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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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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer