FOR the first time since February 20 1991 Kenny Dalglish will take his place in the Goodison dugout as Liverpool manager tomorrow.
Two days after that dramatic 4-4 draw in an FA Cup fifth round replay Dalglish stunned football by walking away from Anfield. The immense strain of leading the Reds in the aftermath of Hillsborough had taken its toll.
Two decades on, it’s a revitalised Dalglish who will lead Liverpool into the 216th Merseyside derby. Relaxed and upbeat, he’s clearly relishing preparing his side for a mouthwatering battle.
“If we get four goals again on Saturday we’ll be delighted,” he quipped. “That would be entertaining for us but not for the blue half of the city.”
Dalglish’s involvement with the most played derby in English league football dates back to October 1977 when he first faced the Blues in a goalless draw at Anfield.
“I don’t remember seeing the ball that day!” he said.
Times have changed but the Reds boss insists the intensity of the fixture remains as great as ever.
Passions run high and that’s underlined by the 19 red cards which have been shown in the 38 Premier League meetings between the clubs.
“Compared to the 70s and 80s, there’s more punishment now for people who want to be physical,” he said.
“That’s probably why the games have become a bit more pleasant on the eye.
“Throughout the 80s both clubs were flying the flag for English teams in Europe.
“They were great trend setters for the success they had in Europe and in our division it was usually us or Everton who won the championship. Liverpool has been served by two fantastic clubs.
“With the Premier League, football has become less of a contact sport. That’s a reason why you see more football in the derby than in those days but that doesn’t mean to say it’s any less intense.
“The desire to win runs as deeply as it was before.”
The derby has given Dalglish some of the finest moments of his illustrious career – with the two FA Cups triumphs he masterminded top of the list.
“The most poignant one was the ‘89 Cup final – not just for Liverpool because we won it, but for the whole city of Liverpool,” he recalled. “Another one was the first (Cup final) in ‘86 when we saw fathers going to the game with their kids, one in red and white and one in blue and white.
“Both Cup finals spoke volumes for the city about how the fans conducted themselves and how much the clubs meant to them. They’re the most vivid derby memories for me.”
The days when derbies decided silverware may belong to the distant past but Dalglish insists the fixture has lost none of its sparkle.
“I don’t think it’s been devalued in any way, shape or form,” he said.
“It’s the Merseyside derby and everyone involved in it think it’s the most important one.
“I’m sure people in Birmingham think theirs is the biggest and Rangers/Celtic think that’s the biggest.
“But this is the biggest one because it’s the one I’m involved in. Each club is hugely important to this city.
“For us, it would be easy to say it’s the friendly derby and it probably is the most friendly derby of any in the Premier League.
“Whether it’s the same as it was before that’s for other people to judge. They will be better judges than us as although we’re involved in it, we’re not at grassroots level.
“It would be a loss for everybody if it wasn’t the most friendly derby in the Premier League.”
Dalglish knows exactly what tomorrow means to the supporters but insists his pressing concern is ensuring the Reds build on last weekend’s 2-1 win over Wolves at Anfield.
“It’s one we would love to win but we said that last week about playing Wolves,” he said. “The only added spice to this one is the pecking order in the locality for a wee while.
“We have to earn anything we want to get in this life. We will certainly need to work hard to get anything from Goodison on Saturday.
“If we want to get three points we will need to stand up and be counted.”
Dalglish has to consider whether to change his winning line-up from the clash with Wolves. Dirk Kuyt, who has scored five goals in 11 derby appearances, is pushing for a recall.
The manager admits he’s got some tough decision to make after the efforts of his squad at Melwood this week.
“Dirk works very hard but so does everybody,” he said. “We’re not going to get anywhere without people working hard in training because it’s an important part of preparation.”