Football: Keegan besieges King Kenny's castle: FA Cup Focus I / Two Liverpool legends seek a way to Wembley as Newcastle take on Blackburn. Joe Lovejoy reports

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FOUR thousand fans besieging the ticket office and forcing it to open at 3.30 in the morning, the ministerial nod for a pounds 10m ground redevelopment, and plans to splash out millions more on a front-rank striker. An everyday story of Geordie folk - Thursday, to be precise.

For a club as big as Newcastle United not to be in the Premier League is a nonsense. A nonsense which should shortly be rectified.

Whatever else they take with them to Blackburn for the FA Cup match of the day, apart from that devoted following, one thing which will not encumber them is an inferority complex.

The runaway leaders of the First Division are keen to measure themselves against the sort of opposition they expect to be meeting regularly next season, and confident as to the outcome.

Top of the First versus championship contenders had all the makings, even without that special extra ingredient which brings Kevin Keegan up against the man who achieved the impossible by not only replacing him, but going on to eclipse him as Liverpool's best player of modern times.

Both were good enough then to be endowed with royal prefixes which subsequent successes have allowed them to retain since. King Kevin versus King Kenny. The war of the rosettes.

Dalglish's views, as ever, remain his own. A visit to Ewood Park in midweek found him more introverted than ever in the aftermath of Rovers' fourth defeat in succession. The man who makes Clint Eastwood sound like Peter O'Sullevan intones 'We will deal with things internally' so often he should have been a gynaecologist.

In fairness, he had good reason to be subdued this week, Sheffield Wednesday's impressive 4-2 win having installed them as odds-on favourites to progress from the second leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi- final.

Newcastle also slipped on God's great banana skin in midweek, losing 2-0 at Portsmouth, but if the defeat was a downer, you would not have known it.

Tickets for today's tie were due to go on sale at St James' Park at 9am on Thursday, and the queue began forming at 3.0 on Wednesday afternoon - women and children sitting patiently in deckchairs.

By 11pm, there were thousands outside the ground, and at 3am, with those at the back pushing forward for fear of missing out, the police advised the club to open the box office to avert the threat of a riot.

Newcastle's allocation of 4,800 tickets went on sale at 3.30am and was sold out by 5.30. An amazing sight, in sub-zero temperatures, it could have happened nowhere else.

Later, that same morning, some of those who had queued all night were to be found at the club's training ground, in Durham, paying further frozen homage to their heroes.

Conspicuous by his absence was the Capped Crusader whose messianic zeal had inspired the most dramatic of revivals. When Keegan took charge, 12 months ago, Newcastle were at their lowest ebb, bottom of the table and in imminent danger of sinking into the old Third Division for the first time.

A year on, they stand seven points clear at the top of the First, playing football of a quality beyond at least half the teams in the Premier League.

Miraculous stuff, but the man is human, after all. Struck down by a temperature, and a heavy cold, he was forced to miss out on the aspects of the job he enjoys most. Training with the lads.

In his absence, Barry Venison offered tea and an informed comparison of today's managerial adversaries.

The full-back they call 'Venners' - he is as good as talker as the other one - won League and cup medals under Dalglish at Liverpool before accepting Keegan's invitation to move back to his native North-east last summer.

'They are similar in some ways,' he said. 'They are both desperate to win, they are both household names and they are both nice fellas. They are different in the sense that Kevin is a lot more open and enthusiastic, while Kenny prefers not to be in the public eye.

'Kevin is much more outgoing. Kenny is a guy who keeps things to himself, which is why it surprised absolutely everybody when the pressure got to him and he walked away from Liverpool. The players had no indication that the job was affecting him so much.

'If something is bothering him, he'll want to sort it out himself, without letting on. He heaps everything on his own shoulders, and has always been prepared to take the blame, as well as the credit.

'Kevin is outgoing and open, Kenny is more discerning with his feelings. When he's training with the lads, he's a nice guy who likes a laugh and a lark, but when the spotlight is on him, he clams up. There's a lot of shyness in his character.

At Newcastle, we have fans out there every day, watching us train. Kenny would never allow that. He's a much more private person, in every respect.

'They are different characters, but great guys to work for. The pair of them could wind you up and get you running through a brick wall. Before they say anything, they command enormous respect. If you walk in the dressing-room and Kevin Keegan or Kenny Dalglish is standing there, everybody is in awe. They've done so much on the field, and a fair bit off it, too.'

Unsurprisingly, given the background they share, both men follow what Bill Shankly called the recipe, favouring a passing game, with the ball kept on the ground. Their management structure is on Liverpool lines, too, with Dalglish and Keegan delegating the supervision of training and formulation of tactics to trusted lieutenants.

Dalglish's strategist is Ray Harford, formerly manager in his own right at Fulham, Luton and Wimbledon. Harford's strong influence is acknowledged, and well-known, but Blackburn's followers may be surprised to learn that the man who has been plotting their downfall this afternoon is not Keegan or Terry McDermott, his assistant, but Derek Fazackerly, Newcastle's first-team coach, who made a record 692 appearances for Rovers between 1970 and 1987.

Venison said: 'Kevin always gets involved in the training, but it's exactly the same here as it was at Liverpool, where Ronnie Moran used to organise the sessions and Kenny joined in. Mentally, he still plays every game, and he loves to show that he can still do it. Kevin is just the same. He joins in the finishing practice and the five-a-sides, but he leaves the organisation to Derek.'

Keegan's influence on the training programme may be minimal, but his charismatic presence was the sole reason why Venison, and others, chose to join a giant not so much sleeping as cataleptic.

'Graeme Souness had offered me a new three-year contract at Liverpool, and not too many players would turn that down to take a gamble, as I did. To be honest, I came only because of Kevin and his enthusiasm and ambition. I wouldn't have come if I hadn't thought that the club was about to take off.

'I don't think what has happened is a surprise. The man (Keegan) has never failed at anything in his life, and he's running one of the biggest clubs in Britain.

'I saw Blackburn had only 17,000 there for their semi-final on Wednesday. We've had 17,000 locked out of our ground this season. The euphoria a little bit of success has created is unbelievable. Can you imagine fans queueing all night for tickets?

'I love it. It's the happiest period of my career. I won championship and cup medals at Liverpool, but this is even more enjoyable because it is completely new. At Liverpool, success wasn't exactly guaranteed, it had to be earned, but it was part of their heritage. At Newcastle, it isn't, and because it's all brand-new, the fans appreciate it a bit more than they did on Merseyside. They love it, and we get treated like kings up here.'

Will it be King Kenny or King Kevin at 4.40 tonight? Whatever the outcome, it will not deflect Newcastle from their overriding priority. Promotion.

Keegan rose from his sick-bed to croak: 'The Cup gives us a welcome diversion before we have the two tough away games, at West Ham and Tranmere. The season is only just starting, and now we're getting down to the real nitty-gritty.'

Not exactly the most rousing of rallying calls, but then the man was full of cold. Or perhaps he has more in common than we thought with King Ken the Dispassionate.

(Photograph omitted)

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