Kenny Dalglish is rated by many a sage judge as the best player in Liverpool’s history. Indeed, when his managerial achievements are factored in, no less a luminary than the late, great, Bob Paisley considered Dalglish to be the best and most important signing that not only he ever made, but also in the entire existence of Liverpool Football Club.
It is hard to argue with that. There have been other great players in Liverpool’s long and illustrious history, such as Kevin Keegan, Billy Liddell, and Steven Gerrard, and there have been other great managers. Not many have been both player and manager of Liverpool though, and nobody else has been both player and manager at the same time.
As a player, Dalglish was immense and instrumental to Liverpool’s on-field success in the 1970’s and ’80’s. Dalglish’s pure Liverpool playing career was spread over a nine-year spell following his arrival from Celtic in 1977 through to its winding down in 1986. During this period Liverpool won no less than six league titles, three European Cups, four League Cups and a solitary FA Cup.
The last of the league titles was won together with the FA Cup in 1986 to complete ‘the double’ in Dalglish’s first season as manager, a campaign in which he was very much player-manager.
In 2017, the Centenary Stand at Anfield was renamed ‘the Kenny Dalglish Stand’ in his honour, and the following year it was announced that he was to receive a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
This honour was bestowed upon Dalglish in recognition of his charity work as well as his footballing achievements, and Sir Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish is now rightly installed as a legend at Liverpool Football Club and beyond.
Kenny Dalglish spent the best part of two decades ‘in exile’ from his beloved Liverpool, and in that time it could be argued that his legacy slipped slightly.
Let us now look in more detail at his decision to leave the club in 1991 and then in part two at the time he spent away from from the club prior to his return to the fold in 2009 in the youth academy and as club ambassador under Rafael Benetiz.
When Joe Fagan decided to step down as manager in 1985, the Liverpool board took a gamble on appointing the 34-year-old Dalglish as player-manager. Over the next five seasons, Liverpool’s decade-long run of dominance showed no sign of abating under Kenny, and the trophies kept rolling in.
Three league titles were secured in those five years along with two runners-up spots. Two FA Cup successes were also achieved as well as being beaten finalists once. In fact, as well as winning ‘the double’ once Liverpool came close to securing a further three ‘doubles’ in 1988, ’89, and ’90.
Therefore, on the surface everything looked rosy and so when Dalglish’s resignation in February 1991 was announced, it came as a massive shock to the footballing world.
An Unfathomable Decision?
At the press conference called to announce his decision, Dalglish looked haggard and old beyond his years as he attempted to explain himself. Almost incoherent and seemingly near to tears, Dalglish mumbled that the pressure had got to him and he simply felt unable to continue.
It was a decision that baffled many at the time and rumours began to circulate. It was hinted in some quarters that Dalglish had been wounded by the criticism he and the team were receiving during that season.
Liverpool not firing on all cylinders at that point in the season was perhaps a valid point, but although they were not quite as dominant as in previous years, they still sat atop of the league table and were in the draw for the quarter-final of the FA Cup.
Locked in a head-to-head battle with Arsenal for the title, Dalglish had been under fire for some of his side’s recent performances and also for his team selection and tactics. Whilst in previous times the ‘Liverpool Way’ had been to simply pick their best eleven players available and let the opposition do the worrying, in 1990-91 Dalglish started the trend of rotating players and line-ups depending on the opponents.
This had not proved to be wholly successful or popular. Perhaps a turning point arrived when Liverpool travelled to Highbury for a league clash in early December 1990.
A Decisive Game in LFC’s History?
At the time, both sides were unbeaten in the league and Liverpool arrived with a six-point advantage at the top of the table, having won twelve and drawn two of their opening fourteen league matches. Arsenal for their part had four days earlier been hammered 6-2 at home by Manchester United in the League Cup and must have been approaching the game with just a tad of apprehension.
However, rather than take the match to Arsenal and attempt to open up a nine-point lead with a third of the season gone, Dalglish inexplicably decided that his team would set up with six defenders on the field in Venison, Ablett, Gillespie, Nicol, Burrows and Hysen.
Patrolling just in front of this esteem half-dozen would be Jan Molby and Ronnie Whelan should they need any added protection.
The experiment failed badly and Liverpool returned back up the motorway with their collective tail firmly between their legs following a 3-0 spanking.
From then on Liverpool seemed to stumble a bit with five wins, five draws and another defeat (away to Crystal Palace) before meeting Everton in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Still leading Arsenal by three points at the time, Dalglish had been criticised and questioned for leaving Peter Beardsley out of the team on occasion, and it was being whispered that there was possibly some sort of personal rather than a professional problem between the two men, or possibly even between their wives!
