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Jan 9, 2011

Dalglish cannot refresh Liverpool yet

If the past is another country, then Liverpool Football Club appear keen to emigrate. At a stroke, they have been taken back to 1990 and their last league title, to 1988 and one of the finest footballing sides this country has even seen and to 1986, when a grinning player-manager scored the goal that won Division 1 to set up a historic double. Back by popular demand, Kenny Dalglish is embarking upon his comeback tour.

Yesterday's man is aiming to prove he is tomorrow's, too, but he has returned to a much-changed footballing landscape. At Old Trafford, where schadenfreude is a sport, his side met with taunts of "going down". Having bowed out as Liverpool manager with a 4-4 draw against Everton in the FA Cup in 1991, he returned two decades on with a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United in the same competition. His second managerial debut brought a notion that was anathema to Liverpool in their glory days: respectability in defeat.

That is both a sign of decline and a cause of encouragement. Considering the capitulation of Steven Gerrard's 10 team-mates at Blackburn, their efforts in the hour after the captain's dismissal stood in stark contrast. That might be the Dalglish effect.

So, too, could the response of the supporters. With dissent in the stands and graffiti at Melwood, the writing was, quite literally, on the wall for Roy Hodgson. Dalglish's return was an exercise in adulation. An attempt at a subdued entrance failed; after walking on with Sir Alex Ferguson, the younger Glaswegian punched the air as he reached the dugout, provoking a chorus of "You'll Never Walk Alone" that not even the United boos could drown out.

"It crossed my mind to run down the touchline to the corner [to the fans]," deadpanned Dalglish; though he has a sense of comic timing, there was no Jose Mourinho impression. In any case, he was worshipped from afar. The familiar chorus of "The Fields Of Anfield Road" contains a line that was delivered with particular emphasis: "watching King Kenny play... and could he play".

But can he manage? Once the answer was in the affirmative. Now there is more doubt. A decade on the golf course, in the stands and in semi-retirement has led to doubts. The Scot's self-deprecation explanation of the tributes from the stands was: "Thankfully they have got a long memory."

Indeed, Dalglish's dry wit was apparent as he explained the circumstances of his appointment. "Like all good athletes, I was in the bar," he said. "I was on a boat [a cruise ship near Bahrain], I was happy and then I got a phone call from [owner] John Henry who said they spoke to Roy and would I like to come and look after the team until the end of the season. It was a no-brainer. I've been asked a few times to go back [into management] but Liverpool Football Club is a special place. It's brilliant. It's amazing how quickly the memory comes back to you."

He had little time to savour the feeling. Barely 30 seconds had elapsed when Daniel Agger clipped the heels of Dimitar Berbatov. Ryan Giggs drilled the resulting penalty past Jose Reina. Barely 30 minutes had gone by when Gerrard's two-footed lunge at Michael Carrick resulted in his premature departure. Having ceded his place as Anfield's resident inspiration to the new manager, he let down his hero. "I don't think the referee [Howard Webb] had an option," Ferguson said. "Steven Gerrard's not that type of player."

Liverpool's new caretaker betrayed something of an unfamiliarity with the modern game's laws when saying: "The sending off....Is anyone who leaves the ground to get sent off now?"

Dalglish clearly sympathised with Gerrard. Captain and manager have another common denominator. There is a shared sense of noble self-sacrifice to the greater cause. "I'll give it anything I've got to put this club in a better position than it is in at the moment," said Dalglish. It has been Gerrard's ethos in a time where he has fought a lone battle against an all-encompassing mediocrity.

But shorn of Hodgson, without Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Dalglish recognised he has to end the divisiveness that has been all too apparent. The in-fighting must be consigned to the past. "Everybody's got to be singing from the same hymn sheet whether it is players, supporters, the owners or the manager," he added.

He is uniquely placed to be the unifier, offering sound common sense as well as an improved performance. Liverpool can take solace in nostalgia, but during the next six months Dalglish describes as "a fantastic journey", they have a decision to make: can the romantic choice also be the realistic one?

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs - Another display of timeless excellence from the influential Welshman, who took his penalty superbly and delivered the corner that Jonny Evans headed against the post. There are umpteen signs of Giggs' longevity, but one is that he debuted for United a month after Dalglish left Liverpool.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Victory was secured without Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney, all of whom should be fit for Sunday's trip to Tottenham. Evans started for the first time since his horror show at West Ham and acquitted himself well, while one of the positives for Liverpool was that Michael Owen's cameo didn't yield a goal against his old team.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Dalglish had no time to work with the players but a display of tactical coherence and determination reflected well. Of the five changes, Martin Kelly proved an assured deputy for Glen Johnson, whose wife went into labour, while Fabio Aurelio was an improvement on Paul Konchesky. Raul Meireles, selected in his proper position of centre midfield, will assume a greater importance now Gerrard is suspended for the game against Blackpool, Everton and Wolves. Fernando Torres, who was livelier, is another who must compensate.

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