He Was The Greatest Of Them All
By Pete Carter
From Issue 48, Autumn 2000
There’s a scene in the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ where the hero, Andy Dufresne, is explaining to his fellow suffering prisoners that although the penal institutions’ goal was to strip him of the most basic of human dignity, they couldn’t prevent him from retreating into his memory and conjuring the beauty of his most precious memories, in this case his love of the music of Mozart. I sometimes feel like that with my memories of Kenny Dalglish.
Whilst a few videos can show some actual footage of his brilliance on tape, there are moments which weren’t captured and therefore they only live in the memory banks of those of us who had the privilege of seeing the greatest player ever to pull on a Liverpool jersey, according to Bob Paisley – and me.
I will probably fail dismally in attempting to put into words what I not only see in my mind but feel in my heart about a player who transcended the expectations of an impressionable teenager looking for someone to idolise and which grew, over the years, into reverence for the humanity of the man as well as his genius on the football field. He came to us in 1977 after the wily Paisley broke the British transfer fee by enticing Celtic to part with him for $440,000. Of course, it was daylight robbery.
It took a while for him to become accepted as a rightful replacement for the great Kevin Keegan, though they were completely different players. But I was fortunate in meeting a coach-load of Celtic fans who had made the trip from Glasgow simply to watch Dalglish on his debut away to Middlesbrough where he scored in a 1-1 draw. Another load of the same fans held him in such esteem that they travelled to Anfield, for the game against Newcastle, a few days later and further informed us that in 6 months time we’d think him good enough to part the Mersey. How right they were.
It wasn’t just his ability on the ball, his vision in bringing other people into the game, his poise, football brain or the great goals he scored but also the unadulterated joy he had in scoring while playing his ‘beautiful’ game. It was as if he knew he was privileged in acting out most people’s dearest wishes. Given Liverpool’s utter dominance during his time with us – mere coincidence I ask you? – it got to the stage that, at times, it was monotonous and, dare I say it, boring attending some of the more mundane of fixtures at home. We just knew that we’d win. To combat this I would vary the places from which to watch the match and just go and watch Dalglish. Two instances, which reflect the essence of the man at Anfield, are embedded in my memory. One cold night the visitors were ‘Boro, a dire team, who had the plan of marking Dalglish with two defenders. After about an hour of Kenny hardly getting a kick, Clemence mopped up a rare attack on the edge of the Kop 18-yard area.
Dalglish had drifted to the Paddock touchline in an attempt to shake his markers. Clemence threw the ball to him and he instantly controlled it on his thigh and shimmied to his right. The defenders bought the dummy hook line and sinker, and before they could retrieve the situation Kenny had turned to his left and, as the ball came down from his thigh, played a 40 yard ball on the half-volley into the path of a sprinting Davie Johnson out on the Kemlyn Road wing. The whole thing lasted a second or two. Blink and you would have missed the sheer brilliance of it. I groaned with pleasure, envy, respect, admiration and awe as I watched from the Paddock that night in the knowledge that I’d witnessed a ‘simple’ feat on the football pitch that only a small iota of players who had ever pulled on a pair of boots anywhere on the planet could ever duplicate.
Another occasion was during the ’80-’81 season when the eventual Champions Aston Villa visited. The preceding games at home had reaped disappointing crowds and so Bob Paisley had banned the T.V. cameras. On ya, Bob!! He had complained of their growing influence in all things togger, particularly the attendances. So, given the circumstances, only the lucky 48,000 at the match witnessed two great goals from Dalglish. You see, Villa had an excellent team, full of flair up front, grit in defence and a midfield containing the likes of Mortimer, Cowans and Morley. They were a difficult team to break down and there was hardly a glimmer of a chance throughout the whole game.
With just over an hour gone, Kenny got the ball on the edge of the Kop box, typically with his back to goal and a multitude of defenders pushing, jockeying, kicking and scything at him. However his incredible strength, determination and skill in shielding the ball and twisting and turning whilst still gracefully balanced, got him in a position where he had a scintilla of a glimpse of the goal and he shot into the corner giving the keeper no chance. His second a few minutes from time, and the ultimate winner, was a similar effort a bit nearer the goal with him seemingly making space out of nothing in a packed penalty box. Low into the corner of the onion bag and it was time for celebration as the crowd went mad and the players mobbed Kenny. Upon rising from his joyous team-mates who had pummelled him into the ground, he faced the Kop and, with one arm raised and hair stuck to his forehead as a testimony to his endeavours of this gruelling battle, he gave that beaming, almost fluorescent smile.
Jesus, we all loved that smile! Not for Kenny was the almost painful relief of most of the present day players’ emotions when they’ve scored – or swinging round the fucking corner flag! No, you knew that he loved scoring for us, the fans, and his team and demonstrated his pleasure with THAT one and only smile covering his sanguine face. Arms raised, shoulders back, chest proudly dominant.
Scoring aside, his ability in bringing other players into the game was second to none, anywhere in the world. On occasions, as George Best once opined, you felt sorry for him as there was no-one in whatever team he was playing for that could match up to his vision. Once in possession of the ball, usually after extricating himself from at least one defender hanging off him, he would quickly look up, analyse the play and see space and possibilities that his team mates just couldn’t see and act upon. He is the most intelligent footballer I’ve ever seen, quite simply on a different mental plane to the players of his time. Ian Rush, as great a goalscorer as he proved to be, was developed, moulded, and shaped – in my humble opinion – by having the ability and speed to read and be on the end of Dalglish’s unique talent in opening up the play.
