Early on in the documentary Kenny, the subject, wanders the streets of his old Glasgow neighbourhood and enthuses about community spirit – a stunning example of this being when one of the dads knocked up a junior set of goalposts. “I really enjoyed myself here,” recalls Kenny Dalglish. “There were lots of young families so I had plenty of friends. Everyone was in the same boat and it was always better to do somebody a good turn than a bad one.”
You just know that community spirit is going to rear its head again later, this time sprung out of the horrors of Hillsborough. First, that was going to be the sight of fans being hauled from the crush into the top tier of the Leppings Lane End – the lucky ones. Then the sight of those far less fortunate being rushed away on advertising hoardings chopped up to make many makeshift stretchers. Then the images of a city coming together in grief followed very quickly by anger. These clips are very familiar to us, similar to commentator John Motson’s early intimation of tragedy, when he turned a joyful phrase dark: “There are people on the pitch…” The passing of 28 years, however, has not diminished their impact and the film becomes a tough watch.
But Dalglish did Liverpool a good turn. As manager he took the team straight back to Sheffield to visit the hospital wards, when Alan Hansen, pictured right, met a mother of a 14-year-old boy who was desperate for the players to say goodbye before she turned off the life-support machine.
He took a call from Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, apologising for the headline “The Truth” above a story which told no such thing and wondering how he could make things better. “I said he could print a headline the next day saying: ‘The Truth: We Lied.’ He said: ‘I cannae do that.’ I said: ‘Well, I cannae help you’.”
Dalglish and his wife attended funerals at the rate of four a day. “Kenny and Marina were real humanitarians in the face of terrible adversity,” says Hillsborough campaigner Phil Scraton. And Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son James, says: “He’s the king of Anfield but I don’t see him as that. I see a dear man who we’ve adopted in this city. He’s not going back to Glasgow – we won’t let him.”
Kenny is not the entire life story. It misses out managerial success at Blackburn Rovers then failure at Newcastle United and back at Celtic. One swivel of that formidable gluteus maximus is just about all we see of 102 Scotland caps. But it feels right for the film to concentrate on glory (green and white hoops and all red) and tragedy – Hillsborough, Heysel and, for young Kenneth as a spectator, Ibrox. And it could hardly be called a hagiography when Marina describes how he became “terrible to live with, really horrible” in the wake of 96 supporters dying at an FA Cup semi-final. The stress almost broke him. “He was falling apart,” says daughter Kelly.
One of the most powerful scenes shows Dalglish apparently out for a drive in the countryside in his Audi only to stop on a hillside above Sheffield, unable to go any further. Hillsborough looms in the distance but he’ll never return there. “I don’t want to go back, I don’t want those memories in the forefront of my mind again. People might say I’m running away from it. If I am, I am, but that still won’t get me back. No’ me.”
What was very much Dalglish the player was his grin. Did a footballer ever look more apple-cheek and deep-dimple exuberant at having just scored a goal? Marina was working Saturdays at her father’s pub when the Celtic players would drop in after games and he’d blush madly before plucking up the courage to ask her out.
He wheeled away from every goal scored for Celtic like a gleeful schoolboy scarpering from the scene of a direct hit on the back of the head of the grumpiest master with a snowball. Progress was serene if you don’t count Hibernian’s Alex Edwards suddenly turning round and kicking him on the shins – and then he announced to Jock Stein he was leaving. “Jock shook my hand, gave me a cuddle and said: ‘Best of luck, you little b*****d’.”
He underwhelmed Marina on their first date. She wondered what car he’d be driving only for him to come by bus. Buses were a thing: he’d always wanted to travel open-topped with Celtic, holding aloft the Glasgow Cup after a narrow victory over Clyde perhaps, but tough local by-laws forbade it. Down at Liverpool, making light of the challenge of replacing Kevin Keegan, he leapt over the trackside messages and straight onto a roofless charabanc for an excursion through delirious streets. He’d only won the European Cup but what the heck.
In your neighbourhood bookshop, if you still have such a thing, the shelves will be starting to bulge with football stories. Some will be good, some not so good. Dalglish has been the subject of more than a few and his son Paul seems to have collected all of them in a drawer in Canada. “Is this one of yours too?” he says, pulling out a Donald Trump motivational tome. “Aye!” quips the old man. It’s fitting that Dalglish should get the movie treatment, positioning him above the rabble, because that’s his proper place.
The family scenes are touching and boy are they needed. Dalglish fight backs the tears as he recalls taking Paul and Kelly on to Anfield’s Kop to survey the sea of flowers and read the scribbled tributes after Britain’s worst football disaster. It was the legend’s first time on the terracing. “They wanted to go and I wanted to take them. It was really sad but it had to be done.”
Hansen, pictured, tries to sum up him friend: “Kenny thinks weakness is a weakness and he ain’t having it. You would say he’s a strong character. In fact, a very strong character. In fact, a very, very strong character.” Dalglish has had to be strong in recent times but he’s always been a funny guy, one of the great, under-appreciated Scottish comedians. His wit has soared over English rooftops like a dog whistle but Scots can read it and get it. It still gives us a claim on him.
l Kenny is in cinemas from 17 November.