In 2018, Kenny Dalglish finally followed Alex Ferguson in becoming a ‘Sir’ when he was knighted for services to football. Like Fergie, Dalglish’s honour came a long time after his retirement from playing, but unlike his illustrious Govan counterpart, it arrived a considerable while after his management career had also ended.
Whereas Sir Alex had his knighthood bestowed upon him while at the very top of his game managerial-wise, Dalglish’s last hands-on experience of team management had ended in disappointment and the sack from his beloved Liverpool six years prior.
No matter. The two men once again found themselves inextricably linked in the same manner as they had been for more than forty years.
Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson first crossed paths in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Scotland as Dalglish was just beginning to make his way as a player at Celtic and Ferguson was beginning to fade from the picture at Old Firm rivals, Rangers.
The two men played against each other in a reserve game with Dalglish deputed to mark Ferguson. Prior to kick-off, Ferguson is said to have told the youngster, “You’ll need a doctor for this.” Dalglish just stared at him. Legend has it that Ferguson scored but Celtic won 2-1.
The next decade saw both men make their way in their respective fields. Dalglish as a player in first the green and white hoops of Celtic and then the all-red of Liverpool, and Ferguson in the dug-out at Aberdeen via St. Mirren and East Stirling.
As Ferguson’s managerial career began to take off, he began to forge certain links, albeit slightly tenuous, with Liverpool. As a young manager, he was a great fan of the way Liverpool played and was present at a number of European fixtures at this time, both at Anfield and further afield.
Ferguson was present, for example, the night Liverpool famously beat Saint Etienne in the 1977 European Cup quarter-final and afterwards talked of being intoxicated by the passion and drama generated by the home crowd. He also attended the 1978 European Cup Final at Wembley when Liverpool defeated FC Bruges of Belgium.
It was at this time that Ferguson started to get to know Jock Stein a bit better. He had occasionally called upon Stein for advice in his early years in management, and the two men were beginning to form a relationship that would culminate with them working alongside each other with the Scottish national side.
That was still to come, however, and as Ferguson’s Aberdeen side won the first of three league titles under him, his star was well and truly on the ascent.
Through Stein, Ferguson had got to know Bill Shankly to some degree, and also Shankly’s successor, Bob Paisley, and so when Aberdeen were drawn against Liverpool in the 1980-81 European Cup second round, Fergie was given a warm welcome to Anfield.
It was all rather cordial in the lead-up to the two-legged tie, with Ferguson shown good hospitality when he visited Anfield prior to the game, but then things started to sour slightly and some say this was when Ferguson’s so-called obsession with Liverpool began to take root.
Billed invariably as a ‘Battle of Britain’, the clash between the champions of England and Scotland stirred an undercurrent of prickliness amongst certain players on both sides, as well as certain elements of the media north of the border.
At the time there was a contention in some quarters that Anglo-scots, those Scottish players who made their living playing football in England, should not be considered for the Scotland national team.
Liverpool’s Scottish contingent of Dalglish, Graeme Souness, and Alan Hansen was amongst those seemingly in the firing line and under the closest scrutiny. In some quarters their performances in the blue shirt of Scotland were compared unfavourably with those while wearing Liverpool’s red, and there had been calls for Jock Stein to leave them out of recent squads.
Some of the Aberdeen players in the lead-up to the game were supposedly quoted at length as to how they would match Liverpool man-for-man and ultimately defeat them due to superior team spirit. This didn’t go down well in the Liverpool changing room, and Hansen in particular tells the tale of how he, Dalglish and Souness had their team-mates so riled up for the tie that defeat was unthinkable.
All of this led to perhaps a rather unpleasant undercurrent, and Liverpool’s ultimate 5-0 aggregate victory came as a bitter pill for Ferguson and his men to swallow. Ferguson for his part believed that Liverpool’s Scottish contingent particularly enjoyed their victory just a little too much for his liking.
Into the early 1980s and it is possible that Ferguson was being earmarked for a potential return to Anfield on a longer basis than one solitary match.
As Bob Paisley came towards the end of his tenure in 1983, a successor was being sought and the aim was to appoint a younger manager.
