Football: Humbling comeback for Keegan

an inauspicious start for Fulham's celebrated new boss
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"Can I have my pen back, Mr Keegan?" shouted one little boy as Fulham's team bus prepared to draw away from Springfield Park. It was further evidence that the new Chief Operations Officer was intent on giving nothing away after his first match in charge. Keegan obliged the autograph hunters but left all the public pronouncements to his team manager, Ray Wilkins, after the club that has enticed him back into football came away empty-handed from their rivals throughout last season's Third Division promotion campaign.

It was Keegan, one of the few genuinely charismatic figures in British sport, whose resurrection the media had come to witness. He did his best to keep it low key and, ultimately, his team helped him to do so by losing in the last two minutes. Despite his presence on the training pitch during the opening days of his regime, Keegan forced the army of photographers in attendance to refocus hurriedly when he took his seat not in the dug out with Wilkins but in the visiting directors' box - there being no box for chief operating officers yet at Springfield Park.

His welcome from his new public had not been overwhelming. Fulham fans, expected to travel in their thousands, only did so to the tune of a few hundred. There is still too much residue sympathy for the sacked Micky Adams - evidenced by a couple of cat-calls as Keegan got off the coach before the game - for them to jump wholeheartedly on to the Keegan bandwagon just yet.

From their different view points, Keegan and Wilkins saw what might have been expected - a team of modest ability by even Second Division standards trying to cope with the upheavals of the past few days and particularly with the uncertainties that inevitably surround their own jobs.

Wilkins, as articulate as ever in the absence of his boss, explained how he had tried to calm them down: "It's been an abnormal few days for me and the players," he said. "When things have turned around so drastically as they have players become a little bit apprehensive. It's a difficult time for them and I just asked them to relax and pass the ball around. They tried to do that and I thought we played the better football."

In his understandable anxiety to take the pressure off them, Wilkins rather overpraised a patchy performance at Springfield Park. Fulham went ahead through the lively Steve Hayward, who diverted a shot from Richard Carter that was missing the target, but held it only briefly before Gavin Johnson equalised by shooting into the roof of the net after a goalmouth scramble that was the result of one of many Fulham failures to clear their lines.

Fulham had both their bar and their post hit, saw at least one sitter missed and had to thank their South African goalkeeper, Andre Arendse, for one particularly good save before Colin Greenall won it for Wigan in the 88th minute.

By that time, Keegan had already started to sign autographs in the directors' box; he had seen little that will delay the day when he will start to sign players. After both he and Wilkins had said all the right things about the existing structure, the rebuilding will begin.

In the meantime, the new men have to win over fans who, if their hardcore in the Springfield Hotel before the match are any guide, have to be convinced that they will do a better job than Adams - who, whatever else anyone might say about him, never left Wigan Athletic with anybody else's biro.

Ian Ridley, page 11