Kenny Dalglish and Fernando Torres come from different eras and from different countries but, as their meeting shows, they have more in common than they realise.
No comparisons. The Kid makes it very clear. He does not want to be compared to the King. “As of right now, I haven’t done anything,” Fernando Torres says. “To tell the truth, I’m almost embarrassed to be here. Please, no comparisons.”
And what about “King Kenny”? How does it feel when, for half your life, people have called you a legend and treated you as a footballing deity? And what do you do when you come face to face with your supposed heir apparent?
“You’re only a legend in someone else’s mind,” Kenny Dalglish says. “As long as you’re not a legend in your own mind, there’s no problem. As for Fernando, people like to put you in pigeonholes, to categorise you, to compare you. But the most important thing is to be yourself.”
That is easier said than done because you cannot help but draw comparisons. To appreciate something you need a context, a frame of reference. And as you sit and share a table with these two talented men, you cannot help but notice the common ground.
It is not only that both are strikers, both have the star sign Pisces, both were Liverpool’s record signings, both have the ability to turn the Kop into a frenzied hive of humanity. Or even that, less than 24 hours earlier, against Bolton Wanderers, Torres had delivered a finish that was uncannily similar to Dalglish’s famous match-winner against FC Bruges in the 1978 European Cup final: the same timed run, the same right-foot caress, the same gentle bounce just before crossing the goalline, the same helpless goalkeeper.
There is an obvious red thread connecting these two men – and that is what a club is about. Players come and go, but the shirt and the continuity remain. Torres plays with Jamie Carragher, who played with Robbie Fowler, who played with John Barnes, who played with Ian Rush, who played with Dalglish. And Dalglish played with Emlyn Hughes, who played with Ian St John, who played with Roger Hunt, who played with Ronnie Moran, who played with . . . Well, you can keep it going all the way back to Malcolm McVean, the man who scored the first goal in Liverpool’s history in 1892.
In that sense, Torres and Dalglish are torchbearers for the same 115-year-old tradition. They may bristle at comparisons – whether through modesty or good manners – but they understand the responsibility. “We are the ones who carry out the dream,” Dalglish says. “The dream that the supporters will never achieve because they can’t play. So they live through us.
“But we have dreams we can’t realise too,” he adds, after a quick glance at Torres’s wide eyes. “I always wanted to stand on the Kop. But I could never go there. I could only go there when it was empty. It’s funny, my son got to stand on the Kop. I left him with someone who took him in, looked after him and he got to stand there during a game. He got to achieve a dream that I never could.”
The words wash over you. You think about how a man such as Dalglish could miss something as mundane as a Saturday afternoon in the stands supporting his team. And then Torres pipes up, almost wistfully: “I’ve stood on the Kop. But also only when it was empty. And I would love it if, by the time I retire, I, too, will also be unable to go stand on the Kop.”
His grin is sheepish, but with a touch of mischief. The “no comparison” rule? It has gone. But then he knows all too well why he was asked to come here today.
Both men share the fact that they were supporters who got to live the dream. Torres’s was perhaps more complete. He got to play for Atlético Madrid, the club he supported as a boy, but Dalglish never played for his childhood idols, Rangers. In fact, as the story goes, on the day Jock Stein’s assistant came to his door to take him to Celtic, Dalglish frantically ripped all his Rangers posters off his bedroom wall.
When football becomes your profession, club loyalty goes out of the window. “When you play, it’s hard to be a supporter,” Dalglish says. “The exception is your country. That’s why I really enjoy Scotland games, because I can be the same as everybody else. I can be a fan.”
Your eyes flick to Torres’s face and you try to guess what he is thinking. The national team. Everyone pulling for their country. And how things in his country are different.
“In Spain, the clubs are far more important,” he says. “When I was at Atlético, whenever I’d go to the Bernabéu [the home of Real Madrid] with the national team, the fans would boo me because I was from Atlético. It’s a big problem. We’re all wearing the same shirt, but when you trained with the national team you would see the Real Madrid guys together, the Valencia guys together, the Barcelona guys together. And they’d go in hard in training, as if they were still wearing their club shirt.”
Torres’s voice trails away. Then Dalglish chimes in: “You know, there has never been a successful team that’s not had a good dressing-room. I mean, they don’t have to go drinking together, but the dressing-room is very important.”
“Vestuário!” Dalglish repeats the word in Spanish, for emphasis.
“We had a great dressing-room here [at Liverpool], we were real close. Even now there’s six of us who remain close. We play golf, we go out with the wives, we’re still very close. It’s special. That’s not a modern thing, is it? In 20 years’ time there won’t be six of you sticking around Liverpool, will there?” The words hang in the air. It is not an accusation. It is a statement of fact. Football has changed. Eight of Liverpool’s starting XI hail from outside Britain. Some things can exist only at a certain point in time. The world moves on.
Back to football. What happens when a superstar is having a stinker? What happens when nothing goes right? Perhaps you expect them to trot out some cliché, like “going back to basics”, or that they will defer to more inform teammates. But no, they respond with the same disdain. It is the indignation of those who are used to carrying the weight of responsibility. “I always want the ball, no matter how badly I’m playing,” Torres says. “Even if I’ve missed ten chances in a row I will want the ball. That’s what I’m there for. I’m not going to hide.”
Dalglish says: “Of course you keep looking and wanting the ball. You have to continue. Look, in the position Fernando plays, he’ll miss more than he scores. But it’s not the goals that are important, it’s the ones you miss. The more you miss, the closer you are to the next one. You have to think that way. And if you don’t have the courage to have that mentality, you’re not going to be playing at this level.”
You search for more common ground. And you find it. “I’ll watch Atlético because it’s my team,” Torres says. “But apart from that, I don’t like watching a lot of football. Although I do watch a lot, I don’t watch for enjoyment. I do it because I need to know the players and the opposing teams, I need to study and prepare for them.”
Dalglish’s face lights up. “I was much like Fernando,” he says. “I used to watch to see who I was playing against, to see the habits of the goalkeepers, the characteristics of defenders, see if I could learn something.
Later, I would watch if there was a player I wanted to sign, things like that. But now, well, it doesn’t grab me the way it did when I was a boy. I’m not really concentrating when I watch football.”
Having studied the game for 50-odd years – as a fan, player and manager – Dalglish is content to sit back and let the game be just that: a game. And maybe that is why he seems to be enjoying his time with Torres. The Spaniard’s disarming humility and confidence has brought him some joy. And, maybe seven years after leaving the sport for good, it feels good to reconnect, even for just a few hours.
As for Torres, there is more than a little of the student facing up to the master in his demeanour. He may have been embarrassed before arriving, but he is glowing at the connection that has been made.
“I learnt many things today,” Torres says when it is time to go. “I like the way Kenny is so accessible, he’s a normal person. He says he doesn’t feel like a legend, but the fact is that he is and that’s why his ‘normality’ is so shocking to me. You guys brought me here even though I told you that I’m not anywhere near his level. But I’m very proud that I’ve been able to spend time with him. And I’m honoured that he took the time to talk to me. Seeing someone like him makes me even more hungry to continue to work hard and, perhaps, some day, reach his level.”
Their eyes lock. Dalglish knows that it is his turn to impart some wisdom. “Today, footballers are criticised for the money they earn and for their lifestyles,” he says. “But Fernando seems to appreciate everything he gets.
“Fernando, this is a special club with special fans.” Dalglish is now talking directly to the young man. They may as well be alone in the room. “They love people who love to wear their shirt. But they’re not daft, they know when it’s real and when it’s just for show, kissing the badge and all that. They love to identify with people on the pitch. And I think they will identify with you very, very easily.”
© Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.