Self-doubt of a flawed figurehead

Fault lines show in the facade of Team Keegan as the dangers of blind optimism become clear
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The Independent Online

It was the early hours of Thursday morning, probably about the time that the Leonid meteorite shower was bombarding the earth's atmosphere at its height, that Kevin Keegan stopped at an M1 service station on his way back to the North-east. He might well have looked up and observed several shooting stars. Instead he looked up and saw a fallen one, Jamie Redknapp, together with his wife Louise. "Jamie came over and said 'Well, at least we're there'," recalled the England coach, with a weak smile. "And that was all we could say to each other. There was nothing else to talk about. In fact, I had said to the players in the dressing-room afterwards, 'That was so bad I don't want to see you till the next century', and that was it. I was gone."

It was the early hours of Thursday morning, probably about the time that the Leonid meteorite shower was bombarding the earth's atmosphere at its height, that Kevin Keegan stopped at an M1 service station on his way back to the North-east. He might well have looked up and observed several shooting stars. Instead he looked up and saw a fallen one, Jamie Redknapp, together with his wife Louise. "Jamie came over and said 'Well, at least we're there'," recalled the England coach, with a weak smile. "And that was all we could say to each other. There was nothing else to talk about. In fact, I had said to the players in the dressing-room afterwards, 'That was so bad I don't want to see you till the next century', and that was it. I was gone."

Keegan continued: "Usually, when I'm driving back from a game, particularly one with so much attached to it, I'm reliving it. But I thought, 'I don't want to think about that'. I just thought, 'Forget it. You've qualified'."

England may indeed have qualified for Euro 2000 but the image it evoked was more Roger Bannister collapsing over the line after his sub-four-minute mile than one of a resurgent team breasting the tape by a convincing margin. The thought is inescapable that elimination might have been a more merciful release and, in the longer term, more beneficial to the England cause.

While nobody can deny that the feisty little Yorkshireman has not done all that was originally asked of him by the FA, what he failed to do is to convince anyone that he is qualified to "coach" the national side in its strictest interpretation. Genial, positive front-man that he is, Keegan has been hoist by his own lack of regard for tactical nous, a subject on which he has been perfectly candid (despite the protestation this week "I think that tactically I know a lot more than people think"). As many of us suspected, he has been unable to respond to the machinations of England's opponents. Even Scotland.

At Wembley, the Scots were replete with pride allied to a plausible strategy; England were full of inflated egos with no idea how to react. "It was a surprise the way Scotland played," conceded Keegan, who proceeded to condemn himself as much as his players. "They pushed three up, and they've never done that before and that caught us out more than anything. I saw a lot of people struggle to cope with the occasion. It wasn't nerves, just players saying to themselves, 'Oh, they're playing well. What can I do about it?' And in a lot of cases, not a lot."

Inevitably, his more vociferous critics have not been slow to react. As one caller to Radio 5 Live submitted on Thursday morning: "Keegan was quite correct in saying that England could win Euro 2000. They could... with Craig Brown as coach." Already one tabloid is demanding his head; others lancing him with criticism of his decision to join in with six of his squad, playing cards and drinking to 6am on Sunday morning, before watching the Lennox Lewis fight.

The irony is that Paul Ince intended that particular comment as a testament to the spirit which Keegan imbues in his men, not that which flows after lights-out time. Keegan will give him no thanks for the revelation, but you have to wonder whether this kind of camaraderie, the "Club England" mentality, really benefits the national team.

Harmony is one thing. It is doubtful whether it should extend to Ince saying of the England coach: "The players love him." Now the self-doubts begin to emerge. As a group of us spoke with Keegan near his North-east home on Thursday morning, his usual jauntiness had deserted him and even his outwardly positive sentiments could not disperse the clouds of apprehension that have gathered over him. He is a man whose armour is constructed of pure optimism and unadulterated enthusiasm. When that begins to be pierced by his own doubts about players' capabilities and his own strategies, it is disconcerting.

This, after all, is a footballing incarnation of the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail , who, even as his limbs are severed, until he is left with one leg, refuses to submit to his rival, maintaining defiantly, "It's only a flesh wound". Similarly, Keegan, though unable to boast any satisfactory periods during his nine-game tenure beyond parts of Poland's visit to Wembley, continues to insist: "If we start firing on all, even on three-quarters, cylinders, there are no teams out there [in the European Championship] that we need fear."

