Football: Canny speculator cashes in on prosperity: Kevin Keegan has fought to put Newcastle back in the top flight. He tells Joe Lovejoy about his success

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The Independent Online
WORKING in a Doncaster foundry before breaking into football as a late developer taught Kevin Keegan one thing. Brass works.

The man Tyneside reveres as The Messiah, or Special K, had enough of the muck in his formative years, with Scunthorpe United. A canny Yorkshireman, he knows better than most that the other stuff makes the world go round.

You would not guess it now, with Newcastle United back in The Big League, and aiming for Europe, but all has not been sweetness and light since Keegan was lured back to the game 18 months ago, by the challenge of reviving one of its dozing giants.

A sabbatical of nearly eight years had not dulled the lively brain which once told an unexceptional young player that diligence and dedication could bring him fame and fortune out of all proportion to the modest gifts nature had bestowed on him.

Money, and a lot of it, was needed if the second coming was to work miracles, and the parameters were set early. Promised pounds 2m for starters, Keegan walked out when it was not forthcoming. The board bit the bullet and came up with the readies, and the rest is not so much history as an ongoing saga which is establishing Little Big Man as heir apparent to Graham Taylor's throne.

It is a story to gladden the hearts of managers everywhere - the ultimate vindication of the theory that it is necessary to speculate in order to accumulate. Keegan took over a club pounds 6m in debt and within a whisker of relegation, which would have spelled ruin, to the old Third Division. Strong willed and with a perky confidence some mistook for arrogance, he flew in the face of all advice, including that of his nervy employers, and spent his way to survival.

Promoted as barnstorming champions, and with sufficient credit at the bank to have offered pounds 3.3m for Les Ferdinand, Newcastle are held up, by the revivalist behind it all, as an example to others fallen on hard times.

Last off the training ground, where he had outshone players half his age in agility tests, Keegan satisfied a line of autograph hunters more in keeping with a Madonna than a Messiah before throwing open his arms and declaring: 'It just goes to show what can be done if the board of a big club is settled and rowing the boat the same way.'

Before the advent of Sir John Hall's benevolent dictatorship, the directors had been pulling in opposite directions, and the club's strength, rooted in the depth and devotion of its support, had been dissipated.

Keegan acknowledged that his predecessors, Ossie Ardiles and Jim Smith, 'never had a chance with the set-up as it was'.

Change had been long overdue, and although 'a lot of nice people got hurt' (among them the courtly ex- chairman, William McKeag) it was only after Hall's coup that manager and directors had been able to 'sit down together and get decisions made'.

Those early discussions made the new owners wince. Keegan recalled: 'I sat down with them and said: Yes, we're pounds 6m in debt and yes, if we get relegated, or don't have a good season, you stand to lose even more, but if you ever want to get your money back, and turn the club around, we have got to speculate first.

'I told them: We've got to go out and buy the sort of players the people here want to see. We've got to put out a team who are going to be successful. Do that, and you are guaranteed huge support - the sort only five or six clubs can match.'

Spot on. A lovely footballing side, playing a cultured, passing game, ran away with promotion, inspired by an average home attendance (29,018) bettered only by Liverpool (37,004), Manchester United (35,152), Aston Villa (29,594) and Leeds United (29,250).

Keegan was in the last Newcastle promotion team, alongside the emergent Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle. This one, he says, is 'on a different planet in terms of all-round ability'. In 1983-84, Arthur Cox had relied largely on old sweats - Keegan himself, Terry McDermott (back as managerial assistant-cum-court jester), David McCreery, Glenn Roeder, David Mills etc.

The present side is all youthful promise - and the more exciting for it. Andy Cole's goalscoring exploits last season have brought him to the periphery of the England squad, where the left-back John Beresford is a step ahead of him, having made the World Cup trip to Turkey in March. Then there is Lee Clark, extravagantly dubbed the new Gazza, Steve Howey, who Keegan himself has likened to Alan Hansen, and Robert Lee, the forward respected judges rate the best of the lot.

Swelling with pride their mentor says: 'If they can show the form they produced last year, only in the higher league, they'll be knocking on the England door. They won't all get picked, but some of them will. Before Christmas, one of them will be in the squad. I'd bet on it.'

