Paul Dalglish stepping out of King Kenny’s shadow

Paul Dalglish always dreamed of following in father Kenny's managerial footsteps. Picture: SNS
Paul Dalglish always dreamed of following in father Kenny's managerial footsteps. Picture: SNS
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THE 1960s and 70s heyday of Scottish football produced such a groundswell of talented players that their names took on a life of their own. Many gave birth to family dynasties, wielding power long after the progenitors had exited stage left. Perhaps inevitably, they also often yielded a second-generation succession that disappointed. Players like Scot Gemmill, Gavin Strachan and Blair Sturrock know well the quixotic demands of a surname made regal by a father. They could never quite match up to the achievements of their dads, Archie, Gordon and Paul.

It is one of the game’s greatest curses.

But arguably no one shouldered quite as much expectation as Paul Dalglish. Not only is he the only son of the man many consider Scotland’s greatest ever footballer, but his father fortified his legend by carving out a highly successful managerial career.

Kenny Dalglish won virtually every major honour possible during a playing career at Celtic and Liverpool. He also became – and remains – the national team’s most capped player. Short of a continental trophy, as a manager the man they called King Kenny repeated the feat during silverware-strewn spells at Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers.

By contrast, with Dalglish Jnr early on-field promise of a second coming soon gave way to a peripatetic career. Opportunity was never an issue. He enjoyed a gilded youth career at his father’s clubs, Celtic and Liverpool, and later followed Dalglish Snr to Newcastle. But as stints Norwich, Hibs and Houston Dynamo came and went, expectation of some sort of genetic guarantee dissipated.

Now he is following his father into management. Currently head coach at US third-tier club Austin Aztex, the early indications suggest the talent that evaded him on the pitch is much in evidence off it.

After an indifferent spell in charge of second-tier Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2010, he re-emerged two years later as manager of the then fourth-tier Austin outfit. Dalglish managed a championship play-off run in his first season; in his second he led Aztex to the title and was crowned the league’s coach of the year. His success did not go unnoticed. Jeff Cassar, the head coach of MLS club Real Salt Lake, was impressed enough to poach him as his assistant for a brief spell last year.

But Dalglish was coaxed back to Texas for a second spell after ambitious Aztex ascended to the professional ranks of USL Pro, a hybrid division of MLS second-string teams and independent clubs blending some of the country’s most talented young players with battle-hardened veterans.

“The comparisons as a player always seemed to bother other people more than they bothered me. But I’m more comfortable as a coach,” says the 37-year-old as he reveals his childhood dreams were of being a manager. “Growing up, every boy idolises their dad. And when I was growing up it was Kenny Dalglish the manager rather than the player. Even on the computer I preferred the manager’s games.”

If the name stalked him as a player at home, he found relative anonymity in the United States. Before there was management and Austin, there was Houston, which also gave him his wife, Brandi. When he arrived as a veteran forward at Dynamo from Hibs in 2006, they were the country’s top club. In two seasons, he collected the first silverware of his playing career in the shape of back-to-back MLS Cup titles. “I’ve won more as a player and a manager in the United States than my dad,” he says jokingly. In Texas, football hysteria generally means poring over the latest form of the Dallas Cowboys – just as passionate as Liverpool fans perhaps, but, crucially, they generally have never heard of Kenny Dalglish. “Over here I am my own man. No one is comparing me to my dad.”

Those early experiences in coaching at Tampa Bay led to an epiphany he also had as a player. “I never worked hard enough as a player to maximise the ability I did have. I did that in the second part of my playing career after quitting the game for a time,” Dalglish concedes. “People don’t realise what goes into being a manager. It’s about a lot more than sending a team out to play. At Tampa, we did quite well, results-wise, compared to before I got there, but it was not up to the standards I set myself. So we decided to part ways and I went away and studied, working on my methodology.”

History will dictate Dalglish came back stronger. But how far can he go in management? His first big test comes in the coming USL Pro campaign. Early results back in Austin suggest he has assembled a useful squad. And Dalglish recently claimed the sizeable scalp of his former club. Following two closely-contested fixtures against other MLS opposition, Dalglish and Austin took down Owen Coyle’s Houston Dynamo in a 1-0 pre-season victory away from home.

Although ranked as the US third tier, such are the quirks of the US football system – where leagues operate as unique entities without promotion and relegation – some view it as on a par with the second-tier North American Soccer League, where Raul and the New York Cosmos will compete. A big advocate of how much football is improving in the United States, Dalglish refuses to speculate on any ambitions beyond a desire to manage at MLS level and scoffs at the mention of England or even Scotland. “That was part of the draw back to Austin; they have ambitions to become an MLS franchise,” Dalglish said.

Football is important, but his ambitions as a manager are predicated on something greater. “I want to be the best manager I can be,” he says. “But, more than wanting to be a successful manager, I want to be a successful father and husband. My family is the most important thing to me.”

His pride and joy, three-year-old twins Rocco and Coco, recently started playing football, raising the prospect of a third-generation Dalglish. But it’s a question for which his own formative experiences seem to have prepared him, his quick reply demarcating the boundaries. “I’m taking the same approach my dad took with me.” That is to say, what will be will be.

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