Case for Keegan defence

The man hailed as a messiah on Tyneside is shaken by the critics after a game famed for its good vibrations
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JUST after Christmas at McCoy's, his favourite restaurant on the A19 south of Middlesbrough, Kevin Keegan was prevailed upon to take the karaoke mike. Guess what this man who has disdained all the unsolicited advice on team selection, and insisted his Newcastle team stay true to their own sense of adventure, chose to sing? Correct. "My Way".

Regrets? Too few to mention. We continue to play like that "or I go", said Keegan after the 4-3 defeat by Liverpool last Wednesday, a match so thrilling, so throbbing throughout that we 40,000 I-was-theres knew even as it was unfolding how privileged we were. At its conclusion, "You'll Never Walk Alone" moved as of yore, before Anfield spared a thought for a former favoured son, wanting him, as with Kenny Dalglish last season, to win the title if Liverpool cannot.

The inescapable fact, though, was that Newcastle's copious contribution to an opulent night went cruelly unrewarded to leave them with their fourth defeat in six matches. How sweet must have seemed the sanctuary of St James yesterday. The haunting music from Local Hero and an up-tempo mix of Lindisfarne's "Run for Home" over the best PA system in Britain provide tingling home comfort.

So, too, the most loyal of support, though the local newspaper letters and radio phone-ins betrayed a gut-reaction anger at the further erosion of their once powerful Premiership position. The word on Tyneside goes that Keegan has lately become prickly under the pressure and criticism. The chairman, Sir John Hall, has even warned that the messiah who extracted them from the mess might just up and leave if it continues.

Has The Perm turned? Keegan may have withdrawn his favours of approachability and daily accessibility to journalists of late but his honest, defiant and sportsmanlike responses to the defeats at Arsenal and Liverpool suggest a man digesting the contents of the books by American thinkers he reads and remaining positive amid the pain.

Ultimately, his press relations matter little, unless any tension transmits itself to the team, that is. To the public he remains open. Two minutes before kick-off last Wednesday, a man approached the Newcastle dug-out with his two small children seeking a picture of Wor Kev with them. Keegan duly obliged. Of more import may be Keegan's seemingly stubborn refusal to compromise on the grand attacking design as his team leak goals, or to return to the shape of the team pre-Faustino Asprilla - one which accumulated a 12-point lead at the top of the table - and in particular restore Keith Gillespie to the right wing.

"There is a stubbornness to Kevin," said his former Liverpool colleague Mark Lawrenson, "I'm sure that's what helped make him a successful player and manager. But he has very experienced people around him in Terry McDermott and Arthur Cox and I'm surprised they didn't say 'let's give Gillespie a go for a couple of games'.

"Kevin will probably read all the stuff from the pundits and ex-pros, take it in, then continue to do it his way. These people, though, have been watching and playing football all their lives and may be making good points. I happen to think Asprilla has affected three or four areas of the team. For example, Peter Beardsley is more suited to playing off Les Ferdinand, who needs better service from the wings. I also think Kevin has overlooked something simple from his Liverpool days and that is the necessity for a strong backbone through the side. I see it in Liverpool and Manchester United but not Newcastle. It is why they have struggled away from home, where sometimes you just have to grind out results."

Defence is not a crime - indeed it could yet get Newcastle out of jail - and its art can also be appreciated by most fans. In addition, there is nothing more frustrating for a forward who scores, then sees the defence concede. As the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, pointed out about both teams in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday, any side defending in such a way for the whole season will not win the championship. And no one can accuse Evans, whose team often flow better than any, of being a killjoy.

Unlike Evans, Keegan himself is not by instinct a coach, more an old- fashioned manager who has an eagle eye for a player; he once left a match during the warm-up because the one he was watching looked to him the wrong shape. His pleasure comes in accumulating players of disparate talents and seeing how they will interact.

He has admitted, for example, that he was unsure how Asprilla and Ferdinand would blend but added that it would be fun finding out, like turning a kaleidoscope and seeing how the patterns change. Though a Shankly disciple, he also admired Don Revie, for his powers of motivation. Keegan has those in abundance; all his players talk of his ability to make them feel even better than they are. However, he does not appear to relish the minutiae of the game's more tedious but vital elements. "When Don Howe was coaching the defence with England, I knew what he was trying to do but I lost interest after a few minutes," Keegan said recently.

His former coach at Newcastle, Derek Fazackerley, now with Blackburn Rovers - and confronting his old club at Ewood Park tomorrow night in another huge match - once admitted to me that it was probably the flaw in their work, that perhaps not enough time and attention was given to players' positions once the ball had been lost. It showed against Liverpool. At times David Ginola simply let go the right-sided player against him, Jason McAteer, notably in supplying Steve McManaman for the cross for Robbie Fowler's second goal. And if a move or refereeing decision was not to Asprilla's taste, it seemed the game moved on without his input as he waited for the next attack.

In addition, to mark up from corners, as Newcastle did not at Arsenal, and to defend from the front, as Liverpool did against them and Keegan did in his distinguished playing career with them, does not mean to compromise one's principles. Keegan may not enjoy working on defence in training but he probably knows a man who does. Indeed, a few sessions with a Don Howe might just remedy some shortcomings, if Keegan could entertain it, and take them that extra mile from contenders to champions.

Oh dear. We begin to sound like a curmudgeonly coach or dour defender grounded in the Seventies. We don't mean to. We have had enough of the "I'm pleased with the point and happy to have kept a clean sheet, Brian" brigade. No one wishes to stifle Keegan's creativity or his vision; no one wishes to see Philippe Albert's swash buckled. But Manchester United's well-organised ability to defend does not seem to inhibit their fluency.

Such heretic suggestions should not cause Keegan to invoke his "or I go" clause; even though the job of Terry Venables - another with a penchant for "My Way" on the karaoke - is up for grabs. After all, Keegan is so close to achievement in what he calls "My England" at Newcastle and should be strong enough to endure the brickbats. It is precisely because one wants Keegan to succeed with his preferred attitudes and personnel that much of the criticism and opinion is offered. For rather than the brass he has spent, more for the brass neck he has brought over the last four years, this man with the midas touch does deserve some silverware.