Burden of Shanks obsession

THE KEEGAN AFFAIR Norman Fox says that living up to a legend proved too much for the Tyne idol
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE frenzied search for reasons after Kevin Keegan resigned assumed all manner of things while missing the glaringly obvious. He set himself probably an impossible standard. It was that of his only true mentor, Bill Shankly. And it was one beyond the reach not only of Keegan but Kenny Dalglish whose departure from Merseyside had so much in common with Keegan's leaving of Tyneside.

Not long after he had come back from his restless retirement in Spain, where, deep down, every day he yearned for something more competitive than yet another round of social golf, Keegan admitted that being manager at St James' was such a big challenge that he and his assistant, Terry McDermott, would often look at a problem and think: "Now what would Shanks have done." It was a question that both knew was pointless. Liverpool thrived like a successful family business, a corner shop which prospered and became multi-national without losing sight of the continuity upon which it was founded.

At Newcastle, Keegan had the opportunity to take a comparative short cut to success with Sir John Hall's investments, but he eventually looked at his team and probably realised that they were some way from forming the foundation of a Shankly-style dynasty.

When Sir John then began to block further payments for the players Keegan needed, the manager knew that in contrast to the Liverpool of Shankly's day, there was not the feeling of optimism based on seamless changes over several years.

Shankly himself turned the limited but determined Keegan into an international footballer. Yet when the eternally grateful Keegan eventually became one of Europe's superstars, Shankly told him he had conquered Everest, before adding: "Now, son, the secret is to stay there."

As the manager of Newcastle, Keegan saw the possibility of doing the only thing that really mattered to him and emulate Shankly. However, he gradually came to accept that, unlike Shankly, he had neither the players nor the personal appetite or ruthlessness to turn St James' into a latter- day Anfield.

By all the evidence of recent weeks, the likelihood rather than the possibility of failure by his own high standards had been playing on his mind. He began to realise that what Shankly had achieved was in a different, unrepeatable era; one without nearly as many pressures from the commercial side of the game. It was in Keegan's fitful nature to make regular threats to resign in order to get his own way. Suddenly, after asking for a few more millions for one more foreign player, he was told that any further rumours about resigning could greatly damage the club's financial future on the markets.

It was not an occasion on which to wonder what Shanks would have done. Shanks would hardly have recognised the language of the problem. What would Shankly have made of the fact that a football club manager's resignation made the front page of the Financial Times and may even have been accelerated by the City?

In his early days at Newcastle, Keegan said it really worried him that making the club successful would somehow alienate him from the people of the "city" - meaning Newcastle, of course (in hindsight a Freudian remark if ever there was). "I don't want to feel that I can't walk and talk with them," he said. Shankly was revered on Merseyside even more than Keegan on Tyneside but still managed to walk and talk his way through the barriers of fame.

On the very day he took over at St James' Park, Keegan said: "In a perfect world, I'd love to think we had Liverpool standards, so that when I handed over to someone else the ship would sail on." Certainly the ship is a lot more buoyant than when he arrived, and he has exorcised what he called "the voice of doom around Tyneside", but the voice of Shankly kept coming back.