LIVERPOOL manager Kenny Dalglish has held out the prospect of his reshaped squad challenging for the Premier League title in the season ahead, brushing away the suggestion of the club’s owner, John W Henry, that a Champions League place is the more realistic target for next May.
As his club presented GBP45m (approximately $AU69.1m) new acquisitions Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Brazilian reserve goalkeeper Doni, Dalglish suggested that Fenway Sports Group - the proprietors who have proved so willing to spend GBP102.4m (approximately $AU157.3m) since they ended Liverpool’s disastrous and ruinous Hicks and Gillett co-ownership last January - are the best in the Premier League. But the one point on which the views of Dalglish and his club’s principal owner Henry appear to diverge is the latter’s realism. The American told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet in midweek that it is “too early for us to start talking about winning the league... our main goal is to qualify for the Champions League”.
Dalglish, whose less than discursive mood reflects his desire to return Liverpool to being a club which keeps all its business within its own walls, had these responses: “Have you asked John Henry?” “Well done, John!” “Do you argue with your boss?” he concluded. There was levity in Dalglish’s reply but a clear sense is emerging that he believes that there could have been no short cut to spending at the Liverpool he inherited last January. “Certainly, spending money does not guarantee you success. I don’t know of any football club that has ever had success that has not spent money. So it is necessary. But it’s even more important to spend it wisely.” Of Henry he said: “He is just a good lad... genuinely a good fella. If there is a better owner that is as supportive as John Henry, then they have done very well for themselves, because he’s fantastically supportive.”
Despite all the talk about the significance of the depth of squads, Dalglish, who has no European quest to distract from the pursuit of fourth place in the Premier League which Henry has declared he is looking for, also cut to the chase on the real significance of signings. “Quality is more important than depth but if you have a bit of depth as well it is always helpful,” he declared. The summer acquisitions had made a difference to fans on the streets of the city, Dalglish added: “It has given the supporters a bit of hope and put a smile back on their faces. In and around the city, you can see the feel-good factor is there for us. Now we have got to go on the pitch and win games.”
It was almost exactly a year to the day that the then new manager Roy Hodgson sat down publicly with three recruits of his own - Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic and Danny Wilson - to discuss his own hopes for the season. Although Hodgson, for all his unpopularity in some quarters at Anfield, was far more willing to engage in press conversation, Dalglish’s refusal to dismiss a title tilt offered a striking point of contrast with his predecessor. It was when Cole, in last year’s press conference, suggested that the title should be an aspiration that Hodgson applied one of his customary cold doses of realism. “You’ve done a great job of building us up,” Hodgson shot back. “We’ve gone from seventh place [last season] to winning the League. We’ve not spoken about the Champions League yet. That might take a year, I suppose. We’ve been elevated as high as Jupiter - which is the highest?“
Liverpool never left the take-off ramp, of course, though not even Hodgson could have conceived of the civil war between his board and their then owners which would see Liverpool’s dirty linen washed in the High Court and Anthony Grabiner QC cheered along The Strand after memorably exploding the “grotesque parody” of Hicks et al.
Dalglish rejected the idea that such distractions could have impeded last season’s progress, though the boardroom chaos undoubtedly contributed to Liverpool’s three managers in the space of six months and one of the legacies is the glut of highly paid and relatively old players, whose burden on the Liverpool balance sheet remains a source of deep concern to FSG. Jovanovic was waved off to Anderlecht only 48 hours ago. But there is no progress on Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen and Alberto Aquilani, with Nabil El Zhar and the Swiss full-back Philipp Degen both due back.
Dalglish did not dismiss the idea that some players are prepared to sit back and enjoy the salary. “If I was a footballer I would want to play,” he said. “That’s my philosophy. Everybody is a bit different. People may get satisfaction out of [just getting a good salary].”
Dalglish’s preoccupation is how to assemble his new acquisitions. His primary requirements had seemed to be a left-back - an GBP8m (approximately $AU12.3m) move for Newcastle’s Jose Enrique is imminent despite the player’s GBP60,000-per-week ($AU91,900) pay demands - and a left-winger: Downing. Steven Gerrard’s omission until September, recovering from groin surgery and a subsequent infection, resolves the problem of Dalglish’s preponderance of central midfielders. But it will be there soon enough. Adam, Henderson, Downing, Lucas, Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt, Cole and Maxi Rodriguez all seem to be competing for three midfield places.
After the roller-coaster ride of the past few years, Liverpool will settle for a difficulty like that.