Fans' favourite exits in the same way that he was ushered in to power

Nick Townsend reflects on the life and traumatic times of Wor Kev
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Kevin Keegan's end after nearly 20 months of anquish, occasionally tempered by moments of expectancy, was honourable, if the timing was mighty inconsiderate. But then the Football Association, both old and new, have largely brought that misfortune upon themselves. In the fallout that will inevitably follow the coach's decision to resign yesterday, two questions should be asked of the custodians of England football.

Kevin Keegan's end after nearly 20 months of anquish, occasionally tempered by moments of expectancy, was honourable, if the timing was mighty inconsiderate. But then the Football Association, both old and new, have largely brought that misfortune upon themselves. In the fallout that will inevitably follow the coach's decision to resign yesterday, two questions should be asked of the custodians of England football.

Was Keegan the correct man to employ in the first place? When it was demonstrated that he was not, during Euro 2000, why did the FA not act in the summer instead of waiting until now, one game into England's World Cup qualifying campaign, for Keegan to do the decent thing himself? Hindsight is a cheap currency, but the manner of his appointment, following the hounding out of Glenn Hoddle, did not bode well. Initially, the former Newcastle manager had declared that his loyalty was to Fulham. Eventually, after the FA's David Davies and chairman of the international committee Noel White had cornered their quarry at his home on Sir John Hall's estate, there appeared a certain reluctance about his commitment. Ostensibly because he wanted to remain as chief operating officer at Craven Cottage, he agreed only to take England into their next four games. It was almost as though he harboured doubts about himself, just as many pundits had.

Swept into power by popular concensus, and a refusal of the FA to consider the claims of a foreign manager - a policy they may belatedly have to review in the absence of obvious contenders from south of Hadrian's Wall - his tactical limitations were blithely ignored. "If you want a 0-0 draw in Ukraine, I'm not your man," was the wry comment of this character who had brought a bucaneering era to St James' Park, but ultimately had allowed a healthy championship lead to be taken from his team's grasp. As far as the FA were concerned, his motivational qualities were more than adequate compensation.

The start, a 3-1 win over Poland at Wembley, gave the outward appearance that this latter day Henry V could, indeed, produce the desired effect through inspiration alone. Even his advocates were soon to be disillusioned, and adverse perceptions about his tactical wisdom were soon to be further confirmed after the FA's technical director Howard Wilkinson was observed discussing tactics with players, while head coach Keegan placed cones for them.

Foul, said all concerned at the FA, but the impression of Keegan as a man whose ideas were limited could not be easily erased. The men he assembled around him - Les Reed, Derek Fazackerley and Arthur Cox - hardly assisted the impression that England international football was in secure hands. Draws in Hungary and Bulgaria were dispiriting affairs, and although he made the decision to continue on a permanent basis, worse was to follow, with a home draw against Sweden in the Euro 2000 qualification game followed by the Wembley defeat by Scotland.

Despite that, England staggered into Euro 2000. Keegan suggested that they could come home triumphant. Stirring words, yet virtually everything his team did, apart from the defeat of Germany, and that was somewhat fortuitous, emphasised the opposite: that England, despite the claims of the Premiership, are devoid of world-class performers, other than David Beckham and (on his day) Paul Scholes. Those, like Tony Adams and Martin Keown, who are good, solid, honest citizens of their national team, are rapidly reaching the veteran stage.

Hope persists with the emergence of such young performers as Gareth Barry, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen, but the new custodian of England affairs will hardly find his players' pool awash with talent.

In the circumstances, it would have required a tactical genius to manipulate England to become European Champions contenders, let alone a world force. Keegan was certainly not that man. His obsession with maintaining Alan Shearer as his captain and thus as an automatic selection did credit to his sense of loyalty, but was widely criticised, with reason. The Newcastle man, grand servant though he was, long outstayed his place, not only failing to perform at an adequate level himself, but just as crucially restricting Keegan's forward options.

By the end of Euro 2000, Keegan came across as a broken man. Indeed, he informed us then that failure against Germany and Finland would give the FA's hierarchy little choice but to act. He is a character who thrives on the opium of success, as he exhibited when a player with Liverpool, Hamburg, Southampton and Newcastle. He does not enjoy being a dead-beat in the dark streets of despair.

As Keegan expressed it himself immediately after the European Championships: "The test will now be, 'What has Kevin Keegan, and what have the players, learnt from this struggle?' If we go out and we don't perform, certainly against Germany and Finland, which are the two key games, maybe that's the time when the FA's David Davies, Adam Crozier, and Geoff Thompson will be put under tremendous pressure to get rid of me. If the time was right, I don't think they'd find that difficult and I'm not one of those who'd say, 'Right. I'm not moving'."

In fact, his pride, which is considerable, hasn't allowed Keegan to wait for that call. Which is just as well, because even the New FA would have probably prevaricated until the tabloid assault grew all the more cruel. Quite why we have waited until now for Keegan to pre-empt a decision the FA should have taken themselves three months ago, perhaps they will reveal.

Keegan has left his employers with a task that nobody would envy, one that has been predominantly self-inflicted.

Comments