Back To The Future: King Kenny Plans To Remake The Liverpool Side Of 87/88

With Kenny Dalglish back at the helm, the future certainly looks a lot brighter for Liverpool. But his masterplan is ringing a few bells for those who recall the glory days of the late eighties.
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With Kenny Dalglish back at the helm, the future certainly looks a lot brighter for Liverpool. But his masterplan is ringing a few bells for those who recall the glory days of the late eighties.

With Kenny Dalglish back at the helm, the future certainly looks a lot brighter for Liverpool. But his masterplan is ringing a few bells for those who recall the glory days of the late eighties.

There’s a new sub-culture among supporters at Liverpool F.C. That’s nothing new of course for a set of fans who started the ‘casual’ look that was so prevalent on the terraces of the early 1980’s. This new lot though cannot be spotted or defined by the trainers they wear, the tracksuits they’ve pilfered en masse from another trip to watch their side on the continent or their layered haircuts.

No, this group of thirty-something men and women can be spotted by the teenage like smiles that belie their age group. Ask them why they smile and they will look at you, smile (of course) and say “Kenny Dalglish, he’s made me feel like a kid again”. Silverware may be a long way off but what Dalglish has brought to the club is the glory of nostalgia! Dalglish’s presence, like an old photo album or a 7” record has brought the warm fuzz of yesteryear and in today’s, don’t stand, don’t sing, don’t unfurl that banner, sponsored stadia, petri-dish football environment, that ain’t no bad thing.

Outsiders will criticise (as they did when Dalglish was appointed – “Was Phil Neal busy?” joked one Manchester United pal) and say that the game is about today, it’s about the now. They are wrong. Dalglish is already proving he has the nous to be successful in the modern game but brings an added bonus that surely other fans can empathies with. He brings a bond between terrace and bench that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. Yes, even at Old Trafford.

Dalglish will of course be more interested in bringing success back to Anfield but look closely and you could argue that he is using that nostalgia to bring back that success. Let’s then go back to the summer of 1987. In cinemas, Mel Gibson is only playing a (rather than today’s actual) mad man in the original Lethal Weapon. In the charts, a song called Star Trekkin by The Firm has made it to number one for two weeks. The cooler kids are dipping their toes into a new rave scene and as for fashion, smiley face T-Shirts, cycling shorts and Grolsch bottletops on shoes are the norm.

At left-back Liverpool had Gary Ablett, maybe a weak link but a solid performer and a homegrown player, something clearly vital to Dalglish today judging by the ascension of the likes of Jack Robinson who is clearly not a long way off making the oft-problematic left-back position his own.

At Anfield, Dalglish is making plans for his third season as manager but has to do it without his master goal getter Ian Rush, who’s off to Juventus. Dalglish doesn’t panic; he takes stock, makes his moves and creates what many (and nearly all of the current sub-culture) would call Liverpool’s most entertaining side. It’s a side that will lose only two games (bettered by others since) but that will play with a style and panache not seen before or – for some – since (Arsenal, United and Liverpool fans can argue that one out). The 5-0 demolition of a very good Nottingham Forest side (Sir Tom Finney called it the best display of football he’d ever seen) is still talked about at Anfield and the BBC ditched the usual Goal of the Season award and made it a Liverpool Goal of the Season award. Look closely at that side and maybe Dalglish is just as fond of nostalgia as the rest of us and is about to set about building a team with a very 1987/88 feel to it. The evidence is compelling. Like his 1987 self, the Scot has had to deal with losing his star striker. For Rush, see Fernando Torres. Dalglish supported the Spaniards sale, and why not when it gives his re-building the shot in the arm, and the cash it required.

The 1987/88 side epitomised what Dalglish felt (and feels?) is the right way, the Liverpool way. A solid defence, strong players in the middle, flair from wide areas and two top strikers. Let’s start at the back. He has solidity but needs more and is said to be after a centre-back. He won’t find the elegance of Alan Hansen anywhere in the transfer market but another domineering yet skilful defender is a must.

What Dalglish’s 1987/88 model had was a full-back willing and able to get forward. Steve Nicol at right-back was a fine footballer who chipped in with goals and linked with those ahead of him so well. Watch Martin Kelly before he got injured and you would see that training is clearly geared toward him overlapping and getting the ball over. Something Glen Johnson is happiest doing too. At left-back Liverpool had Gary Ablett, maybe a weak link but a solid performer and a homegrown player, something clearly vital to Dalglish today judging by the ascension of the likes of Jack Robinson who is clearly not a long way off making the oft-problematic left-back position his own.