Lee his best player? Keegan will have none of that. He comes down unequivocally on the side of Beardsley, whose absence for the first six weeks of the season, with a multiple cheekbone fracture, is the one cloud on the Geordie horizon.

'Peter was a very important signing,' Keegan says. 'We were always an exciting side, but throw him in and anything could happen. It's a case of lighting the blue touch paper and standing back. You could write a book on what he might do for us - he can bring on young players like Clark and Cole for a start - but we're going back into the big league and Peter, in one word, gives us credibility.'

Should he still be in . . . the answer 'Yes' came before the question about Beardsley and England was out. 'One of the big mistakes England managers have made over the last 10 years or so - and I was a victim of it as well - has been to discard good players too early, and say: That's it. He's finished.

'You don't have to close the door on anybody as England manager, and you shouldn't. You've only got a limited number of English players in the Premier League, and you should choose from anyone who is English. Why suddenly say: I'm going to pick him and forget him? Why always Barnes and never Waddle? Why not say: I'm going to pick Barnes today, but after that, who knows? I'm leaving the door open, and next month it could be someone else.

'One of the things I said to Peter Bearsdley when I signed him was that he could get himself back in the England squad if we did well. If we do, Graham Taylor has got to come and watch us because we've got 10 English outfield players here.'

By the time Beardsley is fit and ready, Taylor could be out on his ear, of course, in which event Keegan would be the favourite to succeed him. It is the one job which could persuade him to leave St James' Park before his contract expires, in two years' time, but it is a prospect he will not be drawn on. He left the tone of his delivery to convey dissatisfaction with England's decline. For the record, it was: 'I don't want to comment on how they are playing. What's the point? It's all been said. I want us to be successful, just like anyone else, but I'm not going to throw any more paraffin on the fire.'

He prefers to fan the flame he has kindled in his adopted North-east. 'We're aiming to get into Europe. I see the top three in the league as a realistic target. I think there will be eight teams in contention - Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn, because if anyone good becomes available they can buy them, Leeds, because they're sure to bounce back after last season, and ourselves.

'I certainly don't see it being a one or two-horse race. Manchester United have got the diversion of the European Cup to contend with, which is all new to them. I'd love to see them win it, but there could be a price to pay in the league.

'It's true what people are saying. They could dominate English football for 10 years. They are a huge club with a pounds 20m turnover, which nobody can match. That allows them to invest heavily in players, and their youth policy is good, too. It's a well-run club, and they are the ones we've all got to catch, but they will find a lot of pitfalls along the way.

'You wouldn't be surprised either way, would you? If they dominate, people will say: I told you so. If they slip, it will be: I thought they might.'

And Newcastle? 'We're in the league we want to be in, which is a good start. I look upon the Premiership as a bottle, and the neck is getting ever so thin. We had to get in this year. Now we are there, only Manchester United will have a bigger turnover, financially. Unfortunately, we're carrying a pounds 6m debt from days gone by, and servicing that debt is expensive. Also, our stadium is way behind the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in terms of the Taylor Report. Those two things are the anchor pulling our ship back.'

Suddenly, top three sounded rather less realistic. 'I wouldn't say that. The board are doing their bit, and the funds I need are available now. Any player I've wanted to go for, the money has been there.'

Win or lose, Keegan will not be compromising his purist principles. 'People said we couldn't get out of the old Second Division playing football, but we proved them wrong. I think there has been a change for the better over the last 18 months. The long-ball teams have not done so well. It is the ones who get it down and play (West Ham and Swindon came up with us) who have prospered. Look at the Premier League last season. Manchester United, Aston Villa, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday all did well playing good football.

'I was encouraged by that, and there's no way we'll change. We're going to get the ball on the floor, under control, and knock it around. We can't play any other way, and we don't want to. You don't sign Peter Beardsley and start humping the thing up in the air.'

Keegan and Ardiles are kindred spirits, linked by much more than the Newcastle managership, and Ardiles will go back to St James' Park today, beseeching Spurs to 'Play, play, play'. A scrumptious starter promises more oohs and aahs than You-know- who. Enjoy.

(Photograph omitted)

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