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Ready for the Call

Unknown Tuesday, April 27, 2010 , ,
As Alan Kennedy walks into the room it is impossible not to be impressed. Not simply because of his honours list - five league titles, four League Cups, three Charity Shields and, most notably, two European Cups - but also because he still looks supremely fit for someone who is in his fifties. "I'm going for a jog later on," he says, explaining why he’s wearing a tracksuit, before adding that he has "to stay fit just in case Rafa Benitez gives me a call!"

It immediately transpires that Kennedy has a talent for putting people at ease. Something of a necessity, you might add, for a man whose visits to Anfield these days are in the role of a corporate hospitality guest. “I need to work to earn a living,” he tells me later.

As if to prove his credentials as an after dinner speaker, he quickly starts firing the sort of anecdotes that fans lap up. “Bob Paisley knew my family as he was from the same village as my mother. In fact, he used to buy his fish and chips from her shop. So he knew that he was signing someone who was coming from a good background and a hard worker,” he says, providing a glimpse back to an era when football business was done in a manner that seems completely alien today.

At the time the £330,000 that Liverpool paid Newcastle made Kennedy the most expensive defenders in the game. It wasn’t exactly Liverpool’s style to splash about that sort of money but Paisley was determined to get him. “In previous years Liverpool had experimented with a number of players at left back but they wanted someone to sort the issue once and for all. When Paisley signed me, he said that if I didn’t become an England player he would jump in the Mersey. Having thought a bit about it Paisley then added: when the tide is out!”

Paisley’s prediction, however, did come true and Kennedy did play for England albeit only twice - Kenny Sansom had made the role his – but his success at a club level more than made up for any disappointment this might have given rise to.

This despite a shaky start. “My debut wasn’t a great debut. In fact it was a terrible debut. Players and fans were probably wondering why the club had spent so much money on me. What happened was that Liverpool had learned this trick of playing the ball nice and easy in little triangles. My philosophy was to get rid of the ball, to send it to the other side for as long as possible. So I would be finding Terry McDermott or David Johnson but everyone would be caught short so it was a waste of time.”

“I hadn’t learned much in the previous four or five days that I’d been at Liverpool and when I came in at half-time against QPR, the manager was fuming. He whispered – he didn’t shout – ‘I think they shot the wrong bloody Kennedy!’ It was said in jest but the message was that I had to improve or I was out. So I learned a lot from that particular game.”

And learn he did, as he nailed down the left-back slot for the coming seven years. “In our first season, we let in sixteen goals,” he says, more matter-of-fact-idly than out of vanity.

“During my time at Anfield we established ourselves as the best team in the country with our traditional 4-4-2. We didn't think too much about our opponents. There was so much self-belief that we always took the field determined to play our own way and our main goal was to push forward and score goals. Football in those days was easier to understand as emphasis was not so much on tactics. The secret behind Liverpool's success was unity in the group. Everyone played for each other and that made us a very difficult team to beat.”

Liverpool’s self belief was also fuelled by their achievements both in England and in Europe. And it was here that Kennedy enjoyed his biggest success. His goal – the winner - against Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup final is an obvious talking point. “It was at the time,” he answers when I venture that it probably was the high point of his career. “I’d scored in the previous Cup final against West Ham (in the League Cup final) but that hadn’t turned out to be a winner as the game ended in a draw.”

“When Bob Paisley picked the team he picked it on quality and strength. I was lucky enough to be part of it and, in the end, scoring the goal was just a bonus. I didn’t expect to score it, I didn’t expect to be up there but I’d had a couple of shots earlier and in the end I decided to have a go from that acute angle. I shouldn’t have, really but I did and the ball hit the back of the net.”

Three years later he was handed the responsibility of taking Liverpool’s final penalty against Roma. Kennedy confirms with a laugh that he had been terrible when taking penalties during training earlier in the week but that hadn’t deterred him from stepping forward to take the kick, an often undervalued but critical element in such high pressure moments.

Realistically, however, Liverpool had done extremely well to get to that stage. I ask what it was like to take on Roma in their own back yard. “They were confident. In the tunnel beforehand they were sticking their chest out, flicking their hair and giving the message that ‘this is our place’. But we just rolled our sleeves up and said we’re not intimidated. We’ve got our supporters, our family, our friends and we decided to attack them straight away which is exactly what we did.”

“It wasn’t a good game as it was tight and there was pressure on all the time. When the penalties came around the manager was looking around for players to pick. I don’t think anyone was that bothered about volunteering and it was just a quite word. I was really, really surprised when he picked me. I didn’t imagine that he would come up to me and say those words. I was that surprised that I didn’t join the other four lads giving their names to the referee. I didn’t realise that it was now up to me.”

“They say never change your mind during the run up to a penalty, well, I did. I was really thinking to myself ‘put it to the goalkeeper’s left’ but in the end I opened my body up, slightly hesitated and opened my body up and the ball went in. It was a great feeling.”

A year later, Liverpool and Kennedy were once again in the final of the European Cup. Sadly that ended in the tragedy at Heysel, a dark night in the club’s history. One of the sad side-effects of that tragedy is that it completely overshadowed the departure of the long-serving Joe Fagan.

“He was a quite man but he was also a man that we respected because whatever he said, you did. And when he raised his voice you did it even quicker!” is how Kennedy recalls him. “I remember on a number of occasions him whispering to a couple of players ‘sort it out between you’. What that meant was to forget Bob Paisley, to forget Joe Fagan and sort any problems that we had between us on the pitch. And the problem was that we had lost.”

“But once he went to Heysel, there was no way back for Joe. He wasn’t very happy with how things had gone. For me, however, he was always the unsung here, the guy who did the job in the background whilst Bob (Paisley) was the one under the spotlight. Joe was just happy to get on with the job and did it well with Ronnie Moran.”

Kennedy is just as effusive in his praise of Bob Paisley. “He wasn’t the most fluent of talkers; he was very shy. He got on with his job. He didn’t like confrontation. But where he was strong is making decisions and he made decisions on what was best for the football club, not what was best for the individual but what was best for the football club.”

“We all had our problems with the manager sometimes but he was a strong character and he was well supported by Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran, Roy Evans, Tom Saunders and Reuben Bennett. His record might not be beaten in terms of what he achieved in such a short space of time: you’re talking from 1977 to 1984.”

Talk turn to the current Liverpool side and I ask what he thinks of the present left-backs. His reply is typically diplomatic. “Since we let John Arne Riise go we’ve had a little bit of problem. Insua is a young player who has come in and what I would encourage him to do is to get forward a little bit more. Defensively he can be better. Aurelio, for me, is probably a better full back because of his experience but his injury problems hold him back.”

“For me Patrice Evra is a good candidate for a left-back: loves to get forward, has pace, and knows how to defend. He’s just how I see a left back as being.”

Given the current dearth of quality left-backs, Kennedy must wonder what might have been had he been playing nowadays. “I don’t think players of yesteryear would have coped with playing today,” is his somewhat surprising answer. “They’d have to change; they’d have to be told how to play the game of football. Nowadays you don’t have to think on the football pitch. Managers, coaches do it for you. I think that it is no longer a game for the spectator; you don’t see that many brilliant games any more. The win is the important side of it now.”

The shortcomings in the tactical approach to the game when he played is something that he mentions throughout the whole interview so I decide to press a bit about whether it really was so laidback. “Yes, yes it was. I think that a lot of players played individually in our day but Liverpool had a team and Bob Paisley always told us to play as a team. In our days there was no strategy. It was just a case to go out there and play better than the opposition.”

This reply indirectly explains a question that had been gnawing at the back of my head: why Kennedy never went into management. “Well, as you can see, I’ve still got my hair and I don’t have any health problems! I didn’t go into management because I didn’t feel that it was the right thing to do; I didn’t feel that I was management material. I might have been wrong but I did have one year as a player-manager and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me. No, I was quite happy to be a player. I played until I was forty two in non-league football which is quite an age.”

The final query relates to what the club’s support meant for him. “The supporters were the be-all and end-all. The manager and the chairman used to say that it was all about the supporters. The supporters are very important: we all saw what happened in Istanbul and it was them who got the players back into the game. They can win games for Liverpool.”

With that, he sets off for his jog. It is only at this point that passing comment that he “still want that time again, I still play football” starts to feel that his earlier comment about being ready for a possible call by Rafa Benitez was said only partially in jest.

This article appeared in Issue 1 of the magazine, Well Red.
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Dad in Progress: Sports Mad

Unknown Saturday, April 17, 2010 ,
Surely, this is what fathers are there for. Sport that is. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for passing down the fundamental values of life – love, hard work, honesty, respect and the such - but in all honesty, few things excite me about raising my two children as much as the thought of sharing with them my passion for sport.

