By Kevin Koczwara
Sadly I don’t make it to the Phoenix Landing in Cambridge often to watch Liverpool play. I live 45 minutes out of the Boston city limits in Worcester, and getting up early, driving the 40-plus minutes and then getting lucky enough for a seat is a tough proposition when I can sit at home and drink a pot of coffee and have enough room to take notes during games (yes, I take notes). But when I get up and drive to Cambridge I am always aw and inspired. I love getting to the Landing to enjoy a few pints (and plenty of coffee) to watch and enjoy a good match. And the opening match of the season for Liverpool was one I couldn’t miss. I made the trek and got a seat to watch the game.
There was a bubbling energy that day. Liverpool had come off of a great second half of the previous season. There was £120 million of new players. And Kenny Dalglish had the team playing attractive stuff before the 2010/11 season ended. A top-four finish was in the cards. Trophies were insight. And Andy Carroll, well, there never was much faith in him.
There was so much excitement around game one that NESN.com was there filming. They wanted to know the expectations for the season, and hopes were high. But those high hopes were soon crushed.
Am I going to sit here and blame Kenny Dalglish for the disappointing season that was the 2011/12 campaign? No. Am I going to say that the signs were there early that this year — this new and exciting year with so much promise — was going to be a mixed bag filled with mostly those unwanted candies your grandmother left out on the table during Christmas time, not the delicious mint chocolates, the crappy, stale chocolates without a wrapper? Yes. The signs were there and Dalglish lasted through a season full of disappointment that would have had any other modern-day manager out the door before the season finished.
Liverpool took it to Sunderland on August 13, 2011, the first game of the season. Luis Suarez scored early and created chance after chance. Stewart Downing looked a man on a mission and worth the hefty price tag. Jose Enrique was a real left back, not a fill-in who can kind of kick with his left-foot. He was a real left back who got forward and could then run back and defend. But the game ended a 1-1 draw. There was Downing hitting the woodwork and Suarez missing a penalty. It was a microcosm of what was to come for the rest of the year: missed chances and an inability to kill off a game dominated by the men in red.
I drove after thinking about how much promise there was in this side. I wondered how far it could go. I believed Dalglish would have this team winning and playing the right way in a matter of weeks. I thought he needed time — and still do (I believe every manager should get at least two years to prove themselves and their philosophy). But there was something terribly harsh about the way that game ended. There was a terrible taste about how a Liverpool side with so many international players and so much money invested in it could draw with a Sunderland team lead by Steve Bruce; a Sunderland team in the midst of its own identity crisis with more players coming and going than a Harry Rednapp team. I couldn’t believe Wes Brown was that good. There were too many questions and not enough answers. And not enough of questions would be answered over the course of the season for the Fenway Sports Group.
Now, does Kenny Dalglish deserve to go? If he was any other manager, any other person, then yes. Every Liverpool fan would have had his head after the 0-0 draw with Swansea at home on November 15. Or the two losses to Fulham. Or the loss and draw with Wigan. Or the 3-1 thrashing on January 21 by now relegated Bolton when the Wanderers were so bad Stuart Holden probably didn’t want to recover from that terrible injury to rejoin the team.
Yes, there was the victory in the Carling Cup, but even that was bit nervy. No one expected Cardiff City to put up that much of a fight, and to be honest, Liverpool probably should have lost that game. The FA Cup Final, well, that was one Liverpool should have won, but it lost, which was a running theme throughout the season. Chelsea was played off the field for most of the 90 minutes, but it took advantage when the time came and Liverpool failed to do that.
That was how the season went. Liverpool missed penalty after penalty. Downing played up and down — he actually credited with creating the most chances in the Premier League, but not a single player finished one of those chances. Suarez made a fool of himself and the club (and yet I still respect any player who will willing catch a ball on the goal line to prevent a goal, he’s someone I want in the side) with the racism issue, and he missed far too many chances for a top-tier forward. Andy Carroll only turned it on as the Euros got closer. Steven Gerrard was injured. Lucas was lost for the season despite being in the best form of his career. And then there were the bit part players who did their bit parts but were asked to do too much.
Was this Dalglish’s fault? Yes and no. He didn’t negotiate transfer deals. That was Damien Comolli’s job. He didn’t negotiate contracts, again Comolli’s job. And that’s why the Frenchman is gone. However, Dalglish did have a hand in picking the sides that went out on the field. And he did have a hand in targeting certain players, a la overpriced British players.
Dalglish probably deserved another year in charge, just to give him time to mold this squad. But Fenway Sports Group saw enough to know that sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you only get a draw when you deserve so much more. And when that happens, it’s time to move on and try to find the answer. That’s what they’re doing even if it hurts. Because finishing in the top-four is a realistic dream. And finishing above Everton is a must for Liverpool.