Football: Keegan eager to share wealth of experience

European Championship: Youngsters rub shoulders with coach's chosen 22 as England prepare to take on Sweden
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The Independent Online
PAUL SCHOLES never saw him coming. The kid nipped in fast and nicked the ball, and as he moved away he rolled it under the studs of his left boot, his slender body swaying first one way and then the other, leaving two opponents off balance as he chipped a perfect pass.

Less than a minute later, Scholes had his revenge. The kid dawdled on the ball, maybe still enjoying what he had just done, and Scholes was in like a flash to take it back. But Joe Cole, 17 years old, had already made his point. On his first morning with the England squad, he looked like he belonged, and then some.

Later in the session, while an eight-a-side game was in progress, Kevin Keegan called Cole and Martin Keown, who is the boy's senior by 15 years, over to an adjacent pitch. They formed a triangle, four or five feet apart, and the coach spent five minutes tapping a ball to them as they played keepy-uppy - feet, knees, head. It's Keegan's habit. It gives him a close look at a player's ball skills, and maybe it lets him look into their eyes and see something more.

Joe Cole, who has played barely a handful of games for West Ham's first team, is the latest young player to be attached to an England squad in the week before a match. It's something that Terry Venables started, when he brought the teenagers Rio Ferdinand and Jody Morris into the group during the run-up to Euro 96. This week at Bisham Abbey there was not just West Ham's midfield prodigy but also Stuart Taylor, Arsenal's lofty young reserve goalkeeper.

These are boys who have not yet even played for the Under-21s. The idea is to begin a process of acclimatisation to life among the elite, and to see how they respond. Those who watched Rio Ferdinand at Bisham three years ago were left in no doubt of his destiny. Now he is an established member of the squad, with enough seniority to dispense encouragement to the anxious newcomers. And between exercises on Tuesday morning, you could see the tension in Joe Cole's face. Who do I talk to? Where do I stand? Do I wait for the others to get on the coach first? But on the pitch, among the Shearers and Beckhams and Campbells, he marked a few cards.

"I think it's a really nice thing," Keegan said afterwards. "It's an opportunity that's too good to be missed. And Joe Cole was excellent. He looked very much at home. He's very confident, but not in a cocky way. He's got a lot of ability, and he's just got to keep doing the right things. He seems a sensible lad, and there's no reason to think he won't do it. He's a player that you look at and you think: `Yeah'."

As a player, Kevin Keegan was a predator. It was his job to score goals - 21 of them during his 63 England appearances between 1972 and 1982. He wasn't supposed to think about anything else. As a coach, however, one of his best qualities - something he shares with Venables - is his generosity towards his players, his enthusiasm for their talent and their potential. There's no sense of jealousy, or of a barely concealed sense of superiority. Any envy he might feel towards their youth, towards the playing careers that stretch ahead of them, is turned into an affectionate encouragement. Joe Cole is likely to be among the beneficiaries.

And so, at the other end of the scale, is David Beckham, now one of the biggest stars of world football. Yesterday Keegan sat listening intently as Beckham spoke to journalists, and he liked what he heard. "It's nice to hear him talking and communicating with people," the coach said afterwards. "And that's as long as I've ever heard him talk, because I don't go into their rooms for a chat. What you've got there is not just a very, very good player but a nice young man."

On Tuesday, after the first get-together in preparation for the two matches that will define the opening phase of his term as England's coach, Keegan was suitably vibrant, almost ecstatic about the way his chosen 22 had thrown themselves into the morning's work. "It was as good a training session as you could ever get," he said. "And it's the players who make a success of a session. If you've got one or two who don't want to know, the whole thing falls apart."

Getting them together for two such important games at the end of a long season did not seem to be a problem, even for the Manchester United players who were assembling less than a week after the climax of their great treble. "The players at the top of the tree, they hardly switch of at all these days," Keegan said. "Even if they have a week off and they're doing nothing, doing nothing tends to include going to the gym every day. That wasn't true in my day. If we had a bit of time off, we'd be looking for the nearest beach."

