Friday, May 18, 2012

The Death of (Sporting) Romance

For God's sake, let us sit upon the groundAnd tell sad stories of the death of kings...

As I suggested in my response to Jeffrey's excellent post last week, I was going to blog about global matters, and the economic annihilation facing Europe, and the inevitable social unrest and upheaval that will ensue. But then something more important happened.

My football team sacked its manager.

Get over it Dan, you might think. Football managers get sacked all the time. They have the life expectancy of dragonflies. With hereditary heart disease. After all, it's just a game. And you would be right.

But the football manager in question, Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish, wasn't just a football manager. He was my childhood hero. The first book I remember reading was the 1978 Kenny Dalglish football annual. I have read Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow and Don Quixote (actually, that's a lie - I have tried to read Don Quixote about 15 times and failed. It's up there with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo among books where I can't get past 100 pages...) and I can remember very little detail about them. Other than they're very, very long. Yet I can tell you that Kenny liked to have few biscuits before a game and out of superstition the last thing he put on before the match was his shorts.

Dalglish was the greatest player I've ever seen. Yet that was almost incidental. What I loved most about him was the glee with which he celebrated a goal, of which there were plenty. He would raise two jubilant arms, hands and fingers outstretched, his cheeks would burn red with joy and his whole face crumpled into a look of unadorned delight. I remember going to a game at Maine Road, to see the Reds beat Manchester City 5-0. I remember the thrill of being in the same stadium as the man, watching him play. It was true hero worship.

To all Liverpool fans he was King Kenny. When his playing days were coming to an end he became player-manager. Liverpool kept on winning. Then he stopped playing and became just manager. Liverpool kept on winning. In 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died at an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, crushed as a consequence of criminally negligent policing. Kenny went to every single funeral of every single victim. It damned near killed him. Liverpool kept on winning. Then in 1991, he resigned, suddenly, shockingly. He had simply had enough and needed a break.

Liverpool stopped winning.

With his departure, a little bit of interest and love of football left me too. It was less important. I spent the 1990s watching and following Liverpool from afar. During that time I was always interested in what Kenny was up to. He returned to management and took Blackburn to the league title, and I remember being delighted, not least because he beat Manchester United and their boorish, classless, graceless, humourless and yet annoyingly successful manager Alex Ferguson - a fellow Scot but everything Kenny was and is not.

Then as my interest in football was rekindled, Kenny drifted away from the game. He was less successful at Newcastle United and Celtic, and it seemed his managerial days were over. Every now and then he would pop up on a football show, offering his pithy and direct bon mots in his thick Glaswegian accent, usually winding up whichever poor unfortunate was tasked with interviewing him. That was another reason to love him. He did not suffer fools gladly. Particularly fools with microphones and inflated views of their own importance.

Then in early 2011 as Liverpool limped towards relegation under the disastrous Roy Hodgson (now cruelly, barbarically employed as England manager solely to give its media some sport) the new owners, Fenway Sports Group, who run the Boston Red Sox, put Roy out of his misery. Sensing the fans needed a lift after the disastrous tenure of their American predecessors, and unable to find a suitable candidate mid-season, they turned to Kenny. You could see it coming. I wasn't convinced. He was such a hero that I didn't want him to come out of retirement and sully his name and legacy. Modern football is a soulless, sterile affair, corporate slick and awash with money and spoiled, pampered players. Kenny was the antithesis of all that. But once he was unveiled, and roasting his first interviewer, and, most of all, celebrating each goal on the sidelines with the same impish glee that he had 30 years before, I was sold.

Could it be, we wondered? Could King Kenny be the man to win Liverpool its first league title in more than 20 years?

Alas, no. The second half of this season was promising, but this season was disappointing. Just as damaging, the club became embroiled in a long-running dispute about racist behaviour on the pitch by one of its players, which met with an enfeebled and muddled response from Liverpool, and Kenny was hung out to dry. Money was made available to spend on players and those that were bought flattered to deceive. Liverpool won one cup but you sensed it wasn't enough. Fenway had bought into the Liverpool Way initially, but having seen meagre returns wanted to impose their own structure. This week Kenny was fired. In a magnanimous gesture entirely in keeping with the man, he waived the £8m compensation due to him and asked that it be used to fund more players. He remains a fan.

There is alot of anger around, much of it directed at Fenway. I'm a Red Sox fan, and the owners have failed to cover themselves in glory, and there is scant evidence they understand the game (and I'm slightly concerned we're going to get the footballing equivalent of Bobby Valentine) but they handled a difficult decision quickly and fairly. I think he should have got more time, but part of me is glad he's out of it. Modern football is no place for good guys.

But most of all I just feel a bit sad and numb. It's the last time Kenny is likely to be involved with the club. It also proves that there's little place for romance or fairytales in modern sport. The newly-crowned league champions, Manchester City, spent gazillions on their title-winning team, hoovering up the best players from around the world and putting them together Harlem Globetrotter-style in the hope they woud gel. They did, but it's hardly a tale to get misty-eyed over.

Unlike Kenny's leaving.


Dan - Friday


  1. Boston is taking a "wait and see" attitude toward the Fenway group right now. Most of the major players are injured and collecting large salaries except for Jacoby Ellsbury who is in the last year of his current contract. He is the most missed player. It will be interesting to see if the Fenway group offers him a contract that reflects the player he has become or will they sell him on to another team. Jacoby's popularity cannot be overstated.

  2. Dan, such courage you showed. Taking on global economic annihilation is child's play compared to swatting at the sporting gadfly giants. "Gadfly" in terms of their commitment to building success over time. Terrific piece.

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