Comment: The Kevin question and a sound to bite you

SO THERE you are at 10.50 on Tuesday evening, tuning in to Channel 5 for a profile of the man who picks the England football team. And who is it staring out at you when you finally get a half-decent signal? Alex Ferguson. "If you want Britain to continue to get results in Europe," Fergie said, grinning broadly, "there can be only one leader." Ouch. That hurt.

Ferguson, of course, was talking about Tony Blair, rather than himself, or for that matter, Kevin Keegan, who was the subject of the craftily punctuated Kevin Keegan: Football Messiah? It would be interesting to know just when that question mark crept in. The programme was presumably commissioned amid post-Poland euphoria, when qualification for - not to mention victory in - Euro 2000 seemed something of a formality. Some cautious soul, though, must have decided to pop the query at the end, and what a smart move that proved to be.

It did not require quite as much common sense to schedule it before the Bulgaria match. As it turned out, though, it might have served more of a purpose 48 hours later, when the Kev-bashing was at its height, for while an hour of news clips and interviews with colleagues did not tell you anything new about his career, it was a timely reminder of what a complex, unpredictable and fascinating character he is.

They started right at the beginning, when Keegan was a tea-boy in a Doncaster factory, and thought good enough only for their B team. Doncaster and Coventry City had already told him he was too small to be a professional, and at that point, many teenagers would have accepted defeat and started work on a Napolean complex instead. Within three years, though, Keegan was playing for Liverpool.

He was a star, too, in an age which handed fame to footballers rather more reluctantly than our own. He taught children the Green Cross Code, released a shocking single, and advertised Brut, but not beer. "People rely on me," he told an interviewer at the time, "and feel I promote the sort of things they'd want their kids to be involved in. Beer certainly isn't one of them." Twenty years later, mind you, Keegan's Magpies took to the field in shirts advertising Newcastle Brown Ale, but that's by the by.

The key features of his playing career were immense self-confidence and a blistering sense of personal destiny, both of which are fairly useful in a manager, too. This made it all the more strange when, after his brilliant playing career, Keegan retired to Marbella to play golf for seven years.

Why did he go? Why did he come back? Nobody seemed to know, and this was interesting in itself. Keegan, for all his reputation as a straight- talker, is clearly a man who gives very little of himself away. Even Watt Nicol, his "motivational trainer", had nothing to offer, other than a bow tie so hideous that it motivated your gag reflex. "I see the No 1 ingredient for success as being peace of mind," Nicol said. "I think Kevin Keegan sleeps well at night." Hmmm. Not after Wednesday he doesn't.

It goes without saying that the game with Bulgaria (C5) made for difficult viewing. It would have been far worse, though, had Jonathan Pearce not been talking over the action. When you tell someone that you rather like Pearce, they tend to look at you as if you have just suggested a trip into the country for a spot of badger-baiting. Pearce's only crime, though, is over-enthusiasm, and at times like these, that is hardly a crime at all.

This, for example, is how Pearce described Alan Shearer's goal on Wednesday. "YYYYEEEEESSSSS!" he bellowed. "In a game we HAVE to win, it's the captain, A-L, Super Al who's put us ahead." Viewers in Scotland and Wales may not have appreciated the all-inclusive "we", but that's their problem. And anyway, he evened things up three minutes later by yelling just as loudly when Bulgaria equalised.

Scotland got its own back too when Alan Hansen sat in judgement on England on BBC1 later that evening. Hansen had clearly just finished watching his countrymen throw away a two-goal lead in the Czech Republic, because he was in an even cattier mood than usual. England's main problem, he reckoned, was "a dearth of quality players who are English". Their current midfield could not stand comparison with that of the early 1980s, which included "Hoddle, Robson, Brooking, Wilkins and McDermott".

This is a matter of opinion, admittedly (apart, that is, from the bit about Terry McDermott, who if he was playing today would not be fit to apply Brylcreem to David Beckham's quiff). Yet just 24 hours earlier, another experienced observer, the journalist Patrick Barclay, had told Channel 5 that "it's acknowledged by experts all over the world that between the ages of 18 and 25, England have the best players in the world".

Confused? If so, console yourself with the thought that John Barrett has it worse. During the coverage of the Stella Artois Tennis (BBC), Barrett claimed that Wayne Ferreira would miss South Africa's Davis Cup match with Great Britain this autumn "because he is expecting his first babe".

No, John. Babes are what they have in the VIP box - as your producer and cameramen never tire of reminding us.

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