For Keegan, there is no conflict between enjoyment and success. Speaking of the Sweden match as "a must-win game", he managed to sound anything but ashen-faced at the prospect. "The players enjoyed their day at Wembley against Poland," he said, remembering the 3-1 win which kicked off his tenure as coach, "and there's no reason why they shouldn't repeat the experience."

He also spoke about the players' hunger for success, and how it isn't dimmed even by million-pound salaries. He is, of course, the first England manager to receive a seven-figure salary, although the precise sum depends on results. But when he began his professional career, as an eager young right-winger with Scunthorpe at the end of the 1960s, he was on a wage of pounds 15 a week, cut to pounds 10 during the off-season. Typically, he took a temporary job at the local steelworks in the summer months - which gave enough money to fill the tank of his Morris 1100 but also imbued him with a deep suspicion of nationalised industries.

He likes an incentive, does Keegan, and he has a remarkably well developed instinct for negotiating personal terms. When Stan Seymour and Arthur Cox invited him to join the almost moribund Newcastle United in the old Second Division in 1982, Keegan capitalised on his near-messianic status by suggesting that he be paid not just a basic wage but a 15 per-cent cut of any increase in gate receipts, home and away. "If there's no increase," he told Seymour, the chairman, "it won't cost the club a penny. All you'll have to do is pay me my basic wage. If you do have to pay me, it'll mean the club is doing well and profiting too."

Seymour agreed, and never regretted it. Gates rocketed as the team headed for promotion. And Keegan? "It brought me in so much money that I was embarrassed," he observed. "I know I shouldn't have been - the deal was all totally above board, although the details were never made public to avoid unsettling other players. In the end I waived some other earnings I was due to put my mind at rest." It was, he concluded, a great deal for both parties. "I got a big kick out of dreaming it up, negotiating it and seeing it work."

Such a man is hardly likely to be eaten up with envy by proximity to the stars of today. "It's a different world for them," he said yesterday, just after Beckham had departed. But Keegan has all the money he needs. His life seems secure in every dimension. He has an enduring marriage to a girl he met before he was famous, two daughters, several racehorses, beautiful homes, and pension schemes that would fund a small war. He is beloved by the nation in an unusual way - people recognise a scrapper, a self-made hero, a man who remembers what it felt like as a kid to be refused an autograph by a hero. And they are fascinated by the flaw running through the pattern.

There is an impulsive streak in Keegan's make-up which consistently disrupts the serene progress from one achievement to another. The incidents are well known. His shirt-throwing tantrum during the 1974 Charity Shield, after a fight with Billy Bremner. His angry departure from Don Revie's England camp after being dropped in 1975. His public bitterness when Bobby Robson dropped him from the national squad without a word seven years later. His threat to walk out of St James' Park only a few months into his managership of Newcastle, claiming that the job "wasn't like it said in the brochure". The televised explosion that showed him foolishly succumbing to Alex Ferguson's verbal provocation during the Premiership run-in in 1995-96. His final exit from Newcastle in 1997, with the club preparing for a stock market flotation. And his similarly confused severing of his links with Mohammad Al Fayed's Fulham last month, just as the team won promotion to the First Division, with the fans dreaming of further glory.

These ruptures give texture to Keegan's life and career. They stop him from being a footballing Cliff Richard. And they have also taught him important lessons. Last week, for example, he was at pains to speak to Paul Ince on the telephone to tell him that he was being left out of the squad before announcing it to the world. It won't have made Ince feel any better, but it won't have lessened his respect for the coach.

Keegan is loving his honeymoon with the nation. With the press, he is relaxed and amusing. When a casually dressed man from the Sun questioned him a bit too insistently about the squad's shortage of left-footed players, he responded: "When you get to be manager, you can have a go at it. And with a shirt like that, you've got every chance." The room fell about with laughter, although it would be easy to imagine exactly the same words spoken in less happy circumstances and with a very different tone and effect.

But it is by his special relationship with the players that he will stand or fall. It took him, he said yesterday, 10 games to get the measure of international football, and you get the feeling that any player who puts on an England shirt during his tenure will receive the real dividend of that experience. "You put your trust in them," he said. "You talk with them, you tell them all about the things that may or may not happen with the opposition, and then you leave it to them. Players do like responsibility. So far, they've responded fantastically."

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