Luis Suarez, now gracing that same shirt with aplomb is a Beardsley clone. He drops deep, he shimmies, his movement is sublime and he will get his share of goals and can dovetail with a big centre-forward

Midfield? Liverpool’s central area circa 1987 was both sturdy and creative. On the right, Ray Houghton was industrious, would tuck inside (allowing Nicol the freedom to join) and scored goals. Dirk Kuyt, in the 2011 model is all those things and at last is getting the worship from the terraces his game deserves. The centre of midfield twinned Steve McMahon with Ronnie Whelan (or sometimes the equally pragmatic Nigel Spackman). Two granite like competitors without the ball but give them it and they went from bully to ballet without flinching. Dalglish next season may well look for a similar duo in Lucas Leiva, uncomplicated, sturdy, reliable (very Whelan) alongside Steven Gerrard. The captain showed in the recent 3-1 win over Manchester United that he has the discipline to break up opposing attacks and quietly dictate the pace of a game. The player who would head in his own corners may be a thing of the past but with Lucas alongside him will have the entitlement to join, score and swashbuckle like he always has.

The main molecule in the 1987/88 team’s excitement DNA was John Barnes. A left-winger who – because of the hard working midfield to his right – would cavort with his strikers (the formation could slip between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 seamlessly), beat men, cross, shoot (he scored 17 goals that season) and generally reek havoc. Speculation today is of Liverpool looking for a left-winger. A player who can receive a pass from Gerrard (as Barnes did from McMahon and Whelan) and get at defenders, get the ball over to strikers who relish such service. Ashley Young may be too expensive but Stewart Downing or Wolves Matt Jarvis are - unlike Young – naturally left-footed and may well fit the bill.

So what of those strikers? Back in 1987, a young fan would risk ink stained hands before school furiously skimming the tabloids backpages looking to see who Dalglish would choose as Rush’s replacement. It took months of speculation. Leicester’s Alan Smith, Juventus’ Michael Laudrop, Celtic’s Brian McClair. All were reported to be Kenny’s man. None was. Instead the Scot opted for a scouser banging them in at Oxford. John Aldridge to many was a Rush replica, a doppelganger who would fit right in. In fact Aldridge was different to Rush. Sure he was predatory and scored for fun but he was less pacey than Rush, liked to hold the ball up and get on the end of crosses (Rush thrived on through balls and getting behind defenders). Dalglish had a plan. Barnes arrived so there’s Aldridge’s service from wide areas covered, but he also spent a then British record £1.9m on Peter Beardsley from Newcastle, a diminutive and skillful second striker more than worthy of the player-manager’s (technically he was that until 1990) number seven shirt.

Dalglish’s presence, like an old photo album or a 7” record has brought the warm fuzz of yesteryear and in today’s, don’t stand, don’t sing, don’t unfurl that banner, sponsored stadia, petri-dish football environment, that ain’t no bad thing.

This year, Dalglish had to move faster. He didn’t have time to pick his man but his moves were very similar. Luis Suarez, now gracing that same shirt with aplomb is a Beardsley clone. He drops deep, he shimmies, his movement is sublime and he will get his share of goals and can dovetail with a big centre-forward just as Beardsley and Aldridge did in 1987/88 (between them they scored 47 goals that season). In January, as Torres said ‘adios’, it was another Geordie, Andy Carroll who said ‘alreet’. Many sniggered. £35m for a big lump of a striker with only a few months of Premier League experience. Time will tell but Dalglish was working to a plan and first signs are exciting. 1987/88 exciting! Carroll must get service from the bye-line (itself a nostalgic way of playing) but will link with a clever second striker like Suarez.

Now, as fans think of their summer hols, those with a Liverpool persuasion will pack their swimming towels with an unexpected spring in their steps. Not many other set of fans will spend the summer of 2011 with more of a feel-good factor than Liverpudlians. An amazing fact given that the past nine months have seen Champions League football slip further away, Paul Konchesky play regularly, Northampton win at Anfield, Wolves do the same and a hero in Torres say he wanted to play for ‘a big club’. The thing is it also included a hero returning to the dug-out. A hero who gives a retro like wave to them each time they chant his name. A hero who smiles and makes them smile. Kenny Dalglish has brought something back to their matchday experience that was lost. Who says nostalgia isn’t what it used to be?

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