Sam Wallace: Kenny Dalglish reveals frustration with Liverpool players
In times of adversity, Kenny Dalglish usually resembles the tougher types that populate John le Carré novels. The sort the Circus would happily send to Moscow, safe in the knowledge that, under interrogation, he would not even divulge his shoe size.
It made his post-match interview on ESPN on Saturday night all the more extraordinary. Dalglish is typically the master of evasion, one who turns questions back on the questioner. But after defeat to Bolton Wanderers he presented, unprompted, a comprehensive demolition of his own players' performance. "If anybody has aspirations of staying any length of time at this football club," he said, "they will not be here much longer if that's the way they are going to perform."
Most intriguing was his insight that, "it is all well and good saying they might have been distracted because there's another game on Wednesday and on Saturday." That sounded like the remnants of a conversation he had just had in the dressing room. Who, you had to wonder, had turned to Dalglish and told him that he was preoccupied with the Carling Cup semi-final second leg?
Dalglish's one-year anniversary as Liverpool manager passed earlier this month and it all feels a lot grimmer than it did on those sunny uplands of last season when, in March, the Kop sang "Happy Birthday" to their manager as his team defeated Manchester United, 3-1. That was an afternoon when the club at last emerged from under a dark cloud, most of it brewed up by the previous owners and then the acrimony of Roy Hodgson's brief reign.
Recently, the results have been less consistent and the problems conspicuous. The mishandling of the Luis Suarez affair. The problems Suarez's subsequent absence has left. The never-ending wait for Andy Carroll to come good. Stewart Downing's failure to score. The nagging fear that a net spend of around £48.5m in the summer on the likes of Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson has not paid dividends.
It was always going to take at least £50m to transform what remained of the Liverpool squad one year ago into something resembling a team capable of competing for a finish in the top four. This is the team's first season together and, by Wednesday night, they could be in their first domestic final in almost six years. As for a top-four finish, that still looks unrealistic.
Liverpool are not the first of the big dogs in the Premier League to teeter on the brink of some form of mini-crisis. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been there at some point this season. What changed on Saturday was that Dalglish was unwilling to lend anymore of the considerable well of goodwill that he has with the club's supporters to his underperforming players.
As Liverpool manager between 1985 and 1991, his patience with his team was rarely tested because, put simply, his team rarely lost. On Match Of The Day on Saturday night, Alan Hansen recalled a Dalglish team talk he had heard many times. "Effort, attitude and commitment was what he stressed," he said, but there was no mention of Dalglish having to remind his players in public what was expected of them.
The team beaten by Bolton included five players Dalglish brought to the club and Downing, a second-half substitute, was another of his signings. This is, by and large, Dalglish's team and their league form has not been good enough. This is his credibility on the line. His reaction on Saturday night told you that there is a limit to the lengths he will go to in order to protect them.
Taking your players on like that is a big step for any manager and is fraught with risk. You get the impression that Andre Villas-Boas, for all his confidence, is still a long way from telling the world that Fernando Torres has let the club down. Arsène Wenger never criticises his players. Sir Alex Ferguson only rarely and only when the occasion demands, such as the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City. Of all of them, Roberto Mancini can be the most publicly critical of his players.
Already this season, Dalglish has blamed referees for Liverpool's misfortune and he has, of course, sanctioned a pretty extraordinary broadside at the Football Association over the Suarez affair. The press are another regular target. Now that he has turned that critical gaze upon his own players, the excuses really are over. And about time too.
Starting with Manchester City in the second leg of that semi-final on Wednesday, Liverpool have a defining run of fixtures: Manchester United at home in the FA Cup, Wolves away, Tottenham at home, United away and then home games against Everton and Arsenal. It is a reasonable expectation that Dalglish should be judged at the end of the season, yet no one can be in any doubt this is a significant six weeks.
"If they think they can turn the clock on and off they will not be turning it on and off at this club," Dalglish said. The clock is a pertinent image at Liverpool. Of all the benchmarks in their wait for a 19th league title, the 2015-16 season looms as large as any other. If they have not won the title by the end of that season they will have gone longer without being champions than Manchester United did between 1967 and 1993.
There is much around the periphery of the business of a modern football club that can make a small difference, but in the end it still comes down to the players. There are times when there is a benefit in shielding them from their own shortcomings but it is not a position any manager, even Dalglish, can afford to adopt indefinitely.
Do the racists know Roman is Jewish?
It is a deeply unpleasant aspect of Chelsea's away support that there is a racist element whose presence is felt more keenly than at Stamford Bridge. Decent-minded Chelsea fans, of which there are many, loathe them as much as anyone.
So good on the club for disclosing that they are investigating "racist songs" on trains from Norwich on Saturday – the kind of announcement no club would want to make. Of course, with people like this, the level of stupidity is so acute it feels redundant to offer any advice. Their attitude is abhorrent, but given, for example, that Didier Drogba is from the Ivory Coast, Roman Abramovich is Jewish and their former striker Nicolas Anelka is a Muslim, they appear to have lost this battle.
McClaren rediscovers Twente touch
It is early days yet and RKC Waalwijk are not exactly Dutch football's most formidable team, but their 5-0 defeat on Saturday at the hands of Steve McClaren's Twente was quite a start for the Englishman in his second spell at the club.
After his dismissal from Wolfsburg and his resignation from Nottingham Forest, McClaren has come to regard 2011, like 2007, as one of the worst years of his career. Clearly, McClaren's Eredivisie title with Twente gives him special status at the club but there is also a wider lesson here. One bad year does not a failed manager make. Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Rafael Benitez, Harry Redknapp – they were all sacked once upon a time.