Further to the reverence in which he was held by the Anfield masses I believe that, grudgingly, he was respected and admired by other fans too. I was once in the Gwladys St. End for a derby match and witnessed a barrage of personal abuse at Dalglish for an hour. Finally one dyed in the wool Evertonian bawled “For fucks sake we all hate him but at least we admit he’s brilliant!” He received a clap from some around him, would you believe! But what of the man?
There’s no doubt that he is a shy and reserved character who shields his private life with a similar dedication only demonstrated for a ball in his possession on the pitch. And he simply wasn’t cut out as a Manager for the inevitable public scrutiny of the tabloid press. His reluctance, maybe inability, to convey his milk of human kindness in press interviews gave rise to an opinion of coldness, even arrogance, from some quarters. I’d argue that it was not in his nature to provide answers to a media that he had no affinity with whatsoever.
When playing he would simply let his accomplishments on the field do the talking and the mistrust that the vast majority of ordinary people have for the ‘popular’ press was evident in his relationships with them.
Nonetheless, there are enough anecdotes to suggest a strong sense of humour and a belief, from me anyway, that his working class ethics of loyalty and generosity prevailed. My wife’s cousin was an apprentice at Anfield for a few years and, in time, came to idolise Kenny too. He relates a simple story of having to clean several players boots as part of his onerous duties. Of all the players at the club at the time he reckons Dalglish was the most humble and seemed to remember his own apprenticeship at Celtic when dealing with the Liverpool lads. And whereas some of the ‘stars’ had deep pockets, there was always a fiver or even a tenner on occasions, quietly and almost secretly passed on to him by Dalglish as an appreciation of his chores. Simple, I know, but also heart-warming and something which made him a favourite amongst the youngsters.
Since his leaving of Liverpool there are those who would suggest that he has never been the same. I would suggest that neither would anyone else if it’s taken from the following perspective. I’ve often wondered what effect the deaths of 3 young Liverpool fans had on the decision of Shankly to retire. Maybe none at all, but I doubt it. These fans died in a car crash on the way home from the 1974 FA Cup semi-final replay against Leicester at Villa Park. Shankly, of course, and his players attended the funerals and would have experienced the utter emotion of such an event.
As much as it was not meant to be taken literally, his infamous ‘football is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that’ quote was known world-wide and seemed to capture his philosophy and enthusiasm for his club and the game. Of course, it’s crap and was never meant as a truism. But, as far as I know, it was the first incident of tragedy that Shankly had to witness for his beloved fans. Three months later and totally out of the blue, he retired. It’s quite possible that I’m a mile out. But multiply that scenario by 32 and try to experience what Dalglish felt after another FA Cup Semi Final.
His actions after the events and tragic circumstances of Hillsborough were the epitome of his humanity. The responsibility and empathy for the families of the victims of that horrendous crime that he undertook throughout the devastating period of grief which followed seemed to be out of context with what was to be expected of a normal football Manager and ex-player. He truly was hurt.
Living 12,000 miles away at the time it was bad enough for me knowing there were loved ones who would have been in danger, and I spent an anxious few days ensuring everyone close was fine, and then years more trying to get a handle on the enormity of what had transpired. Again, multiply that by thousands to try and comprehend what Dalglish was going through, not to mention the inexplicable emotions of the people he was empathising with. He resigned 2 years later, and I for one hold no rancour whatsoever, for that or what transpired in his dealings with the other clubs he was employed at. My point is that the role he took, voluntarily, with Hillsborough, unavoidably changed him forever.
Rather than dwell on what may be viewed as a negative aspect of his great career in football, I can only recall the positive memories of Dalglish. As a kid my mam would send us the half-mile or so to our Grandparents on a Sunday to do the Grandchildreny thing and courteously visit. My elder brother and I would arrive during ‘All Our Yesterdays’ and usually interrupt my Granddad swearing at Churchill, lips chomping on a cigar as the peasants died in the war, every time he appeared on the screen. The football would then follow and, after he’d slagged all and sundry on the box, we’d sit enthralled as he regaled us about the great players of the past: the goal scoring prowess of Dixie Dean, the agility of Elisha Scott, the heading ability of Tommy Lawton and the genius of Finney. He told us about them because of his wonderful memories.
I’ve been away from home for nearly twenty years now, so it could easily be construed that absence has made the heart and mind grow outrageously fonder. But I believe that no matter where or who you are those of us who saw, week in week out, utter and unique brilliance have a duty to pass on those recollections to younger fans who may only get a glimpse from videos. Dalglish was much, much better than the two dimensional footage captured on tape. You had to watch him live, over ninety minutes, and capture every nuance in every game to appreciate how good he really was. He is my Dean, Scott, Lawton and Finney rolled into one – although I’m not a Granddad, if you know what I mean.
Kenny, you’re with me forever, in heart and mind and if I’m ever locked-up I’m sure I’ll understand that marvellous scene in that marvellous movie as the hero donates the music of Mozart to the deserving masses.
Hope I’ve done my duty.