Time to dethrone King Kenny?
Ironically, it usually begins with an eerie silence settling over the stadium. Then comes a low rumble of anxiety from a far corner that rises, like a toxic cloud, before erupting into a full-on baying, mutinous assault:
"You Don't Know What You're Doing
"Sacked in the morning. You're getting sacked in the morning."
When directed repeatedly at the likes of Steve Kean, Alex McLeish, Mick McCarthy or even Andre Villas-Boas, it barely registers as more than white noise, the muzak of managerial doom. But when the masses arise from their pews to spew bile at an apostle like Liverpool immortal Kenny Dalglish, you are jolted awake, no matter how deep the coma caused by the Chelsea-Spurs game earlier that morning.
So it was at my local watering hole this Saturday, when the pent-up frustration within the Church of Anfield came crackling through the big screen and even the most delusional of Dalglish's fan boys were no longer willing to throw their bodies in front of the now inevitable KK Farewell Tour Bus.
"I think he's finally Messiahed-out," my friend Andrew said, speaking for all the crestfallen, out-of-excuses Scousers in the bar after Liverpool's historic loss at home to Wigan -- Wigan! -- for the first time ever. "Only lifting another Cup stands between King Kenny and the golf course."
Let me pause here to say that it gives me no pleasure to watch Liverpool's late-season swoon, as it might a certain North London club that is currently in fourth place, three points behind Arsenal. Over the years, I've probably bought more pints for Liverpool fans than for any other lunatic mob of supporters at my pub, save my fellow anxious Gooners. But let's face it, the Reds are a hot mess in the league right now.
Liverpool is in the semifinals of the FA Cup, having already captured the league cup by barely outlasting second-tier Cardiff on penalty kicks. Should the Reds beat the winner of Sunderland-Everton in the semis and Chelsea, Spurs or Bolton in the final, then maybe their abysmal EPL campaign -- clinging to seventh place with eight Prem points from all of 2012, and four defeats in their past five games, including last week's epic two-goals-up-gagfest to QPR -- will be forgiven by their well-intentioned owners, New England Sports Ventures.
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But that is a mighty big ask, and as Terry Francona can attest, the folks at NESV didn't become a sports juggernaut by catering to their hearts rather than their heads. Just because Dalglish the player is beloved by Liverpool supporters of a certain antiquity -- and has stockpiled a massive reservoir of goodwill by agreeing to come off the links to rescue the club in its moment of Hodgson-esque need nearly 18 months ago -- it may not be sufficient to balance the more than $150 million he has Abamoviched away attempting to restore Liverpool to its rightful place among Europe's elite. And by rightful place, I don't mean battling West Brom for ninth in the EPL.
Let the record show that the Great Roy Hodgson Experiment -- which involved getting the most out of borderline players while trying not to rub one's face off -- had the plug mercifully pulled after a home defeat to Wolves, the Wigan of yesterday. While Hodgson didn't have the built-in credit line of one-and-a-half cups to point to, he also didn't have to explain how a sentient human being could spend $10 million on Charlie Adam, to say nothing of the Three $tooges -- Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson -- who Dalglish brought in for considerably more than sixth-place Newcastle's entire squad. And Hodgson never dragged one of English soccer's proudest names into the muck due to naďve, irresponsible and clueless statements about a race row involving his star striker.
But what will no doubt vex the NESV mandarins even more about Dalglish's tenure is how Liverpool, once the poster club for storied fight-backs (see the Miracle of Istanbul and its FA Cup win over West Ham in 2005), has seemingly adopted the 2005-11 Arsenal playbook and quietly seceded from the EPL with 10 games remaining. Certainly, after the spineless capitulation to QPR -- conceding three embarrassing goals in the final 12 minutes of regular time -- John Henry & Co. were within their rights to think that Dalglish would at least galvanize his men against 19th-place Wigan to show the world that wearing the red shirt still had meaning. Instead, with their second labored, lackluster and lethargic performance in a row, the Reds succeeded in making another team fighting for its Prem survival look like Barca. It's one thing to be conquered by the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and even Spurs (back when they were good), but having Wigan's less-than-balletic center back, Gary Caldwell (tied for third in the league with seven yellow cards), score the winning goal against you after doing a passable Lionel Messi impression in the box (OK, he only dummied Carroll, but still ) is justifiably viewed as unacceptable by a club of Liverpool's pedigree.
