Football: Keegan's zeal good factor

The Fulham and England coach has mastered the art of wearing hats. Ronald Atkin was in the audience
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The Independent Online
THE PAST few days have involved club matches against Millwall and Wrexham and the ann-ouncement of his England squad; the next few will be consumed by trips to Budapest and Burnley. Through the whole draining process the miracle is that Kevin Keegan contrives to look not merely fresh but full of bounce and bonhomie, lifting an occasion with his track- suited presence in locations as disparate as a back room at Craven Cottage or the conference suite of a swank London hotel.

How does the man keep it up, this super motivator who is leading Fulham back from the wilderness with one hand and propelling England forward with the other, while all manner of extra demands on his time and presence are somehow accommodated? Occasionally, the toll is fleetingly revealed. Of his visit to Wembley to help launch a seven-a-side competition, Keegan said: "It was only last Tuesday but it seems a month ago." And he said that, after four days on England duty, "I get back at 4am next Thursday and I'll be training with Fulham, ready to travel to..." He hesitated and grinned, "Wherever it is we've got to go to." Burnley, he was gently reminded.

Keegan is by no means the first to tap into the reservoir of Bill Shankly quotes to describe, or to defend, his condition. "Sometimes people will say you look terrible and you rush to a mirror and think 'Christ, they're right.' But Shankly said, 'If people say you look tired, don't listen to them. You should be tired.' Granted, Shanks was applying this wisdom to his Liverpool players but it most certainly includes managers, too."

So the wearing of more than one hat has been no problem, then? "Definitely not. I'm through the hardest part now because my Fulham hat comes off for this season on 8 May when we play Preston at home. We're going to have a little celebration dinner with all the players and their families and the club staff. After that it will be England until I go on holiday with my family. Then I'm going to put my family hat on, which is the one that's been left in the cupboard longest. But I've been able to do it and I've enjoyed it."

There was little overt indication of joy from Keegan at Wed-nesday's 4-1 home win over Millwall, a rather downbeat occasion. The pre-match ann-ouncer burbled about "50 years since we won any silverware but worth the wait" and there was the remarkable sight of the owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, cavorting down the touchline, his steps dogged by a brace of minders, waving a club scarf and modelling a nifty line in black and white caps. But perhaps the presence of a large contingent of Millwall's sour following or the fact that Fulham had acceded to the championship 24 hours earlier without having to kick a ball help to account for Keegan's attitude of quiet acceptance rather than punch-the-air exuberance.

Afterwards the word blase was used to his face. "I don't mean to sound that way," he explained, "but with the players we've got and the backing of Mr Fayed I expected to do it in style this year. This is just stage one. To win the championship is especially nice because people remember that; they don't remember who finished second. I don't remember who finished second to Newcastle when we won the Division One title.

"Going now for a League record number of points is what has to keep driving us on because there is a danger that we will just switch off. We seem to have been celebrating for a week. I haven't had any champagne yet, except poured over my head, but I am already thinking about next season."

Keegan's Cottage industry is temporarily stilled from today as he sets about preparing England for Wednesday's game in Hungary, but the zeal is simply transferred from one mission to another. "People are saying it's only a friendly in Budapest but I've never been one of those who thinks friendly games don't matter. Any England game is worth winning."

Keegan's England squad is the first to be publicly conceded as being selected by consent, something he called "common sense". He asked the managers of Manchester United and Arsenal which of their players they preferred to be omitted as they set off down the last leg of the Premiership race. Beckham and Gary Neville, said Alex Ferguson; Adams and Parlour, said Arsene Wenger. While con- ceding that the squad for the next European qualifier, at home to Sweden, will be markedly different from the one he is taking to Budapest, Keegan justified his choice of half a dozen who have never played for their country and his decision to select from outside the Premiership.

"Hopefully, something will come out of this trip for one of those youngsters that will change their lives. If all are fit enough to get on the plane I think we will certainly get a result for England. I would be majorly disappointed if we didn't give a performance we can all be proud of. It's a game that's there to be won."

As for the new faces of 1999, Keegan sees their selection as "an opportunity, not a problem". And he gave an indication that his side will be bold and possibly experimental by adding: "There is not the pressure as there was against Poland. This will be a game where we want to win and want to try something different."

However, fitness permitting, Keegan confirmed his intention to continue the central defensive pairing of Martin Keown and Sol Campbell and the strike partnership of Alan Shearer and Andy Cole.

"If they stay together it will be a really useful exercise for us, whoever else plays. Keown and Campbell looked as if they could cope with anything in the Poland game. That was the biggest plus of the lot for me."

The biggest plus for the Football Association, albeit, it seems, only temporarily, is the uplifting presence of Keegan as manager. At the squad announce- ment last Thursday he reeled off four successive media conferences - for radio, TV, daily papers and the Sundays - exiting each one on an upbeat and humourous note, a skill not unfamiliar to Terry Venables but one which Glenn Hoddle never mastered. No wonder the FA are so anxious to keep this inspirational personality in the fold. No wonder everyone else wants a piece of him and his time.