In 1966, 11 years before they broke the British transfer record to sign him, Liverpool took Kenny Dalglish on trial. The future ‘King Kenny’, then a chubby 15-year-old, stayed only a few days, and the highlight was being given a lift back to his hostel by Bill Shankly.
Sadly, Liverpool’s legendary manager did not find the meeting quite so memorable. When Dalglish began tearing up defences with Celtic a few years later, and a furious Shankly learned that the player had been allowed to slip through his grasp, he ordered an inquest, refusing to believe that he could have been responsible.
It was a regret that festered. After travelling to watch Scotland’s U-23s play their English counterparts in Derby in 1972, the Liverpool boss was asked how Dalglish had performed by another of the club’s Scots, Ian Ross. “Don't talk to me about Dalglish,” he groaned. “The only man on the pitch. Christ, what a player!"
Another five years would pass before Liverpool finally got their man, and by then Shankly had moved on, with Bob Paisley the manager responsible for the £440,000 purchase. Not that it stopped Shanks from giving his tuppence worth when the deal finally went through, or from chiding Celtic for giving the Reds a second chance. “It’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever known,” he said of the transfer. “I would rather have quit and got out of the game altogether than sold a player of his brilliance.”
It might have taken Shankly a while to appreciate the player’s true worth, but he could not be held entirely responsible for that near miss 11 years earlier. Dalgish had, after all, been asked by Liverpool to extend his trial. He refused. The explanation given was that he needed to return home before travelling to another trial at West Ham United. The truth? “Rangers were playing Celtic at Ibrox that night,” he later revealed. “I caught the train back up from Lime Street and went straight to the match."
Dalglish was a Rangers diehard. His bedroom overlooked the Ibrox club’s training ground and he would have gladly spurned advances from Anfield, Upton Park and elsewhere had his boyhood heroes come calling. But when a knock finally came at his door in May 1967, the man doing the knocking was Sean Fallon, assistant manager of Rangers’ bitter rivals.
Of all the players I have played alongside, managed and coached in more than four decades, he is the most talented.
Fallon was on his way to the seaside with his wife and three children to celebrate the couple’s anniversary when he stopped at the Dalglish family flat, assuring his family he wouldn’t be long. Three hours later, he emerged to a predictably frosty reception. But he also had the player’s signature.
Although Dalglish’s father, like Kenny himself, supported Rangers, he needed little convincing that Celtic – who were to win the European Cup just weeks later – would offer his son a football education that few could match. For the player himself, the only moment of concern came after the deal had been done, when his mother began to show Fallon round the family home. “I panicked,” Dalglish recalled. “My bedroom wall was covered with pictures of Rangers players, and Celtic’s assistant manager was about to see my room! I managed to get most of them down before Sean saw them.”
Not that Fallon would have cared. If anything, the knowledge that Scotland’s greatest ever player had been snatched from under Rangers’ noses made Dalglish’s subsequent successes all the sweeter to those at Celtic Park. Yet it took time for the youngster to establish himself in a team that was, at the time, among Europe’s best, and by 1971 – three years on from his debut – he was still waiting for his first senior goal.
Then, an Old Firm derby at Ibrox gave the first indication that this was no ordinary player. Celtic were awarded a penalty and, not content with accepting responsibility for the kick, Dalglish delayed his run-up to calmly retie his bootlaces – the crowd’s ire ringing in his ears – before casually stroking the ball home. It was the first of 167 goals he would score in the green and white.
Although he had long since left his Rangers allegiances behind, by 1977 Celtic were on the slide and Dalglish was on the look-out for a new challenge. Liverpool, as it happened, were in need of a new striker, having just sold Kevin Keegan to Hamburg. The fates had aligned, and so it was that one of English football’s great love affairs began. Filling Keegan’s No7 shirt would have been daunting for many players, but the outgoing Anfield idol offered a prophetic prediction when he said: "Kenny may prove a better player for Liverpool than I did."
Although Bob Paisley’s side had just been crowned European champions, Dalglish succeeded in bringing an added dimension to their play, with his strength, subtlety of touch and football intelligence crucial to prolonging the Reds’ rein at the top. The transition from Scottish to English football proved seamless for a player who, having scored inside seven minutes of his league debut against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park, went on to find the net on his very first appearance in front of the Kop. Yet the way Dalglish started the season could not compare to the way he ended it, chipping home a delightful winner as Liverpool retained the European Cup against Club Brugge.
The following season, he was voted Footballer of the Year by England’s football writers. By 1983, when Dalglish won the award for a second time, he was already established as the finest British player of his generation and, arguably, Scotland’s greatest of all time. He had already added a second European Cup, with a third soon to follow, and was the creative brains behind a brilliant attacking partnership with Ian Rush. As the Welshman would later reflect: "I just made the runs knowing the ball would come to me."
Dalglish’s intuitive assists established Rush as Liverpool’s all-time leading marksman, and Kenny himself chipped in with his fair share, scoring 172 times over a glorious 13-year Anfield career. Such was his standing at the club that, even at 34, he was a popular choice to replace Joe Fagan as player-manager in 1985, and his first season in charge ended with club’s first league and cup double. Further managerial successes followed, both and Liverpool and at Blackburn Rovers, but it is as a player – celebrating goals with that trademark beaming grin - that Dalglish will be most fondly remembered.
It was in this capacity that he won ten league titles, three European Cups and a record 102 Scotland caps, and emerged as one of the greatest of his generation. The esteem in which he is still held was confirmed in 2009, when FourFourTwo magazine named him as the greatest striker in post-war British football. Three years earlier, when Liverpool fans had voted to compile a list of their club’s 100 best players, Dalglish came in at number one.
It could be argued that an even greater accolade was afforded by Paisley, an ever-present throughout the club’s glory years, who said of Dalglish: "Of all the players I have played alongside, managed and coached in more than four decades, he is the most talented."
For everyone at Anfield, and despite Shankly’s initial frustration, those 11 years proved well worth the wait.