Keegan's premiere stirs old love affair

Manchester City 3 Watford 0
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The Independent Football

The bounce was back and the smile, rarely seen since the dog days of Euro 2000. Kevin Keegan returned to football management at Maine Road yesterday and found that, after all, the game could love him back. How long the honeymoon in Manchester will last is another matter, but three second-half goals capped a slick, fluent show by Keegan's new charges. By midnight, City were favourites to make a swift return to the big time and their manager was in line to accept the freedom of the city. Move over Alex Ferguson; wor Kev's back in town.

As if to bless Keegan's arrival, two of the goals, the second and third, were scored by his two new signings, Eyal Berkovic and Stuart Pearce, after Shaun Goater had begun the Keegan Years with a fine headed goal just before the hour. Handsome victory was no more than City deserved. In contrast, Gianluca Vialli, the high-profile new face at Watford, knows now that there is substance to his talk of a big challenge. Watford, reduced to 10 men for the last 20 minutes, began with some purpose, but long before the end were reduced to chasing shadows.

"We wanted a win and got it," said Keegan. "We wanted a good performance and got it. Sometimes I thought it would be one of those games when the ball won't go in, but I don't think the scoreline flattered us in the end."

Keegan's strength as a coach has always been motivational rather than tactical. His England tenure proved that beyond doubt. If Berkovic, a snip from Celtic at £1.25m, was the creative brain behind most of City's best moments, the transformation of Laurent Charvet provided the most impressive evidence of Keegan's ability to instil self-belief in the most downcast of players. City fans could only rub their eyes and check the name on their programmes. The Frenchman, last season's whipping boy, was a new man, aggressive, pacy, incisive and a candidate for the man of the match.

It was Charvet's neat cross which set up Goater for the first goal in the 57th minute, the first of two in three minutes which turned City's growing superiority into the proper currency of points. Taking his cue from his fellow wing-back, Danny Granville's cross from the left set up Berkovic for the second after Paulo Wanchope's header had ricocheted back off the bar.

Loyalty, underachievement and potential, Keegan had readily identified the defining characteristics of this crazy old club. This season promises to be as much about the rehabilitation of Kevin Keegan as of Manchester City. Few England managers have come through their ordeal unscathed, and Keegan is no exception. But his brand of ebullient, gung-ho management, regarded as a touch passé by some, has been deemed the key to City's future. Either way, club and manager seem made for each other.

City's greater cohesion was no surprise. While Keegan kept faith with the majority of the players involved in relegation last season, Vialli's new broom has swept through Graham Taylor's old cupboard. He fielded five of his new signings, including Marcus Gayle, a £900,000 signing from Rangers, and Filippo Galli, the 38-year-old central defender who learnt his trade with Franco Baresi at Milan. Changing faces is one thing; changing a 15-year culture quite another. Vialli has not experienced such an industrial league since his early days with Cremonese in Serie B.

It took about 25 minutes for the familiar sound of dissent to fill Keegan's sensitive ears. Watford were scrapping for their lives, City were creating and missing chances with a gambler's throw. Berkovic could have scored twice in two minutes just before the half-hour mark, once scooping over after Espen Baardsen had blocked Danny Tiatto's long-range shot, then forcing the Norwegian to tip over a delicate left-foot chip. The Israeli was also the instigator of the best chance of the half, bursting through the inside- left channel before squaring the ball to Goater, whose side-footed shot was well saved by Baardsen. "He would have taken that nine times out of 10," said Keegan.

By half-time Watford looked in some disarray at the back and in need of some severe rehab of their own from Vialli and Co. Instead, City stepped up the pace just after half-time. Pearce, City's new captain and talisman, could also have crowned his debut with a goal. A trademark left- foot free-kick flashed a yard wide early in the first half, another from an altogether tighter angle early in the second half took a deflection off a Watford scalp and clipped both bar and post. In the 50th minute, Watford showed their first glimpse of attacking life, Gayle heading a long, swirling, cross back across goal, while Carlo Nash and his defenders shirked their responsibility, a familiar failing last season.

Goater should have put the home side ahead moments before he did, but, having been put clean through by Wanchope, he struck his shot directly at Baardsen. Yet the miss proved merely the prelude to City's purple patch. Moments later, Goater's header rocketed past Baardsen and Berkovic followed up Wanchope's header for City's second. To add to Watford's woes, Paul Robinson was sent off for a second bookable offence and Pearce rifled home a trademark free-kick.

"We did quite well for 20 minutes in each half, but that's not good enough," said Vialli. For Keegan, the season promises new life. Vialli has a hard road ahead.

Manchester City 3 Watford 0

Goater 57, Berkovic 59, Pearce 87

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 33,939