Kenny Dalglish's European debut tainted with memories of Heysel
Kenny Dalglish looks forward to his first European game as Liverpool manager, in the Europa League against Sparta Prague.
It is with regret that Kenny Dalglish approaches his first European game as Liverpool manager on Thursday night. No sense of pride or occasion, no lamenting the 9,394 days that have passed between his initial appointment and a Europa League tie against Sparta Prague; only the regret that has stayed with him since 29 May 1985 and that horrific night at Heysel.
Dalglish assumed control of Liverpool from Joe Fagan the day after the 1985 European Cup final when 39 people, mostly Juventus supporters, were killed at the Heysel Stadium. A ban on English clubs followed the violence in Brussels and, while there may be resentment from Dalglish at Margaret Thatcher's handling of the tragedy, maybe even some pride when he does step out at Stadion Letna, this is not a time, the manager says, for personal laments.
"I just wish the ban had never happened because that would have meant Heysel had never happened and it would have been better for everyone if it never happened and it would have been the wishes of every single person," he said. "Heysel was a terrible tragedy. For so many people to lose their lives at a football game was appalling and it was right that somebody was punished."
Dalglish's regret is confined to Heysel and its repercussions. He would not, for instance, dwell on what Liverpool's championship-winning team of 1987-88, for example, might have achieved in Europe. "That is hypothetical," he said. "I never regret that. I regret more what happened at Heysel than not managing Liverpool in Europe. I have the chance to come round again, there's a lot of people don't get a second chance after something like that happens."
Despite criticising Thatcher in his recent autobiography – "She just saw it as a political masterstroke for her," he wrote of the ban – Dalglish is conscious not to portray himself or Liverpool as victims of the Heysel tragedy. "They [the government] did what they thought was right. I don't know that too many people will agree with what they did. I mean it wasn't just Liverpool who suffered; Everton won the championship that year but they never got to play in the European Cup. There were lots of people and they were innocent, they weren't even at Heysel, so there were people with a lot greater grievance than we could have."
As for Dalglish's managerial bow itself (he last managed an English team in Europe with Newcastle in December 1997) Liverpool will be without the injured Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger, while Luis Suárez is ineligible and Christian Poulsen is absent as his wife is in labour. The record signing Andy Carroll has travelled but is not fit, although new faces to fire the Liverpool imagination remain in plentiful supply.
Dalglish has brought four players from the side who beat Southend United 9-0 in the FA Youth Cup on Monday, including the prodigious talent Raheem Sterling, who will become the youngest player to feature in a Liverpool side – at 16 years and 71 days – should he appear against Sparta. Sterling, signed for an initial £500,000 from Queens Park Rangers, scored five against Southend and is on a half-term holiday from Rainhill High School. He could have a tale to tell at assembly on Monday.
"Don't worry, we've brought a baby-sitter for Raheem and he'll be doing his homework before he goes to sleep, so he won't miss any of his education," said Dalglish, who has also rewarded John Flanagan, Conor Coady and Jack Robinson, who holds the mantle of Liverpool's youngest player at 16 years and 250 days, for their progress.
"It will be a fantastic experience for them. They deserve to be where they are. We have not brought them along as a publicity stunt. We have brought them along because we needed them and because they deserve to be here."
Sparta Prague (4-4-2, probable): Blazek; Kusnir, Repka, Brabec, Pamic; Sionko, Matejovsky, Vacek, Keric; Kweuke, Pekhart.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1, probable): Reina; Kelly, Carragher, Skrtel, Johnson; Lucas, Aurélio; Kuyt, Meireles, Rodríguez; Ngog.
Subs from Jones, Gulacsi, Flanagan, Robinson, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Cole, Jovanovic, Coady, Ince, Sterling, Pacheco.
Referee F Meyer (Germany).
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