I say sharing but deep down I know that what I really mean is imposing. Especially as far as football is concerned they don’t have a choice. They have a free reign in their choice of religion, politics, sexual orientation, anything. But not in sport, and certainly not in football: I don’t think I could bear it if they were to start supporting a team other than those which I follow.

Now, I realise that as far as first impressions go, the one that I’m giving here probably isn’t the most positive. So let me try to paint a clearer and, hopefully, better picture.

I consider myself to be a ‘normal’ fan in as much as normal a fan one can be. I don’t go around wearing football kits all the time nor was it ever a temptation of mine to name my kids after some player (even though my son’s name has an uncanny resemblance to a leading player, I swear that it played no part).

Then again, a significant number of conversations that I have are about sport, most of what I read is about football and I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the game. But that is what fans do and anyone who tells you differently is either lying or doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Anyway, being a fan means that to a great degree you are helpless – no matter how much you pray and how many lucky shirts you wear, nothing you can do will influence the outcome of a game – so we look for comfort in numbers. If you’re sharing your joys and pain with others it starts to seem more worthwhile, that devoting your time to watching twenty two young men kick a piece of leather is not that crazy after all.

This feeling of community cannot be artificially created. My wife, bless her, tried to get involved when we started going out together but I could see that she wasn’t going through the same emotions that I was. For me watching a game meant excitement, for her boredom. And, believe me, nothing drains away your excitement more than having someone alongside you who is simply going through the motions. In football as much as in anything else. So, slowly, we came to a tacit agreement that it would be better if I continued enjoying my games without her.

That, however, hasn’t diminished the desire to have someone close to you with whom you can share your emotions, expectations, hopes and fears. Which, I guess, is where my children come in: if I do my job well then their passion will be as real as mine. And it is why I can’t afford them ending up supporting anyone other than my teams.

At least I know that I’m not alone. In a study outlined in his book ‘The Social Significance of Sport’ sociologist Barry D McPherson revealed that over half of the fans cited family members as the source of their team allegiance, with thirty five percent attributing their team selection to their father, more than any other single source.

Watching sports, however, is one of half of the equation. Although I’m not the best example – or perhaps it is because I’m not the best example – I want my kids to play sports not only now that they’re young but also as they grow older. This has to be qualified: I don’t want them to be brilliant at any sport – I’m not hoping that one of my kids turns out to be the white Pele – but I simply want them to feel comfortable enough with themselves to enjoy playing a sport.

There is, of course, a reason why I feel so strongly about that: I sucked at sport. Worse than that, I never enjoyed sport – actually, I never really tried to play any sport - because I felt that I would suck at it and the messages that I got was not to ridicule myself by trying something for which I wasn’t built physically. So I gave up. Even today, I can’t go out for a run without wondering what anyone who sees me might think of my ungainly movement or my lack of breath.

I don’t want my children to be that way which is why last year I enrolled my eldest in the brilliant initiative that is Skolasport. For me, there is no better introduction to the world of sport than this: the sporting equivalent of a sweet shop where the kids can get a taste of a wide variety of spots.

That does not mean that it doesn’t have its own challenges. There is a particular kind of fear in seeing your kid run, that urge to run alongside them in order to be there if they fall. Or to run to their side if indeed they do trip up. I don’t know about you, but for me it takes a lot of strength to shout a couple of words of encouragement for her to get up rather than go there and actually pick her up myself.

It is also difficult not to let your competitive urge overcome you. Over the years I’ve seen some shocking behaviour by parents: shouting insults at opposing players – which in this case happen to be seven year old kids – or telling their own offspring to ‘break his leg’ being some of the most despicable of examples. But even those who don’t go to such extremes tend to unknowingly pass on pressure and an unhealthy desire to win to their children. With the result that when they don’t win, the kids feel as if they’ve let their parents down.

So I’m trying to play it cool. Yet it is harder than you would think. All it takes is a meaningless race for you to start feeling the urge to start pushing your kid to win.

Yet it is not all sacrifice. Seeing the pure, unadulterated joy on their faces makes as they run around on the grass makes it all worthwhile. And then there is the comfort of knowing that sport will end up making my job as a parent easier. For there are few things better than sport that can help teach you those fundamental values in life: loyalty, honesty, teamwork...you name it and it can be taught through sport.

Which, after all, is probably why it is at the core of my love for it.

This article appeared in the Spring issue of Growing Up magazine.
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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer