Football: Geordies grieve the last act of 'messiah'

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By noon yesterday some 500 souls had gathered in the car park at St James' Park. They did nothing but stare: at one another and, beyond three policemen manning temporary barriers, at the ground itself.

At ten past twelve, there was a rush towards the thin blue line. Copies of the statement which had been released to the media less than two hours earlier were distributed to the rank and file of the Toon Army

As the first paragraph - "Newcastle United Football Club today announce the resignation of manager Kevin Keegan" - was read and mentally digested, the mood changed perceptibly, from one of disbelief to sorrow.

A few young girls could be seen crying. Then someone struck up a mournful chant of "Keegan! Keegan!" A banner was raised aloft. It urged: "Please stay Kevin. We all believe in you. Please don't go."

Directly opposite stood an empty parking bay with a small plastic plaque which read: "K Keegan. Manager."

"People are saying it's like the Queen dying," John Regan, secretary of the Independent Newcastle United Supporters' club, said. "But I think it's worse."

To the outside world it must all seem so very pathetic. But when you live on Tyneside you come to accept the peculiar place Newcastle United occupy in the scheme of things.

Where else would 20,000 people stand in a car park in the rain for three hours just to catch sight of someone standing on a balcony in a football shirt?

It happened at St James' Park on a Tuesday afternoon last August. It happened because Newcastle United have deposited nothing of worth in their trophy cabinet since the year man was not so much over the moon as upon it for the first time.

Their quest for honours has become a holy grail. And for four years and 11 months Kevin Keegan was the messiah who promised to deliver.

The day of his first match as manager, a 3-0 home win against Bristol City, an exiled Geordie named Brian was the first caller on Radio Five's Saturday night football phone-in show. "I was lying in bed on Thursday night," he began, "and I said to me missus, 'I've got to go.' She says, 'Well, go then.' I said, 'Not the toilet. I've got to go to Newcastle'... I live in Bournemouth you see.

"Anyway, I've been today, and I've seen it. I've seen the power. The power has been released. Football be warned: Newcastle are on the way up now. No one will stop us."

The worry among the faithful gathered outside St James' Park yesterday was how Newcastle could carry on without the man who guided them from the brink of the old Third Division to Premiership heights and a European quarter-final.

Mark Jensen, editor of the fanzine The Mag, spoke for the masses when he said: "I'm stunned it's happened, especially in the middle of the season."

Yet Keegan's departure was not as unexpected as his arrival. That came, without any prior warning, after an eight-year exile from football. His resignation followed not just a weekend report that it had been tendered in the wake of Newcastle's Boxing Day defeat at Blackburn but previous threats to walk away from St James' Park.

The first came in his second month as manager, after promised transfer spending money failed to materialise. The second was made in February 1994, when Keegan took exception to hate mail sent to goalkeeper Mike Hooper.

On the latter occasion he said: "If people dictate who comes or goes at this club then the one person who leaves will be me. I'm not having it."

Tomorrow, ironically, marks the second anniversary of the afternoon Keegan stood on the steps outside St James' and explained to disgruntled supporters his reasoning behind the pounds 7m sale of Andy Cole to Manchester United.

Yesterday the crowds were allowed to venture no further than the club shop. The steps and the main entrance were strictly out of bounds. And the messiah himself was nowhere to be seen.

"He's achieved a football miracle in his five years here," John Regan said. "We've heard Johan Cruyff and Kenny Dalglish mentioned for the job. But they don't hold a light to him." There was no white smoke above St James' Park last night. Tyneside was still lighting candles for Kevin Keegan.