Football: Keegan the talisman shows way to Euphoria 2000
European Championships: With a charismatic caretaker manager, England strike a positive note as Scholes delivers the goals to paper over the tactical cracks against weak Poles
Sunday 28 March 1999
Poland's encounter with Sweden in Katowice on Wednesday will be critical to England's fate in qualifying directly from the group. But there was no mistaking the remarkable transformation in mood and deed worked by the charismatic new caretaker. Short-term thinking is in vogue at Lancaster Gate and there is no more popular purveyor of magical potions than Kevin Keegan. It might also be pointed out, as television counted down to "Keegan kick-off", that Paul Scholes played a significant part in lending a touch of Brasso to Keegan's halo. His rediscovery of the goal-scoring form which first brought him to attention in the pre-World Cup tournament in France gave Keegan's debut a flattering final scoreline and papered over the considerable cracks in England's tactics and technique. A more accomplished side than Poland would surely have punished England's defensive frailties more severely.
But nothing could spoil Keegan's day, from the moment his name was uttered from the loudspeakers to the hugathon at the final whistle. And to think it could have been an away day to Walsall instead, had Glenn Hoddle kept his views on reincarnation to himself. "It's a big thrill if you walk out at Wembley as a ballboy," he said. "When you're England manager, it's very, very special. It's a privilege few people get to enjoy."
Equally, few players get to savour the memories of a hat-trick at Wembley. With Keegan's blessing, Scholes popped up three times within the six-yard box to flick, nudge and head home a priceless international hat-trick. A suspicion of handball for the middle goal of the three did not diminish the achievement, though Hoddle, in the ITV studio, might have questioned the spiritual significance of shifting fortunes. England had taken the field, their ears ringing with Keegan's demands that they enjoy themselves. Enjoyment had not been much of a force in Hoddle's England. Nor had entertainment been at the top of the list after a drab 0-0 draw with Bulgaria.
England's positive attitude was apparent from the first move of the game. A long ball to Alan Shearer came to nothing, but both Andy Cole and Scholes had made runs into the penalty area to profit from any flick. It was thoroughly appropriate that a player made in Keegan's bustling, combative mould should open the account of a bright, if potentially brief, new era.
Still, the enduring image of a joyous afternoon will be the greying figure in the England hot seat, peering into the sunshine, his face betraying every nuance of a game which England came to dominate only as the shadows reached the half-way line. Gone was Hoddle's stony face, in its place a jack-in-the-box coach living each kick, tackle and pass. A stunning Shearer volley in the early minutes prompted momentary despair. He did not have to wait long for the full monty. A goal fashioned by the partnership of Shearer and Cole allowed Scholes to beat the keeper, Adam Matysek, to a dainty through ball. Keegan leapt to his feet in celebration. What followed was a flashing video of Keegan's quixotic managerial life: three goals in 30 minutes, plenty of entertainment, some imaginative attacking and a game nicely under control pitched into limbo by some neurotic defending recognisable to the regulars at St James' Park. "I know you'll say `typical'. I'd have liked to keep a clean sheet, but we did what we had to do."
Keegan's bubbly persona allied to the tabloids' perception of public mood had lent a happy air to the preparations all week. Where Hoddle had laboured through press conferences, Keegan was on home ground, bulldozing his way through questions with a series of soundbites from his extensive selection of US-style management motivation books. It was Venables without the side. Even the players seemed to take their cue from the top. But the real questions had yet to be asked.
Would Keegan's old-fashioned appeal to the qualities of pride and passion mask his lack of international coaching experience? Shankly's motivational techniques worked wonders at club level, but the game has moved on since Liverpool occupied Europe's centre-stage. To be fair to the third England coach in the last three games, Keegan has had no time to impose any sophisticated international masterplan on his side, even if he had devised one on his off-days at Fulham, nor to transform a demoralised squad into a coherent force. So seat of the pants it had to be. Forward thinking might not be his strong point, but thinking forward is his prime asset and the game was ready-made for the positive. The reintroduction of Steve McManaman stemmed in part from thinning reserves but also from Keegan's essential beliefs. McManaman enjoyed his best spell just after the break, but only spasmodically provided the creative dribbling and the width Keegan required.
Yet not all the long-term concerns were addressed by Keegan's new England. Shearer had made no secret of his pleasure in working for his old mentor at Newcastle, but failed to answer questions about his goal- scoring prowess. A difficult game for strikers, Keegan said. Tim Sherwood, in contrast, brought an extra attacking dimension to his defensive midfield duties and lent composure at times when England were stretched. "Four games," said Keegan later. "I'm going to enjoy every one of them. I want to leave the next England manager in the position I'd like to be in if I was coming in. Then I'm going back to Fulham". One down, three to go. Given the ovation he received at the final whistle, Keegan might find public opinion makes his departure harder than he imagines. At present, Keegan has no need of a faith healer; he can do the job himself.
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