faltering.

Aldridge had already gone, unable to get in ahead of the returned Ian Rush. Recent signings David Speedie, a 31-year-old with an infamously combustible temperament and Jimmy Carter, a Millwall winger who would play just five times for the club, did not look up to the Liverpool standard and were seen as panic buys that perhaps personified the mindset of the manager.

When Dalglish walked away, his dignity remained as intact as his place in the club's history. Yet there is a post-script to the story, revealed by the man himself last month. In an echo of Bill Shankly's failed attempt to un-resign his job just weeks after Bob Paisley had been handed the reins in that summer of 1974, Dalglish has admitted that he soon regretted leaving.

"I needed the break, I needed the rest," he said. "After two weeks I got what I needed and I'd have been ready to go back, but the phone never rang. No-one ever asked me how I was doing or whether I'd reconsider returning and the club went on and appointed Graeme." In a classic case of what might have been, the club he left behind has never been the same since.

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