Whatever the truth of the matter, Dalglish certainly seemed even tetchier than normal in press conferences leading up to the Merseyside cup clash. He was snapping at journalists more than usual as he attempted to justify his team selections and tactics and appeared to be a man under an overbearing amount of strain.
In addition, and quite unusually for a Liverpool manager, Dalglish found his signings under scrutiny. The signings of Jimmy Carter from Millwall and David Speedie from Coventry were both considered in some quarters as being ‘un-Liverpool’ in nature, and a sign that the pressure was getting to Dalglish.
At the time these strains, although clearly weighing him down, were thought to be no more than the normal wear-and-tear associated with managing one of the world’s biggest clubs.
However, although it was not immediately apparent, it later transpired that Dalglish had been suffering burn-out for some time.
Matters came to a head the day after Liverpool had squandered the lead four times in the fifth round replay against Everton. Ending as a 4-4 draw, the game has gone down in folklore as one of the best Merseyside derbies of all time. For Dalglish, however, enough was enough.
Having made the decision in advance of kick-off that he was resigning after the game irrespective of the result, Kenny stuck to his guns and did so the next day.
Although personal stress was the reason stated by Dalglish in the aforementioned press conference for his sudden departure, it was questioned in some quarters. Some commentators speculated that there may have been a falling out behind the scenes and perhaps Dalglish had resigned because money for a requested transfer target had been denied.
In his autobiography written in 1999, Alan Hansen, a close friend of Kenny Dalglish’s, stated that that was the initial conclusion reached by some Liverpool players upon hearing the news. Hansen also stated, however, that they were informed that this was not the case.
Almost two decades later and the issue was again addressed by a member of that side when Bruce Grobbelaar released a new autobiography.
Writing about the day Dalglish resigned, he had this to say:
“Kenny said, ‘Listen, I have a little problem with someone here at the club, and it’s not you guys. I’ve got to do something that I feel I have to do. It’s someone at the club that I’m having a problem with, and I won’t be your manager from now on – I’m resigning. So go forward and play your best football, but I won’t be your manager any more.’”
Grobbelaar’s theory was that Dalglish had wanted to buy Alan Shearer, had been refused the funds and had then attempted to call the board’s bluff by threatening to resign, only to have the tables turned on him and have his resignation accepted.
Earlier in Dalglish’s reign, there had been rumours of internal wranglings with the board and at least one other threatened resignation was said to have occurred a couple of seasons earlier.
When Dalglish took over as Liverpool boss it was in the dual role of player-manager. However, by 1989 his playing days were all but a thing of the past and certain members of the board were now said to be questioning whether or not it was time to review Dalglish’s salary, seeing as he was ‘only doing one job instead of two’.
Dalglish was reported to have been incandescent with rage and on the point of resigning before a compromise was reached.
Now in 1991, though, there was now going back. In his own (first) autobiography written in 1996, Dalglish elaborated on his reasons for stepping down. He wrote that the strain of running Liverpool combined with the heartbreak and intensity of dealing with the Hillsborough disaster twenty-two months earlier had just proved unmanageable and that he had had to quit for his own sanity as well as for the good of the club.
Dalglish related how he had felt his personality changing over the previous year-and-a-half, and how he was relying more on alcohol to help him relax through the evenings. His family life was suffering, he wrote, and he simply needed a break.
This, however, is the part in the tale when the waters do indeed become just a tad muddy.
In his autobiography, Sir Ken states the Liverpool board did everything they could to change his mind. This included offering him a sabbatical to the end of the season. Dalglish wrote that he rejected this idea on the grounds that he would not be able to properly relax as the games would still be happening and he would still be feeling involved.
However, half a dozen or so pages later, Dalglish wrote that he was on holiday when he heard that Liverpool had appointed his old room-mate, Graeme Souness as his successor, and he wrote of his regret. In an apparent contradiction to his statement that he wanted a complete break, he added: “If they had waited until the summer and then asked me, I would have gone back. Like a shot”.
Although Liverpool fans were bewildered by Kenny’s resignation, he left with most people’s good wishes. It was extremely difficult for anyone to resent a man who had achieved so much for Liverpool both on the field and in the dug-out, and the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness but understanding.
There was, however, a slight shift in public opinion amongst certain sections of the Liverpool support when Dalglish turned up as manager of Blackburn Rovers a few short months later in the autumn of 1991.
In part two, we will look at Kenny Dalglish – The Years in Exile.