The campaign for Keegan's removal is, thus far, restricted to one particularly virulent source. It is unlikely to become concerted, not least because the next game - a friendly with Argentina - is not until 23 February. If it did, his intense pride could sustain him; equally, it could persuade him to return expeditiously to an idyllic lifestyle of golfing and racehorses. Significantly, the FA, who took such pride in their coup when Keegan was appointed, have shown every indication of running with the hounds. There have already been suggestions - albeit from an anonymous source - that their coach should get "a bit of help on that [tactical] weakness". They may well be correct, but saying so publicly can only undermine him.

It is hardly conceivable, anyway, that the general would be forced into accepting a tactical lieutenant who would unravel such tangled threads in Keegan's mind as how to overcome the dearth of left-sided players and the absence of a Gascoigne-style playmaker. When it was put to him, he retorted: "Who did you have in mind?" When someone piped up, "Terry [Venables] might be available", it was met by a stony silence.

Keegan is comforted by the fact that, in his perception, England are not deficient in quality, certainly not in comparison with his European rivals, who have their own problems. "I believe there are maybe seven or eight players that I feel you can really build something round." Which suggests an obdurate refusal to recognise the unpalatable. The truth is that the opposite is probably the case. To be generous there are no more than four England players that one could have real faith in at European level: David Beckham, a marvel at full-back on Wednesday, though what he was doing there only Keegan will know; Paul Scholes, provided he has adequate service; and the versatile Gary Neville and Darren Anderton, when both are fit.

In Keegan's mind, of course, there are also those who have become the perceived untouchables, the so-called "spine", of David Seaman, Tony Adams and Alan Shearer (Ince was a member, too, of that august club but there was little on Wednesday to argue that his membership should be restored). Nobody decries a coach's belief in a player, and loyalty to him, but somehow Keegan appears guided by sentimentality. He will do nothing to upset the old guard. Splendid, if their record demands it. But not when in recent years England's performances have fluctuated between sporadic highlights amid the mostly mediocre.

Meanwhile, what are the eager young pretenders to make of it all, the Rio Ferdinands, the Jonathon Woodgates and the others who have had their chance, some of whom have performed with distinction but then find themselves languishingin the Under-21s? Where is their incentive? Seaman no longer inspires confidence. Some fans wouldn't trust "the safest pair of hands" to do dishes. It may be sacrilegious to suggest it, but as much as Adams was a saviour at Wembley, so he must accept some culpability for Don Hutchison's goal and other occasions when Billy Dodds manoeuvred around him. Neither the bishop of the footballers' reform church, nor his curate Martin Keown can distribute the ball with any precision, a fault they share with Phil Neville.

At least Keegan appears ready to sever the umbilical cord between himself and Shearer, if only for a friendly. Indeed, it could be that he will be truly radical and jettison both the England captain and Michael Owen. "I think it's got potential, I really do," he said of the combo who performed less in tandem and more like cyclists on opposite sides of the road. "But judged on last night it didn't work." When has it ever? "They did all right against Argentina for a while," he replied. "I think it can get better. But maybe there's the chance to experiment with two different strikers now. Maybe we'll play with one up, and one off him, like Bergkamp and Kluivert." And without Shearer? "That's a possibility, but you know what I think of Alan Shearer." We certainly do.

Though it will not be a popular view, Keegan's contention that Owen needs to develop further is a pertinent one. That could even be in the Under-21s. A yet-to-be-arranged game against Yugoslavia could give the coach an opportunity to survey several younger players, including Ferdinand, Woodgate, Frank Lampard and Lee Bowyer. "They're all eligible and although the nation might see it as a real comedown if Michael was called into the Under-21s, Howard [Wilkinson] has got the right to pick any of them," he said.

Undoubtedly, we expect too much of Owen at such tender years, a lot of it based on one spectacular goal. "I think there's improvement in Michael," said Keegan. "I remember everybody saying before France 98, and that includes me as a TV pundit, that he should be in, and Glenn [Hoddle] had a reason not to. You saw it again last night. Maybe he's still got things to learn. I've already said to him he needs to work on his left side. But he's 19 years of age. He's got potential. He could hold the ball up better, but it was more due to lack of games and lack of service."

Emile Heskey, not this observer's idea of a ready-made international, demonstrated in half an hour much of what has been absent from England's forwards. "Fantastic," agreed Keegan. "I thought it was important to get someone that works the channels a bit more, someone who turns and runs at people." But will he get another opportunity? Keegan has too often introduced players - he has used 35 in all - then failed to allow them to progress.

Keegan remains convinced that, like Frankenstein's monster, the parts are all correct. It is just that they don't fit together perfectly. That, he says, will come. And the England coach challenges you to deny it. "You've all got the right to say that it's a waste of time us going there [to Euro 2000]. But you know if you do, you could regret it." The concern is that, while he seeks to prove it, England football could regret it rather more as it sifts through the remnants of fallen stars.

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