• Rewind to 1991

The day from which Liverpool have never recovered

Tom Adams, ESPNsoccernet staff
January 13, 2011
Kenny Dalglish confessed he had lost the ability to make the big decisions when he quit Liverpool in 1991 © Getty Images

On Sunday, Kenny Dalglish takes charge of his first home league match as Liverpool manager for 20 years when the club host Everton in the Merseyside derby. The Toffees also provided the opposition in the game that spelt the end of his first spell in charge of the club in 1991, and plunged the Reds into a crisis from which it is arguable they have never fully recovered.

Liverpool supporters congregated outside Anfield, some moved to tears by the news that filtered through on February 22, 1991. Some, finding solace in the warm arms of denial, dismissed reports as a practical joke. Some submerged radio phone-ins, desperate to discover the truth. Some even contacted police headquarters for reassurance. But the rumours were correct: the great Kenny Dalglish, inspirational player turned hugely successful manger, had quit the club sitting top of the Football League and walked away from football, leaving a trail of bewilderment in his wake.

At the time his momentous decision, following a memorable 4-4 draw with Everton in the FA Cup, appeared inexplicable. According to James Lawton, writing in the Daily Express, the news would "go down as one of the great mysteries of the game". Though the passage of time has conferred a greater understanding of the tensions and emotions that forced Dalglish to resign that day, the decision itself still plays out, because his departure transformed the football landscape.

As Liverpool's famous Boot Room model of management began to critically fail during the subsequent reigns of Graeme Souness and Roy Evans, a vacuum was created which Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson, would exploit to its fullest. Liverpool were never the same again, while Dalglish was left with an acute sense of unfinished business. This was no way for the club's single greatest servant to leave Anfield.

Liverpool's single greatest servant? For a club so steeped in history and success, that is a claim that requires justification, but few would doubt Dalglish is worthy of the honour. His feats as a player alone place him in an elite bracket - 172 goals in 515 games, three European Cups, five league titles, three League Cups - while his managerial achievements made him worthy of succeeding Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan.

When the latter stood down in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster in 1985, it was to Dalglish that Liverpool turned and, initially operating as a player-manager, he won Liverpool's first Double in his maiden season, before securing two further league titles in 1988 and 1990 and the FA Cup in 1989. His transfer strategy included bringing Ian Rush back to the club and signing John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge. The legacy of Shankly and Paisley was in safe hands.

It was complete shock and surprise in there. He couldn't say too much but there were tears in his eye as he spoke

But the Boot Room dynasty's smooth succession would come to an end following an FA Cup fifth-round replay against Everton at Goodison Park. Four times Liverpool took the lead, only for their Merseyside rivals to improbably respond on each occasion, taking advantage of some uncharacteristic errors in the Liverpool defence. It was a frustrating evening for Liverpool but not disastrous. After all, they were still top of the First Division and anticipating a home replay against their locals rivals.

Instead, within two days they were shocked to learn that Dalglish had stepped down. He would later reveal he felt his judgement had become clouded. "I knew that night I had to go," Dalglish said recently. "After we took the lead for the final time I was standing on the touchline and I knew that I had to make a change to shore things up at the back. I could see what had to be done and what would happen if I didn't do it, but I didn't act on what I knew I had to do. That was the moment I knew."

In a somewhat fraught press conference to announce his resignation, the hero of the Kop told supporters: "I've been in the front line for 20 years, and it's just really a result of 20 years' active involvement in football at a very high and successful level, and Kenny Dalglish is a person that has pushed himself to the limit. It's a decision that many people will find difficult to understand, a decision that only I could have made. And it would have been wrong to mislead people that everything was fine with me." Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson described it as "the saddest day of my life."

Astonishment was felt in the dressing room. Ian Rush later told The Guardian: "We had all come in for training and were told to meet in the dressing room. Kenny walked in and said he was leaving. It was complete shock and surprise in there. He couldn't say too much but there were tears in his eye as he spoke."

But what had caused the clouded judgement that night at Goodison Park? What had forced Dalglish to turn his back on the club he loved? Reasons and motivations were immediately sought by the press and public. It was suggested in some quarters that Dalglish had struggled to make the transition from player to manager; that he had fallen out with the board; that he had fallen out with Peter Beardsley; that his touchline demeanour demonstrated he had buckled under pressure from eventual title-winners Arsenal. As The Guardian's David Lacey wrote: "Kenny Dalglish's sudden decision to resign as Liverpool manager deserves sympathy but defies understanding."

However, greater insight would be provided in coming years. Friends, family and confidantes would assert that in fact the tragedy of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives on April 15, 1989, had burdened Dalglish with grief and anxiety that was unshakeable, and eventually unbearable. Dalglish's response to those shocking events in Sheffield had been exemplary, a focus point for a city engulfed in grief, as he attended up to four funerals a day and bore a club's anguish on his shoulders. But it would never leave him, and by 1991, in his own words, he had "pushed himself to the limit".

Kenny Dalglish won five league titles as a player © Getty Images

His daughter, Kelly, later explained: "He only told my mum the night before [he was quitting], he just couldn't go on doing the job. All the emotion and stress of Hillsborough, all the weight of responsibility he felt, had taken its toll. Hillsborough was devastating for dad." According to Beardsley: "My own theory is he left because Hillsborough took its toll. Kenny went to at least half the funerals. I think, in the end, everything caught up with him." Dalglish would later concede this was the case.

Just days after his resignation, Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff - a player in a similar mould to Dalglish, and who had also thrown himself into management in a city he shared an umbilical link with - suffered a heart attack, demonstrating all too clearly the dangers of excessive stress at football's elite level. Cruyff, echoing Dalglish, had only recently said: "There is a time when you have been under pressure for 15 years when the stress begins to tell."

Dalglish had, for the first time he said, taken a decision in his best interests, rather than the club's, but it was a decision he came to regret. As John Toshack and Graeme Souness were being linked with the job, Liverpool chief executive Robinson, said: "Kenny's return is feasible, the door is open." Though discrete contact was reportedly made, the call was never placed.

Dalglish later admitted: "Aye, I regretted leaving. I needed the break, I needed the rest. After two weeks I got what I needed and I'd have been ready to go back, but the phone never rang. No one ever asked me how I was doing or whether I'd reconsider returning and the club went on and appointed Graeme. I thought, maybe, considering what I'd been through and what I'd given to the club - with the success we had enjoyed - that someone might have called to see how I was and whether a return might be possible. But the club had other ideas, clearly, and went in another direction."

That direction was north to Glasgow, where Souness was managing Rangers. Liverpool had been sent down a road that would prove a desperately barren one in terms of league success. Beardsley admits: "Kenny going had a far bigger impact on Liverpool than most people realise, certainly at the time. When you lose someone of Kenny's pedigree and personality from a club it takes a long time to recover."

Nearly 20 years on, and with Dalglish now back in situ at Anfield, some would say they never have.

What happened next? Liverpool are yet to secure another league title, although Dalglish took the Blackburn job later that year, winning the Premier League title in 1995, and later spent spells with Newcastle United and his first club Celtic. He put himself forward as a candidate to replace Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2009 but was overlooked by the Liverpool board. However, the club did turn to Dalglish when Roy Hodgson was dismissed in January 2011, King Kenny returning to the club just a month short of the 20th anniversary of his departure.

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