The Sir Thomas Hotel in the old bank building in the city centre is where Liverpool Football Club celebrate the great nights. It was booked, as usual, on May 5, but the gathering after the FA Cup final against Chelsea proved an altogether more sombre affair.
Even so, guests said that among the senior voices of the Fenway Sports Group, there was no immediate thirst for blood, no voracious appetite to remove manager Kenny Dalglish.
Maybe Liverpool’s American owners are just acutely adept at concealment; or maybe in the past 11 days, a schism has occurred that has made the position of the manager untenable. The famous review that has unfolded more like a night of the long knives has now claimed its most significant victim.
No surprise that director of football Damien Comolli was unmasked as, at best, inconsistent in his judgments and, at worst, an imposter, and the standing of Ian Cotton, the head of communications, has never recovered from the Luis Suarez crisis. But few present at the Sir Thomas expected to be sharing their last social occasion with Dalglish as Liverpool manager.
So either Dalglish was the victim of a poisonous equation (Suarez debacle + lowest league wins in Premier League history x surly manner projecting poor image = P45), or something went down at this week’s meeting that altered his status quite dramatically.
We know Dalglish was sacked, he did not resign, but what occurred at his final, fateful meeting on the east coast of America may hold the key to his demise.
Did he differ significantly with the owners on the way forward for the club? Did he ask for funds beyond Fenway’s means? Did he treat John Henry to some of that famous withering contempt often mistaken for great wit? Did he overplay his hand? Dalglish was only ever going to trade on his name for so long, and with a certain group of people.
He is considerably bigger in Liverpool than he is in Boston and flying west in search of answers was always going to be a testing away leg.
Ironic that it should end in such a heavy defeat, though, when it is Liverpool’s home form that has been the biggest issue this season.
Dalglish, who has not been given sufficient time to realise his plans despite a dismal League campaign, is the victim of a grand design that is increasingly floundering.
Henry and his Fenway group were considered the lovable Yanks after Liverpool’s cowboy owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, but they remain every bit as highly attuned to the bottom line.
Each year Liverpool remain out of the Champions League that line shifts £30million south – money Fenway cannot afford to lose.
Their strategy at the Boston Red Sox was to keep the famous Fenway Park stadium, redevelop it and hike ticket prices.
The fans went with it in exchange for success and the opportunity to stay wallowing in tradition. Similar plans were outlined for Liverpool. Stay and rebuild Anfield, please the fans, increase ticket and commercial revenues, invest in success. But there are issues and Dalglish became part of the problem, not its solution.
The running costs of an English football stadium are greatly in excess of those for an American baseball stadium, where 81 home matches are played in a season.
Fenway have also landed in Premier League football in the middle of a recession, when price increases would impact on attendances. These complications are not Dalglish’s fault, but finishing 17 points off Champions League football is, particularly when the manager seeks investment to close that gap.
Then there are commercial considerations. The Suarez case has negatively impacted on Liverpool’s image abroad and the change in Fenway’s behaviour when news of it began to reach America was another ominous sign.
Henry is not used to receiving bad press over race relations in the New York Times.
Yet, while Dalglish handled that situation abysmally, Fenway cannot be absolved of blame. They were slow to react, slow to address the damage done and too willing to leave an escalating crisis in the hands of those least qualified to control it. Once the toxic spill reached American shores, they became involved, but by then it was too late.
Has Dalglish been harshly treated? Yes. To finish 37 points off the top two is a dismal performance, but he won a trophy and reached the final of the FA Cup. Liverpool will be in Europe next season, albeit the Europa League, and the most recent performances of Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing suggest improvement can be expected.
It is never helpful for a Liverpool manager to be missing Steven Gerrard for such a large part of the year, either.
So, considering all mitigations, on the night of the low-key party at the Sir Thomas, it seemed reasonable that Dalglish would get one last swing at turning Liverpool around, but with a tighter budget and more stringent supervision.
The impression was given that Fenway had already been delivered a scapegoat in Comolli.
The review would find that Dalglish’s first full season in charge had been a disappointment, but a trophy had been won and he was still in partial credit for uniting the club at a difficult time.
Fenway appreciated what his presence meant to the fans and even the debacle around Suarez could be surmounted with care.
Comolli’s role in assessing transfer value was regarded as the greatest executive error and he had miscalculated a series of signings including Downing, Henderson, Carroll and Charlie Adam.
Dalglish should have got more from the new arrivals and sharp improvement would be expected next season, but he would remain in a job, for now at least.
Was that verdict the tipping point? Did Dalglish expect greater support, rather than an upbraiding? Did Fenway expect more contrition, less advocacy of rotten luck? Was it just one crisis too many?
Maybe Fenway would have accepted a top-four finish, plus the Suarez fiasco, or one trophy, less Suarez – but not another year outside the Champions League and an unsavoury global reputation. It was a double whammy that could greatly affect Liverpool’s standing in the transfer market.
It is a sad end for a great football man, made sadder because the reunion of club and manager had seemed such a perfect fit.
The inescapable conclusion, though, is that the Fenway project at Liverpool has gone off at half-cock. The new owners were as good as bounced into giving Dalglish the job by the sentimental yearnings of the fans, but were left with their worst-case scenario, one in which Liverpool were half-bad.
If Liverpool had won nothing this year, this would have been an easy call, but victory in the Carling Cup means there are many who will understandably feel Dalglish warranted more time.
Yet Liverpool haven’t got time. The harsh winter of financial fair play is approaching and Liverpool remain locked outside the elite group, with a resulting loss of funds.
Living at Anfield is expensive and last summer’s splurge has not paid off. The problem for Fenway now is what happens from here.
Having sacked everyone else, if this next move does not work, they will have nobody to blame but themselves. [email protected] – Daily Mail