Football: One day at a time, one team at a time

Steve Tongue finds Kevin Keegan juggling his dual roles with relish
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The Independent Online
ON TUESDAY evening, after a Second Division fixture at Stoke, Kevin Keegan will pull off his Fulham bobble-hat and, metaphorically at least, don an England topper to finalise his first squad as chief operating officer - sorry, manager - of the national team, to be announced on Thursday afternoon. Friday morning will find him track-suited and football-booted again, doing what he loves best at Fulham's training ground in Roehampton (once, coincidentally, used by England), before another Nationwide League fixture, at home to Blackpool on Saturday.

In his own words: "You've got to have your Fulham head-on, then as far as I'm concerned, it's England all the way, with the get-together on Sunday and six days together before the Poland game." By then, the FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, backed up by his assistant Les Reed, Derek Fazackerley and Arthur Cox, hopes to have undertaken all the preparation, and more, that a full-time manager would have been involved with.

"The intention was that Kevin's Fulham time would be affected as little as possible," Wilkinson said. "We've been to Poland, organised scouting, looked at tapes and we're hopefully making sure that by the time he arrives, before he wants an answer, we've anticipated the question."

The good news to report, after a week of Fulham-watching, is that the Keegan head is firmly screwed on and as yet shows no sign whatever either of swelling with importance or bursting from the pressure inside it. If there is any bad news, as clues are sought to his eventual intentions regarding the England position, it is that the level of job satisfaction he finds at Fulham Football Club is clearly high enough - and the level of aggravation low enough - to render any other employment undesirable the moment it becomes too stressful. Asked in a radio interview last week if he was enjoying himself, he replied, a little ominously: "The day I stop enjoying things is the day I usually move on."

His club are certainly on the move. Last Tuesday's 4-0 victory at Luton, followed by a 3-2 win at Bristol Rovers on Friday, virtually ensured that the most expensive squad ever to muddy their knees in the Second Division, at pounds 8.5m, will win automatic promotion, rather than having to risk repeating last season's indignity of losing in the play-offs, when Grimsby proved too strong.

Since then, every area of the team has been strengthened with the chairman Mohamed Al Fayed's money and Keegan's judgement. A combination of Paul Peschisolido, the aggressive German Dirk Lehmann and Peter Beardsley might have seemed good enough to unhinge most Second Division defences, yet last autumn Fulham splashed out another pounds 2m on Barry Hayles of Bristol Rovers and a more modest pounds 350,000 on Halifax Town's Geoff Horsfield. At Luton, the new striking partners demolished the home team, Hayles' pace forcing a penalty (and consequent sending off), then the fourth goal, while Horsfield scored two astonishing goals - a dribble through the defence and a fizzing first-time drive from a low cross - to give him eight in five games. By Friday night, in the driving rain of Bristol, it was nine in six.

Apart from "Keegan for Fulham", the most popular chant at the west London club's games is now "Horsfield for England". At first, this was assumed to be satirical, as was the Evening Standard headline "Horsfield to keep England waiting" above his quote: "I can't see it coming off yet, maybe in the future. We'll just have to wait and see." Now nobody is quite so sure. What seems certain is that Keegan will take no greater pleasure from working with the best players in the land than he does from seeing the likes of Horsfield and Hayles develop. "They've got that little bit of hunger and I like that," he said. "They listen to you and want to learn. Don't forget they were both playing Conference football two years ago. You've got to look at how much they will improve with proper training, diet and, hopefully, even better coaching.

"I'm getting a real buzz out of working with all these players. They've got a lot of character but a lot of ability too and that excites me."

In his new dual role, taking one team at a time, as well as one game, might seem essential. Keegan, however, is already envisaging Fulham's step up to a higher level next season: "With the players we've got and the way we play our football, the First Division would suit us even better. And there's proof of that in the Cup runs where we've played Premiership opposition - Southampton four times, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester United - we've had a little taste and come out quite well, so all the signs are that we shouldn't be afraid of going one division higher."

Note the use of "we" not "they". Will he go with them? As with Horsfield's international prospects, only time will tell, for in the next breath, the irrepressible enthusiast in Keegan is sounding just as excited about England: "I know a lot of people are sceptical about it working, but I'm not. The FA obviously aren't, or they wouldn't have appointed me, and I'm sure the players will respond in the way you'd expect them to.

"If the result is right against Poland, maybe a few people might look at the situation and say, `Hey, maybe it can work', and the sceptics might be proved wrong."