Having a famous dad can be good for your job prospects but sometimes a name is simply that. Caroline Bailey looks at the stuttering career of a stubborn footballer
When it comes to pushy parents, Kenny Dalglish may not be up there with Joan Crawford, but his son Paul’s privileged career in football has become something of a byword for nepotism. Despite not being able to get into the first XI at college, Dalglish Junior signed schoolboy forms for Blackburn while his father was the manager. He went on to serve his apprenticeship at Kenny’s old club Celtic, spent two barren years at Liverpool where Kenny had won three European Cups, and was then signed for Newcastle by – well, you can guess the rest.
So far, so good – until August 1998 when Newcastle sacked Kenny and replaced him with Ruud Gullit. The Dutchman didn’t appreciate the incestuous set-up at St James’ Park – “Gullit told me he was never going to play me again because he didn’t like my dad” – and in March 1999 Dalglish was loaned unceremoniously to Norwich City.
Between unlikely UEFA Cup fame in 1993 and their return to the Premier League, Norwich spent the best part of a decade stumbling around in a twilight zone of reduced circumstances and low expectation. Dalglish’s arrival was duly bathed in the kind of illogical anticipation that only second-hand celebrity can inspire.
That the pale, frail-looking 22-year-old lacked the expected messianic charisma was immaterial. He finished his loan spell with a beautiful assist at home to Bolton and, after a £300,000 summer signing, scored with a stunning volley in the season opener at West Brom. And then – nothing. At a slight 5ft 9in, Dalglish began to struggle as a striker in a physically demanding division and, unusually for Norwich, there was an embarrassment of riches ready to step in. After failing to make an equally crowded right side of midfield his own, games became fewer and further between.
Dalglish admitted he lacked the stomach for the fight. “I let myself go a little bit,” he remembered. “I was living in a big house on my own and all my friends and family were five hours away. I just wanted to get away. I used to get up for training, then go home and sit in the house all day, eating takeaways.” How Dalglish, on a diet of drive-thrus and homesickness, managed a career-best 31 League appearances for Norwich that season remains a mystery. A testament to his talent, you’d think, but as the manager Bruce Rioch was also gifting less celebrated journeymen 40 games a season, it was more likely a case of indulgent leadership and messy make-do-and-mend.
Under the less benign eye of Nigel Worthington, however, City’s charitable selection policy became a thing of the past. Dalglish began filling his time by commentating on local radio and, not having inherited his father’s taciturn way with the media, was rather too honest about Norwich’s shortcomings for his own good. With a tally of just two goals in 48 games over three seasons, only two more appearances would mean another £200,000 payment for Newcastle; for a manager fond of a grudge, it was a situation too convenient to ignore.
In a jigsaw of a career, some of the more elusive pieces have inevitably disappeared down the back of the sofa. Loan followed loan, more often than not the common denominator being the ghostly apparition of one of Kenny’s old mates, clanking their chains on the stairs. Surplus to requirements at Wigan, Blackpool and Scunthorpe, Dalglish spent two months at Linfield in the Irish League. A pragmatic move, it allowed him to take care of his multimedia company – a neat little nest egg – and stay at home in the north-west, where his mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Linfield, though, lost patience. Dalglish tried his luck in Italy at Modena then fell out of football and into the media with a jittery interview slot on Soccer AM and a non-speaking role in Goal!, a simple-minded Disney flick featuring Anna Friel. After a two-year absence he credited the film (impoverished Mexican kid dreams of making it to the top but has to settle for Newcastle United) with rekindling his passion to play, but abandoned an unexpected second chance at Livingston for the siren call of Major League Soccer.
The traditional destination of the money-hungry has-been it may be, but if you live in the shadow of a millionaire father, money pales into insignificance alongside the heady promise of anonymity and unquestioning acceptance. “I can’t go anywhere without people saying ‘You’ll never be as good as your dad’,” Dalglish said. “The American attitude to sport is positive – they love success. It’s not like back home, where people build you up to knock you down.”
But after being fêted in the US for helping Houston Dynamo to two consecutive MLS Cups, Dalglish came home in December – and with a new Texan wife in tow, you have to wonder why. Abortive trials followed at Ipswich, Wigan and Leeds before Kilmarnock became his 14th club in 14 years. Is it merely the old Dalglish work ethic that prompted a successful 31-year-old businessman to make a six-minute debut against Aberdeen? Or is an unremarkable apprentice still desperate to please his dad?
From WSC 254 April 2008