For his part, Dalglish is gobsmacked by the gloom radiating around Anfield. He points to the evil schedule-makers who have made his side play three games in seven days and suggests that perhaps a change in tactics is called for. "We have to educate ourselves and maybe we have to not play the lovely football that we have been," he told the English press.
"Lovely football?" What team has Dalglish been watching? The rampaging Reds sides of the 1980s with John Barnes, Ian Rush and Kenny himself galloping through midfield? If the Scot seriously believes that a lineup featuring Carroll up front and Jamie Carragher at the back can play anything approaching fluid, dynamic soccer, then he is even more out of touch with the modern game than some thought when he got the job for a second time. He is a manual typewriter in a digital world.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Of course, Dalglish made it readily apparent last week that his priorities were different than those of the average supporter when he claimed with a straight Wengerian face that points weren't as important as a new kit deal or a happy club. It would be difficult to imagine even a MLS audience buying into this logic, let alone a club's fans who regard a league title as either their birthright or Holy Grail (depending upon whether they were born before or after 1990). While the Reds have won 18 league trophies, it's been so long since their last one that it has the same relevance as England '66. And with first-place United poised to win another title and extend its lead to two (20-18) over its arch enemy, the pining at Anfield is being replaced by whining. Maybe the fans will apologize for their wavering faith in Dalglish when he finally unveils the Reds' new uniform (it may be the most highly anticipated Merseyside design since the Beatles' White Album), but it's sheer madcap delusion to call Liverpool a happy club right now.
When, for instance, was the last time you saw Carroll smile -- not counting the time he attended a Boyzone concert with Dalglish? Or Luis Suarez? Granted, he flashed his enormous choppers after scoring a fine equalizer Saturday, but his joy was fleeting, as eight minutes later the referee ruled he had nudged the go-ahead goal over the line with his arm. How anyone (except maybe a few million Ghanaian soccer fans) could dare think that the Uruguayan would ever cheat by using his hands near the goal line is beyond me -- and also, apparently Dalglish, who argued vehemently that the ball had come off the striker's shoulder. Good to see that King Kenny has learned a lesson from his misguided role in the tedious Suarez/Patrice Evra saga and is still blindly defending the talented but brainless weasel.
Perhaps the only face-saving move Dalglish made all day was introducing 17-year-old starlet Raheem Sterling for an six-minute cameo, although some, like his fellow Glasweigan charmer Sir Alex Ferguson, might say it reeked of desperation. Even so, Sterling immediately attacked with gusto down the left flank, winning a corner and putting in two decent crosses, a contribution that eclipsed those of Dalglish's underachieving trio of expensive hood ornaments -- Downing, Henderson and Carroll. And now, after nearly three months and three wins in 14 games, the question must be asked: Are the Three $tooges still "bedding in," or have they simply soiled the mattress?
But then, how many of the current Reds -- beyond Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Pepe Reina -- are good enough to get into any of the top six teams? Those three could surely play for anyone -- but who else? Jose Enrique? Maybe, up until last week's slapstick defending on QPR's winning goal. Martin Skrtel? Perhaps, if those rumors of Barca eyeing up his neck tats are true, although his clumsy foul on Wigan's Victor Moses resulting in a penalty turned out to be a real kick in the head to Liverpool. The rest of the squad is resoundingly average, a collection of wildly overpriced players for whom King Kenny must bear responsibility. The only available silver lining is the FA Cup.
But if I were a Liverpool fan, I might make alternative plans on May 5. Judging by the Reds' recent form, you could easily find yourself with nothing else to do that day.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."