At Anfield, at the time there was nobody who quite fit the bill, and so the club was looking outside its confines. John Toshack was lined up to take over in 1982 and a deal was struck, but then Paisley decided to stay for another year and by the time a further twelve months rolled by, Toshack had fallen into difficulties at Swansea who had been relegated.
This ruled Toshack out of the running and perhaps opened up the door for Ferguson to be considered. 1983 was the year that Ferguson’s Aberdeen side famously beat Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup and so his stock had never been higher.
Thus, it is highly possible that with Jock Stein’s Liverpool connections playing a part, Ferguson was considered for the Liverpool post in 1983. In the end, the Liverpool board made what was to all purposes a temporary appointment when they handed the reigns over to Paisley’s trusted lieutenant, the 62-year-old Joe Fagan.
Again, it is highly possible that Ferguson was still being considered for when Fagan stepped down in a couple of years’ time. During those two years, Ferguson led Aberdeen to two more league titles and a Scottish Cup success.
Therefore, if the powers-that-be at Liverpool were indeed still considering him, and if Jock Stein was indeed fighting his corner with Paisley and his board of directors accordingly, then Ferguson was doing his chances no harm at all.
But then things were to change drastically and Ferguson and Dalglish were to clash properly for the first time. In fact, their coming together would prove to be such that it forever ended any chance whatsoever of Ferguson becoming Liverpool boss.
Jock Stein had taken over as Scotland national coach in 1979 and had made steady progress with the players at his disposal. When he went looking for a new assistant and part-time coach, it was in Ferguson’s direction that he looked, and Ferguson had no hesitation in accepting.
So it came to pass that Scotland set about trying to qualify for the 1986 World Cup with Jock Stein in charge, Alex Ferguson his deputy and coach, and Kenny Dalglish and the Liverpool contingent very much an integral part of the playing squad.
In early 1985, Scotland were due to play Wales in a World Cup qualifying match at Hampden Park. In the run-up to the game, Ferguson, in his capacity as coach, asked Dalglish in front of the whole squad for his opinion of Ian Rush, his Liverpool team-mate and Welsh danger man.
Asked for his opinion regarding Rush’s strengths and weaknesses, Dalglish pretty much blanked Ferguson save for the bland acknowledgement that Rush was a good player. Pushed to divulge further, Dalglish simply clammed up and refused to speak.
Alan Hansen and Steve Nicol were then asked for their opinions on Rush, and they too had nothing to say on the matter, leaving Ferguson incandescent with rage.
Graeme Souness was present at the team meeting and although no longer a Liverpool player, having left for Sampdoria a few months prior, he too chose to remain silent. Souness did later go to Ferguson in private and give his opinion on Rush, but by then the damage between Ferguson and Dalglish had been done.
Writing about the incident years later, it is clear that Ferguson felt the Liverpool players, and Dalglish in particular, were holding out on him as they didn’t want to say anything that could be used against Rush, and therefore Liverpool, at club level at any point in the future.
It was about this time, in early 1985, that Liverpool once again started thinking about managerial appointments. Joe Fagan had won a treble of European Cup, League Cup and League title in his first season, but wasn’t really enjoying the manager’s role. He had let it be known that the current season, 1984-85, would be his last in charge.
The Liverpool Chairman, John Smith, visited Kenny Dalglish at his home. It is conjecture, but it is possible that Smith asked Dalglish his opinion of Ferguson at this meeting and whether he thought Ferguson would be a good fit for Liverpool.
If this is true, then coming on the back of their clash while on Scotland duty there could only have been one answer.
Whatever was or was not said during the meeting, upon its conclusion Dalglish was offered the Liverpool manager’s job at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Dalglish carried on playing for Liverpool and Scotland, and by the time Scotland played the return clash with Wales at Ninian Park the following September, Dalglish was player-manager of Liverpool.
It was on a balmy autumn evening in Wales that the story was to take another twist.
Next time we will look in-depth at how the relationship between Dalglish and Ferguson became further strained once the two men became established managerial adversaries.