Football: Fifty years of England: Glory and despair - the trail Keegan will follow

Carefree style that disguises ambition
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The Independent Online
"THERE WAS always a part of me that thought I would be England manager one day," the new man volunteered this week, displaying the sort of sentimental candour with which Joseph Kevin Keegan so cleverly shrouds the hard flame of personal ambition.

When he examines the graph of England's post-war results, printed above, Keegan may wonder what he has let himself in for. It looks like the cardiogram of an incurable manic depressive - and some might say that the diagnosis could hardly be more accurate. The team's progress through the last half- century has been a stomach-churning alternation of elation and despair, with limited opportunities for the in-between emotions such as guarded optimism and low-grade depression. But the new coach would scarcely be human were he not to spend more time dreaming of the peaks than fearing the troughs.

Throughout nine managerial terms there has been remarkably little consistency of achievement on the international stage. Nothing remotely like a plateau separates the triumphs from the disasters. For every 5-3 home defeat by Hungary (1953) there is a 4-2 victory over Germany in the biggest match of all (1966). For every crushing 2-1 defeat in Oslo (1981) there is a valiant and vital goalless draw in Italy (1997). And so on. The art of being England's manager, it seems, is to manufacture a rapid upswing, and then to ride it all the way to the World Cup finals, where inspiration and luck take over. Keegan will not have that opportunity - not, anyway, during this particular term of office, if he sticks to his word - but by assuming control at a relatively difficult moment he has given himself the chance to make a significant difference to England's fortunes and thereby to make a mark that will not be forgotten.

Keegan's life and career have always been closely associated with the national team. As a player, he wanted to be the best. And being the best meant not just winning cups and medals and individual awards in club football but, above all, playing for his country. He won nothing with England other than his 63 caps, yet to anyone not born within a bus ride of Anfield, the residual image of Keegan the player is probably a mental snapshot of a long-haired imp scurrying around in tight blue shorts and a skimpy white shirt with red stripes down the sleeves - the national strip of the Seventies.

Born only a few months after the beginning of the period covered by our survey of England's post-war fortunes, Keegan won his first international cap in 1973 and played under four of his nine managerial predecessors - Ramsey, Mercer, Revie and Greenwood. A fifth, Robson, caused a bit of a stink by leaving him out of his first squad in 1982, thus ending an illustrious if ultimately unfulfilled career with England. Keegan was 31 at the time and felt he had a bit of international football left in him. They usually do.

At it happens, his first goal for England was scored against Wales at Ninian Park in May 1974, as part of the first team selected by Joe Mercer, his predecessor in the role of part-time, short-term emergency manager. Seven years later he had come to embody the essence of English football, as Bobby Charlton had done before him and Gary Lineker would do afterwards. But he was captain of the side, managed by Ron Greenwood, which lost 2- 1 to Switzerland in a World Cup qualifying match in Basle and thus became, according to the statistical evidence laid out on these pages, the worst England team since the war.

The reversal of the team's fortunes in the months following that dismal day should be of some comfort to Keegan as he faces the first of his allotted four matches as national coach. For, if the wild fluctuations of a 50- year, 500-game span have any message, it would appear to be that no situation, however grievous it may seem, is irrecoverable.

A week after Greenwood's team fell to the Swiss, Keegan and Trevor Brooking scored the goals that brought a brilliant 3-1 victory over Hungary in Budapest. A further humiliation against Norway in Oslo could not quite undo the good work, and a scrappy 1-0 victory in the return match against Hungary was enough to see England through to the finals. Treatment to Keegan's chronic back injury cost the team his presence in Spain until the final second-round game, against the host country, but his appearance as a substitute with less than half an hour to go could not deliver the goals needed to carry England through to the semi-finals (in fact, as everyone of a certain age remembers, he missed the chance to put a header into an open goal).

That, poignantly, was his last appearance in the national colours until this week when he proudly donned an England tracksuit and gambolled among his players with a familiar zest, expressing himself physically and verbally on the training pitch at Bisham Abbey. It would probably be a mistake to underrate Keegan's knowledge of, or interest in, technical matters. But England have certainly never had a coach who so transparently views his term of office as a natural extension of his international playing career, and who - consciously or otherwise - sees success or failure as susceptible to the same imperatives.

These imperatives are predominantly emotional rather than academic. Given a squad of international-class players, Keegan would probably place more importance on calls to patriotic and personal pride rather than the rehearsal and execution of sophisticated set plays. And we have seen talented players underachieving in England shirts under virtually all of Keegan's predecessors often enough to know that sending them out in the right state of mind may have at least as much effect as drilling them in the right set of tactics.

The graph tells us that the employment expectancy of England managers is growing shorter - which, since it is also true of senior positions in many other professions (editors of national newspapers, for example), tells us more about modern life in general than about football in particular. It does not, in any case, apply to the fixed-term adventure on which Keegan is about to embark.

Another possible extrapolation from the graph is the suggestion that any fully fledged term of England managership is inevitably terminated by failure - only Winterbottom, Taylor and Hoddle signed off with victories, and two out of those three, Taylor's 7-1 against San Marino and Hoddle's 2-1 against the Czech Republic, could be described as Pyrrhic. But this finding, too, excludes Keegan by virtue of his special circumstances. And the ends-in-tears phenomenon is true of football managers in general at the game's higher levels, whether international (such as most of the 20-odd coaches from last summer's World Cup who are no longer in their posts) or domestic.

As he has done so often during his extraordinary career, Kevin Keegan is adroitly giving the misleading impression of casting his fate to the wind. His assumption of the England post looks like the impulsive gesture of a carefree individualist, and his remarks at this week's opening press conference were designed to convey the impression of a man happy to improvise his way out of a crisis. In fact Keegan has coolly measured the job to his exact specifications, trimming the odds against success and enlarging the possibility that he will avoid the traditional fall from grace. Alone of all the 10 England managers since 1950, he is in a position to define the exact nature of the task he faces. If he can get his team to play with a similar sense of purpose, the cardiogram could be moving up once more.

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